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Ban Ki-moon’s summit exposed a world in retreat from crisis

by Rob Williams, CEO, War Child UK
Thursday, 26 May 2016 15:22 GMT

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks during opening ceremony of the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, Turkey, May 23, 2016. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

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

Ban Ki-moon’s summit was designed to rally the global humanitarian system, but it may have done more to expose a world in retreat from crisis

The world’s humanitarian crisis is about to get worse.  The number of refugees and displaced people is already at a record 60 million – at least half of whom are children, many bombed out of their homes and forced to flee for their lives. 

There are currently 37 million war-affected boys and girls who are out of school.  Add to this the extreme weather events caused by El Nino that are predicted to devastate parts of sub-Saharan Africa before the end of the year, and the sheer scale of humanitarian need feels overwhelming.

So you might think a summit designed to meet the crisis head-on would draw an eager crowd of member states ready to transform the scale and ambition of their humanitarian efforts?

There has been a valiant attempt by Ban Ki-moon and the UN system to bring together humanitarian actors for the first time at this level and on this scale.

But by many measures, it looks like the World Humanitarian Summit has fallen short.

Firstly, on attendance, only a few of the right people were there. Angela Merkel stood out as the only head of government representing a major donor country.  The turn-out was mostly at ministerial level, prompting a pointed reference from Ban Ki-moon in his closing speech: “To the world leaders who missed out on this summit,” he remarked, “I say join us in our efforts”.

On the measure of increased funding, it was also clearly not a watershed moment. In all a total of $145 million of additional money was pledged to the UN’s Central Emergency Response fund – the mechanism designed to save lives by providing rapid crisis funding.

This seems a poor return on a summit process which cost as much as $40 million to host.  It also fails to make any significant dent in a funding shortfall which currently amounts to $19 billion in this year’s humanitarian budget – with forgotten crises such as the Central African Republic only mobilising 2 percent of their humanitarian appeal target so far this year.

On the measure of whether the summit delivered for children, the outcome was a mixed bag. Children make up at least half of populations affected by armed conflict, but only 3 percent of humanitarian budgets go on protecting them from rape, violence, armed-attack and abduction.

Education fairs even worse, attracting just 1.4 percent of humanitarian funds – a staggering failure of the humanitarian system. Yet here there was at least some clear progress.

The most concrete sign of change is the establishment of a new global fund for education in emergencies – the Education Cannot Wait fund, which aims to deliver $3.85 billion of support over five years to hugely expand access to learning for refugees and displaced children. 

This is a genuine innovation, much needed if we want to make sure that refugee children spend less than a month out of school when a crisis hits. 

But the day after the launch of this funding pot, it appears to be filled with hope rather than money.  Initial pledges to the fund amount to around $70 million. 

But although there is some fundraising to do before it can do its job well, the need is clear. Moreover, it will persuade donors who worry about families crossing the globe to look for an education for their children, and end up on their doorstep.

Overall, though, the most likely outcome of these two days seems to be business as usual.  For example, despite claims that the needs of children would become central to the humanitarian system from now on, the closing ceremony was pretty much standard form.  Adults giving all the speeches, with children reduced to the role of singing charming songs in between. 

Some seeds of transformation are evident. But the concern is that a summit designed to rally the system to meet a global challenge may have done more to reveal that that the world is still in retreat from the crisis.

This article first appeared on Middle East Eye.