Reflections on the World Humanitarian Summit

One Humanity, Shared Responsibility

This was the theme for last month’s World Humanitarian Summit in which world leaders, aid agencies, and development workers met in Istanbul, Turkey to discuss ways to help those affected by numerous humanitarian issues.

Stephen O’Brien, Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief at the UN, spoke with the Brookings Institute and outlined five responsibilities he believes the aid community must address:

  1. Prevent and resolve conflicts
  2. Uphold norms that safeguard humanity
  3. Leave no one behind
  4. Change lives by ending need
  5. Invest in humanity

To address these very large and ideal goals, Summit attendees pledged to do their part in developing actionable ways to better ensure that aid for those in need can be met.

Among the proposals to address international aid for those suffering from conflict, war, climate change, and other global problems were providing better support to local NGOs. Another key outcome focused on empowering aid workers by limiting bureaucratic red tape so that they can be more active in the field.

Some argue that these proposals do little to change the systemic concerns in overcoming widespread humanitarian problems.

One such proposal is to increase direct monetary assistance rather than focusing on material goods. The refrain of “Why not cash?” is slowly gaining traction among the development community. This is because money can easily be transferred. Direct money transfers would allow affected individuals, communities, and NGOs to better directly address the unique challenges faced in particular situations.

Others questioned whether the Summit actually advanced the direction of international aid, the ability of the global community to respond to crises, or whether the Summit merely ‘kicked the can down the road’ and failed to address the growing challenges we face.

The absence of key world leaders represents for some the inability for the Summit to appropriately address any of the lofty goals it has. A lack of a clear plan to facilitate dialogue between governments and agencies further hampers the ability of the international community to appropriately congeal around any proposals that do gain traction in the months ahead.

Syrian NGOs likewise see the Summit as a failed and wasteful use of time because it did not clearly and directly address global crises as comprehensively as they had hoped.


A market stall owner in Northern Uganda sells her produce (Photo by DFID. Flickr Creative Commons.)

Their concern stems from the fact that the United Nations declared the Syrian Refugee Crisis to be the most pressing humanitarian issue facing the world today. Yet the crisis was silenced and left unaddressed throughout the two-day event.

Despite these concerns some remain hopeful that the Summit’s agreements can have lasting change in how development and aid can be refigured and renewed to tackle the pressing needs of millions worldwide.

This belief largely rests on the confidence that the ‘Grand Bargain’ for humanitarian aid reform reached at the Summit is ultimately a contract that can push absentee leaders to positions that can help better address crises more holistically, if not swiftly.

Others see the commitment to addressing women’s and girls’ rights as a key outcome of the Summit. Their reasoning is because gender equality has been found to be a key indicator of development and stability in myriad settings.

While the World Humanitarian Summit was well attended by humanitarian, development, and non-governmental organizations, it is indeed troubling that many leaders from the world’s most developed nations chose to forgo the event.

Despite these concerns many agree that the Summit is a valuable first step in rethinking how we respond to humanitarian crises throughout the world.

What did the Summit ultimately achieve?

In the short-term it achieved renewed commitment to addressing global problems.

In the long-term the potential achievements remain unwritten.

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