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PREVIEW-Humanitarian summit seeks to reboot aid, pressure states to end war

by Megan Rowling | @meganrowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Sunday, 22 May 2016 09:00 GMT

Syrian refugees stuck between the Jordanian and Syrian borders waiting to cross into Jordan, collect water, May 4, 2016. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

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U.N. conference aims to shake up aid system, push governments to stem conflicts and disasters

By Megan Rowling

ISTANBUL, May 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Aid officials are preparing to shake up the world's emergency response system when they gather in Istanbul on Monday for the first World Humanitarian Summit, but say it is up to governments to stem the wars and disasters that cause suffering.

U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O'Brien, whose office is running the summit, said the May 23-24 conference aims to garner "political will" to improve how aid is provided and tackle the root causes of the "vast scale of humanitarian need".

The summit comes at a time when the world is witnessing the highest level of need since World War Two - from more than 11 million people uprooted by Syria's five-year conflict to tens of millions hit by drought and floods linked to El Niño.

"We need the political leadership and commitment to better prevent and resolve conflicts and crises," O'Brien told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "The summit is a departure point."

Medical aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières pulled out of the summit earlier this month, saying the meeting would not do enough to hold states to account for their role in conflicts or pressure them to abide by the rules of war.

On Friday, Mark Goldring, Oxfam GB's chief executive, said the summit must prove to be "more than an expensive talking shop by tackling the repeated failure of governments to resolve conflicts and end the culture of impunity in which civilians are killed without consequence".

Humanitarian officials insist, however, that the summit was never planned as a forum to secure a binding agreement or changes to international humanitarian law (IHL) - even though the law is being flouted in Syria and beyond, with civilians and hospitals coming under regular attack.

O'Brien said there would be "a reaffirmation" of IHL in Istanbul. "We need to ensure it is adhered to," he said by phone from New York. "How we do reconcile challenges of that when it is violated, and how do we make it so that there is a genuine cost to people who violate it?"

Aid agencies attending the summit, while outlining how they plan to do a better job, will also make clear the limits to what they can achieve, said Jemilah Mahmood, former chief of the summit's secretariat who led global consultations on the event.

"We have escalating (humanitarian) needs and this is not sustainable - it does require political solutions," said Mahmood, a senior official with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

"The whole world now has been consulted, literally, and they all want an end to conflict."

But the 175 governments due to attend the summit, including 65 leaders, may not sign up to much more than non-binding "commitments" to act early in potential conflict situations, prevent new ones and address the root causes of conflict.

Neither is it certain they will offer substantially more money to plug an estimated $15 billion annual gap in funding for humanitarian response.


Nonetheless, the meeting - for which 6,000 participants from governments, aid organisations, the private sector and other groups have registered - is expected to yield tangible outcomes to improve aid delivery for people in crisis.

Mahmood said the summit was "not about failure" of the humanitarian system. "It is about a system that has to be rebooted and redesigned because we are now in an environment that is different," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

One of the loudest demands from the pre-summit consultations was to put more funding into the hands of the local and national groups that do much of the heavy-lifting in crisis situations - often as poorly paid sub-contractors for larger international agencies.

Under a "Grand Bargain" to be announced at the summit, 15 government donors and 15 U.N. and other big agencies will set a goal of channelling 25 percent of their funding to national and local responders by 2020, up from just 0.2 percent now.

Degan Ali, executive director of Adeso, an African development organisation, welcomed the target - which is higher than many civil society groups had hoped for.

"However, we need to ensure there are monitoring mechanisms in place to track progress of this target," she said.


In addition, the "Grand Bargain" will outline ways of making humanitarian funding more flexible and predictable over longer periods, while the agencies supplying relief will seek to cut out inefficiencies and coordinate better.

But the deal will stop short of setting a target for the proportion of aid used to reduce the risk of disasters and prepare for them, beyond promising to "significantly increase" it, according to Izumi Nakamitsu, assistant administrator of the United Nations Development Programme.

That will disappoint some global charities, including Christian Aid and Oxfam, which have called for the proportion to be raised from below 0.5 percent now to 5 percent.

"There is quantifiable data that every dollar you invest in preparedness and risk reduction actually pays off," Nakamitsu said. "The problem is that it is much more sexy to put money into response."

Another challenge of the summit will be to break down the artificial divide between short-term emergency aid and longer-term development work.

"Once you have had your life saved and (are) protected, you also want to make sure you're given hope and the ability to start being able to thrive," said U.N. aid chief O'Brien.

But some experts remain sceptical that the anticipated reforms to the humanitarian system will be sufficient.

"Tweaking the system is not going to change anything hugely, but a significant number of U.N. member states making meaningful commitments - that could result in a really successful summit," said Gareth Price-Jones, humanitarian policy coordinator for CARE International.

(Reporting by Megan Rowling; editing by Ros Russell. 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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