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World Humanitarian Summit: political breakthrough or fringe festival?

Written by Christina Bennett

When the World Humanitarian Summit came to a close in Istanbul, a lot of people (myself included) felt conflicted. Had the two-day meeting and its myriad events and mountain of commitments achieved something significant and actionable? Or were we walking away from what amounted to nothing more than a well-dressed, well-orchestrated jamboree? Was the all the expense, energy and intellect invested really worth it?  Were the interests of people in crisis served?

Ahead of the Summit, I set out three tests for success. Now that the curtain has fallen, let’s check the scorecard.

1) B-list participation: political heavyweights absent

As expected, the Summit failed to secure a top line-up. The meeting drew a crowd of 10,000, including: aid workers, civil servants, CEOs of private companies and prominent NGOs, as well as artists and celebrities (Daniel Craig and Ashley Judd to name but two), but failed to bring in political heavyweights. Angela Merkel was a stand-out presence but even the normally sanguine Ban Ki-moon expressed public disappointment that other G7 leaders were absent.

And laudable as diversity is at such a meeting, it brought out the event’s schizophrenia. Part high-level political meeting, part public caucus, the Summit had trouble properly engaging its attendees and effectively rallying them around its vision and objectives. Even the meeting programme was split into two completely different tracks.

In the slick conference rooms of the formal proceedings, it focused on securing vital political backing from the world’s top leaders for ending war, pumping governments for more money for crisis prevention, emergency response and long-term support to refugees and others put out by crisis.

Meanwhile, in an entirely separate building, it was seeking to cultivate a groundswell of more grassroots thinking and support to improve the provision of assistance at ground level.

The energy and outcomes of the WHS sprung from those side events, while officials drowned in vague commitments, without delivering major announcements and initiatives. Ultimately, the action worth watching was at the fringe festival rather than on the official Summit programme.

2) Grand bargain: representative of the problem, not ‘broadly representative’

The meeting did indeed deliver a Grand Bargain agreement on humanitarian financing. And its 10-point plan includes some important commitments including greater transparency, the increased use of cash instead of material assistance and making it easier to fund local responders.

These are important steps in the right direction.

However, the woolly and qualified diplomatic language (‘The aim is to aspire to achieve...’) makes it unconvincing as a blueprint for reform. And its claim to being ‘broadly representative’ of the sector is itself representative of a fundamental problem. As a pact between the sector’s 15 largest donors and the 15 largest organisations they fund, it only reinforces the fact that, while global in its remit, the humanitarian sector is still very narrow-minded in its conduct and worldview.

Other potentially game-changing announcements – by the UK on refugees, by the World Bank on the details of a multi-billion dollar funding platform for protracted crises were delayed for more discussion at the General Assembly meeting this Autumn.

The usual emphatic statements on the need to respect international humanitarian law (IHL) were trotted out, including a declaration of commitment signed by 48 states, which included support for regulating international arms sales and respecting the neutrality of medical facilities in war. But the devil is in the doing and the action plan wasn’t there. We are no closer to ending the world’s most devastating conflicts than before the Summit began. So, as far as Summits go, the outcomes on the official front were underwhelming.

That’s not to say that the Summit was without its successes and interesting moments, as many of the 100+ special sessions and side events brought energy, ideas and entrepreneurship to the discussions.

We saw several exciting new initiatives: promising networks of southern NGOs (NEAR), regional organisations (ROHAN), and private businesses (CBI); an Islamic endowment fund and social impact bond; a central humanitarian data hub; and a new financial tracker that captures public, private and individual humanitarian donations. These fledgling initiatives are all singular but potentially transformative.   

3) Change deferred: kicking the can down the road

At the closing ceremony, Ban Ki-moon described the World Humanitarian Summit as ‘not the endpoint, but a turning point’ in a longer process of change, though he provided no detail on what happens next.  If this was the UN’s own test for success, then the WHS made the grade. 

It sparked a global conversation on the need for change, shaping rhetoric around a more local way of working, fewer divisions between humanitarian and development assistance and the need for broader sourcing and smarter use of funds.

The Summit showcased the humanitarian system’s heightened focus on capturing the capacity and ingenuity of people and organisations beyond the old guard. It mobilised individuals and organisations – many of whom operate on the fringes – to take matters into their own hands and begin making the changes that have eluded the more established humanitarian sector.

But the Summit was no political moment – long on rhetoric and short on action – and so missed an opportunity for high-level government support and action to ending war, putting a stop to suffering and improving the future of humanitarian action.

Unfortunately, on the issues that matter most to refugees in Idomeni and Dadaab, civilians in Syria and South Sudan and medical workers under attack in Yemen, the Summit only kicked the can down the road. Let’s hope it’s a new road.