The World Humanitarian Summit: a game changer or business as usual?

by Yves Daccord, director-general, ICRC | | International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) - Switzerland
Thursday, 26 May 2016 12:29 GMT

A child is being evacuated from the besieged Syrian city of Moademiyeh by Syrian Arab Red Crescent, during a joint operation with the ICRC. Credit: ICRC/Pawel Krzysiek

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The real challenge is to turn promises and commitments into meaningful – and measurable – humanitarian actions on the ground

At a bare minimum, the recently concluded, first-ever UN-led World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul may be remembered as an impressive logistical feat: more than 9,000 stakeholders coming together to talk about how to improve aid delivery to people affected by crisis; the culmination of a nearly three-year consultation process with some 23,000 people.

Thereafter, there were several things that the Summit clearly was not. It was not, for one, a push towards fundamental reform of the architecture of the humanitarian “system” per se. It did not initiate reform of UN structures and mandates, or of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, which neither represents donors nor non-Western NGOs. For some observers, this stymied the Summit’s ambition to “reshape aid” before it even got off the ground.

There were some laudable initiatives presented at the Summit, but with no way of enforcing commitments, only time will tell how game-changing they really are. The ‘Grand Bargain’ hopes to make aid delivery more efficient by getting donors to give more and do it better, longer term and more flexibly, and aid organisations to reciprocate with greater transparency and cost-consciousness. Both sides are keen to make the deal work and it is an important contribution to achieving better outcomes for people in need.

So far, so good. But beyond financial constraints, there are other pressing reasons for the wide gap between humanitarian needs and the ability of humanitarian actors to address them.

One of the main reasons is the politicization of aid. From Afghanistan to Syria, Mali to Yemen, this is the single biggest threat to the ability of humanitarian organizations such as the ICRC and its partners in the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement to reach people in need of protection and assistance through an impartial, neutral and independent approach. Closely connected is the lack of respect for even the most fundamental rules of IHL by numerous States and non-State armed groups. Flagrant violations - including direct attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure such as hospitals and schools, as well as disregard for the rules governing humanitarian access – severely hamper the ability to reach people in need, on both sides of frontlines.

The often-impassioned reaffirmation of IHL heard in the numerous side events was, sadly, not matched by renewed political commitments in the High Level segments. While the Summit’s ‘Agenda for Humanity’ spells out various responsibilities incumbent primarily on States – such as the prevention and resolution of conflicts, and strengthening compliance with international law – good intentions and fine words must now quickly be translated into concrete actions.

Already before the Summit, certain humanitarian organisations – including the ICRC – expressed reservations about the all-encompassing drive towards a “common approach” between humanitarian action and development aid, aspiring to the Sustainable Development Goals, and the tendency to blur contexts of armed conflict with those of disaster. Such concerns remain valid.

It bears reiterating that armed conflict has distinct humanitarian challenges – different to disaster, chronic fragility and instability. While there is a clear need for more creative, multi-year planning and financing to sustain certain development services in armed conflicts, significant development advances are sometimes simply not operationally feasible. Neutral, independent and impartial humanitarian action has a distinct and vital role in armed conflicts, one that cannot simply be subsumed into a new paradigm of aid. And while there is unquestionably a pressing need to recalibrate the balance of power between international and local humanitarian actors in favour of the latter, it also needs to be explicitly recognised that in certain contexts it is politically impossible or simply too dangerous for local actors to be neutral and impartial.

Yet to write the Summit off as simply as a gigantic talking shop that ultimately reaffirmed the status quo would be unfair and untrue. The fact that a global meeting premised on a reaffirmed commitment to humanity took place at all is already a major achievement. Perhaps the last time the international humanitarian community was galvanised to such an extent was in the wake of the 2004 Tsunami, when glaring deficiencies in  humanitarian response led to a raft of reforms.

The Summit was a landmark too in that it effectively gave formal recognition to protracted conflict as the “new normal” - one increasingly concentrated in urban areas, causing the collapse of infrastructure and public services, reversing development gains previously made and highlighting the often artificial humanitarian/development divide.

Moreover, the acknowledged scale and complexity of needs in this “new normal” – and the diversity of response required to address them – finally laid to rest the concept of one neatly-drawn, interconnected humanitarian “system.” Today’s reality is a much wider ecosystem of diverse actors, working on local, national and international levels, with varying degrees of organization, different approaches and different goals. For international humanitarian actors in particular, remaining relevant and effective in such a fragmented (and increasingly localised) environment will become all the more onerous. Local actors in all their diversity –including technology-literate, empowered beneficiaries themselves – will increasingly determine how and when aid is delivered, and by whom. The question is not about local replacing international actors, but a better, fairer balance must be struck.

For organisations like the ICRC and Red Cross/Red Crescent Societies, working in constrained and complex situations of armed conflict, humanitarian principles are vital, but so too are pragmatism and partnerships.  It is crucial to demonstrate the value and practical application of humanitarian principles by responding to actual needs, ensuring proximity to the people at the centre of the response, and engaging with all stakeholders. This can only be achieved by seeking much more collaborative and innovative solutions with increasingly diverse stakeholders – from governments and partner organizations, to the corporate sector and civil society. The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement must, likewise, demonstrate the strength and value of its distinct mission, through its unity, its complementarity and its work with other actors.

In truth, it would have been unrealistic to expect the Summit to be a revolutionary game-changer. Conversely, it has clearly spelled out that “business as usual” in the aid sector is no longer tolerable. Improving the delivery of aid is literally a matter of life or death for many millions of people. Moving forward, the real challenge is to maintain the momentum and energy of the Summit, and to turn promises and commitments into meaningful – and measurable – humanitarian actions on the ground. Until the Summit’s outcomes make a tangible difference where they really matter – for the people affected by conflict or disaster – the jury will remain out on the real value of its legacy.