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Why Ban Ki-moon’s report on the World Humanitarian Summit is worth a read

Written by Christina Bennett

​It’s not every day that I recommend reading a UN Secretary-General’s report. I used to write these things for a living; it was tedious work. They’re often full of platitudes, self-congratulation, impenetrable jargon and cryptic recommendations.

But One Humanity: Shared Responsibility, Mr Ban’s take on the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS), is different. It provides some answers for those of us who have spent close to two years scratching our heads and wondering: ‘what is this Summit about?’, ‘who is it for?’ and ‘does the world really need another big meeting’?

Yes, this is still a report (and yes, the WHS is still just a big meeting), but it is eloquent... dare I say impassioned? And while not always concrete, its Agenda for Humanity and five calls to action are remarkably clear. So, here’s why it’s worth reading:

1. It has vision

The report powerfully expresses what so many people living with war – and humanitarians – feel, but what is so often missing from humanitarian discourse: outrage. Outrage at our collective failure to do something about untold amounts of human suffering. Outrage that state interests continually trump individual rights, that the voices of aid agencies are heard over those of affected people, and that some crises, and some lives, get more money and attention than others. It expresses the urgent desire for fundamental change, not just small-scale reform. 

It reframes humanitarian action as acts of solidarity rather than charity, appeals to a wider group of new and potential ‘humanitarians’ including youth, business, religious leaders and diaspora groups, and is explicit that humanitarian action is not the exclusive purview of a handful of large organisations.

It also links humanitarian action to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which is astute politically, given that 193 governments have already committed to them. This could be problematic given the need for humanitarian action to remain distinct from government action, particularly when states are unable or unwilling to help their own people. Humanitarians also may be setting themselves up to fail if they tie themselves to goals they have neither the remit nor the resources to achieve. But the report’s emphasis on the critical link between war and poverty, borrowing from the core SDG concept of ‘leaving no one behind’, is welcome.

2. It’s got some bold ideas

Coming from a century-old system quite happy with the status quo, the WHS’ rhetoric around the need for ‘blue-sky thinking’ and ‘transformational solutions’ felt disingenuous from the start. 

And indeed, many ideas in the report cover old ground but many of the proposals are new, bold and potentially game-changing - like a $5-7 billion international financing platform for protracted crises. Confronting the age-old dilemma of relying on short-term funding to tackle long-term needs, the platform would combine a range of types of funding (grants, loans, risk insurance) from a panoply of sources beyond traditional government donors (the World Bank, insurance companies, regional development banks). 

The report’s call for a dedicated international ‘watchdog’ for monitoring compliance with international humanitarian law (IHL) is also important, as IHL is currently honoured more in its breach than in its observance. While it’s unclear what form this mechanism would take, the WHS could use other intergovernmental mechanisms, such as the Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism on grave violations against children and the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission (actually mentioned in the report), as models. 

Given how political divisions within the UN Security Council failed to prevent – and potentially encouraged – the escalation of conflict in Syria, the suspension of the Security Council veto in cases of mass atrocities could be transformative. Also important is the concept of the Security Council as a more active conflict prevention (rather than conflict management) body, which might be better suited to its obstructionist demeanour. 

3. But there’s a lot of unfinished business

While smarter sourcing and usage of funds will help, the report’s proposals ultimately just need a lot more money. Some of the report’s best ideas, from 75% coverage of emergency appeals to more investment in conflict prevention, are linked to funds – more funds, earlier funds, more sustainable funds. But neither the Financing for Development Meeting in Addis Ababa nor the High-Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing have come up with ways to substantially supplement the $24 billion humanitarian business. 

The report also misses an important opportunity to call for internal reform. Its mantra of ‘reinforce, do not replace’ puts forward national local organisations as primary responders, relegating international organisations to standard bearers, advocates and enablers, save for situations that require extra surge or logistical capacity. 

This change hinges not only on mindset reform, but institutional reform, propelled by incentives for established organisations to give up power, market share and avenues for growth. While the report sets out eight broad areas for systemic change, it does not directly call upon the ‘system’ – the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, the co-ordinating forum for UN agencies and partners, its members and its donors – to enact such shifts. But then again, when did turkeys ever vote for Christmas?