Absence of many powerful leaders disappointed aid officials but steps taken to improve response
By Megan Rowling and Alex Whiting
ISTANBUL, May 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The World Humanitarian Summit has reinforced the urgent need for people hit by conflict and disasters to receive better help, but the first meeting of its kind may not trigger the changes necessary to fix their plight, aid officials and experts say.
Vital to any long-term success is a ramping up of efforts by world leaders to end the wars that are causing record numbers of people to be uprooted, they said.
Yet the absence of many of the most powerful heads of governments, including the leaders of the U.N. Security Council's permanent members, disappointed aid officials at the summit in Istanbul this week.
As the two-day conference ended on Tuesday, outgoing U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who convened the summit, appealed to Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States to act.
"The absence of these leaders from this meeting does not provide an excuse for inaction," Ban said. "They have a unique responsibility to pursue peace and stability, and to support the most vulnerable."
The summit drew only 55 heads of state or government with German Chancellor Angela Merkel the only G7 leader present.
The summit also launched an international partnership to help vulnerable countries prepare better for natural disasters.
"These will kick-start transformative change from the top down and the ground up. We must now take it forward together," Ban said.
But critics of the summit argued that its lack of a binding agreement made it toothless, while defenders of the gathering said that was never its purpose.
And many participants struggled to keep up with the pace of simultaneous sessions after a theatrical opening that attempted to bring today's crises alive through music, video and the testimony of survivors, interspersed with celebrities urging action.
Aid workers said the Istanbul summit had at least put the most pressing challenges on the global radar: preventing conflict, reducing the risk of disasters, and paying more attention to local groups and communities on the ground.
Man-made and natural disasters have left 130 million people in need of humanitarian aid, which totalled a record $28 billion in 2015.
Yet the gap between what aid agencies seek and what donors provide has grown, with funding needs rising more than 12-fold since 2000, Ban said.
A flagship humanitarian financing report put the annual shortfall for life-saving aid work at around $15 billion.
"We face huge issues, from the consequences of El Nino to the war in Syria and the refugee crisis, that we can only solve by working in better and smarter ways together," said Helle Thorning-Schmidt, CEO of Save the Children International. "This summit was a step down that road."
But Sara Pantuliano, managing director at the London-based Overseas Development Institute, said commitments made at the summit had "fallen short in substance and ambition".
"There is little clarity about how pledges that have been made will be taken forward and turned into reality," she added.
Wolfgang Jamann, secretary general of CARE International, said Ban's as yet unnamed successor, who will take office next year, would need to find a more effective way to push U.N. member states to tackle the political causes of the "huge need" confronting an over-stretched humanitarian system.
Janani Vivekananda of peacebuilding group International Alert said the world needs to radically overhaul how it handles crises which are becoming more complex due to climate change.
"We will only see ... real lives saved when the major institutions are ready to invest in prevention and peacebuilding to reduce humanitarian need, take risks to fund people facing crises in fragile states, and where necessary stepping aside to let others, who might be better placed, respond to crises," she said.
The Red Cross applauded the summit for giving increased recognition to the work of local aid groups and for emphasising the need to put communities at the centre of aid work - which it said should strengthen response.
Marguerite Barankitse, a Burundian child rights activist who fled to Rwanda last year to escape political unrest at home, said the meeting had given her a chance to share her suffering.
The winner of the $1 million Aurora Prize for her work rescuing 30,000 orphaned children vowed to hold U.N. and other agencies to account for the promises they had made in Istanbul.
"It is very good that people could gather for one message - to share humanity," Barankitse told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "They have given us a weapon to remind them of that."
(Reporting by Megan Rowling and Alex Whiting; Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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