Why the World Humanitarian Summit Meeting in Turkey Really Does Matter

John Norris told Foreign Policy readers that the Istanbul conference would be irrelevant. It wasn’t.

Chancellor Angela Merkel (C) applauds on May 23, 2016 during the World Humanitarian Summit family photo session in Istanbul.
The over 60 heads of state and government gathered for the two-day summit convened by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will have to defeat considerable scepticism that the event will turn into a well-intentioned but fruitless talking shop.
 / AFP / OZAN KOSE        (Photo credit should read OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)
Chancellor Angela Merkel (C) applauds on May 23, 2016 during the World Humanitarian Summit family photo session in Istanbul. The over 60 heads of state and government gathered for the two-day summit convened by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will have to defeat considerable scepticism that the event will turn into a well-intentioned but fruitless talking shop. / AFP / OZAN KOSE (Photo credit should read OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)

John Norris predicted a “train wreck” at last month’s World Humanitarian Summit in Turkey, citing bad atmospherics, an ill-chosen host, and a backdrop of escalating humanitarian catastrophes from Syria and Iraq to Yemen and Nigeria.

I was at the two-day summit, which convened nearly 9,000 government, civil society, private sector, and aid workers from 173 nations to work on reforming and renewing the world’s overburdened system for humanitarian relief. Norris called this a “gigantic jamboree,” lamenting the absence of a “capstone” agreement, signed by world leaders that could be celebrated with “happy handshakes and photo-ops.” But that’s not the only way to advance the changes we need.

The Istanbul summit pushed governments, U.N. agencies, and nongovernmental organizations — including the biggest institutions of the humanitarian system — to promise reforms that will increase the system’s flexibility and transparency. It bridged a frequent divide between the international relief and development communities to win progress on a global security imperative: a quick return to school for millions of children among the world’s 60 million displaced people.

And the summit issued this overdue wake-up call to governments worldwide: Humanitarian crises will persist until world leaders muster the political will to resolve the violent conflicts that are causing them.

One eminently fixable problem is the massive, and now chronic, inadequacy of funding for humanitarian relief. In the face of increasing needs, the world raised just half of the $20 billion required in 2015 to help 125 million people worldwide. That $10 billion shortfall may seem large, but it’s less than 1 percent of the world’s annual military expenditure.

An important step toward persuading more donors to give more is demonstrating that the humanitarian system is operating with greater efficiency and transparency. The summit addressed this challenge with the launch of a “grand bargain” among the heavyweights of humanitarian relief — 15 states, 15 U.N. agencies, coalitions of the main international NGOs, and the Red Cross/Red Crescent movement. This agreement crystallized reforms that have been percolating for years, turning them into a shared, comprehensive framework. The participants made measurable commitments, from greater coherence among donor requirements to ensuring long-term funding. These donor countries and implementing institutions agreed to boost the funds that they channel through local humanitarian providers, which often are best positioned to respond successfully to crises. They pledged to increase this support from where it stands now, at less than 1 percent of global funding, to 25 percent by 2020.

While not the stuff of headlines, this “grand bargain” is essential to upgrading the machinery of humanitarian relief — and to better bridging the relief and development communities, which have been divided by separate practices, ideologies, and bureaucratic rigidity. Overall, the summit produced commitments by both communities to work better together. By sharing data and risk analysis, they committed to build resilience to conflicts and disasters that overturn development gains and cause humanitarian needs.

Importantly, the World Bank, a development institution, put forth a groundbreaking commitment to create low-cost financing for middle-income countries hosting refugee populations, enabling improved provision of education and livelihoods for the displaced.

The summit’s launch of an “Education Cannot Wait” fund was an important, immediate advance. Education for those displaced by violence or disaster has long fallen squarely in this gap between relief and development. The world’s largest displaced population, nearly 12 million Syrians, includes nearly 6 million children who need help to go to school. To ignore that need would be to ensure an entire generation left uneducated, hopeless, and easy recruiting targets for extremists. The new fund received commitments of $90 million, against $150 million required for its first year, as well as a shared acknowledgement that we can no longer ignore education in emergency settings.

Norris’s essay is correct in pointing out the world’s failure to muster the political will to halt the violence that is now the main driver of global catastrophe. A decade ago, 80 percent of the global need for humanitarian response was caused by natural disasters, and 20 percent by warfare. Over the years this ratio has reversed.

However, the answer to that failing was not to avoid or ignore the summit, but rather to use it to drive home the need to halt that warfare. The debates at Istanbul did so, and here’s why it was important: The humanitarian community has been slow in focusing on preventing or resolving conflicts because that work can seem “political,” and thus a threat to the community’s core tenets of independence and impartiality.

At the summit, humanitarian and development communities alike embraced commitments to understand, address, and prevent the violent conflict that has spurred the massive set of global crises. The most articulate national leaders on the problem of violent conflict were those from countries — such as Somalia, Mali, and East Timor — that have struggled with its consequences. They were the most specific in their commitments to govern, and build legitimacy, through greater inclusivity and dialogue. “Fixing politics is a major pillar for filling humanitarian needs,” said Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud.

No leaders from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council attended the conference, and only German Chancellor Angela Merkel represented the G7 developed nations. Those absences only highlighted the paralysis of the Security Council and traditional mechanisms for addressing conflict.

In the absence of a concerted demonstration of political will, the summit’s inclusive format (what Norris called a “jamboree”) offered an important model for such gatherings. Its inclusion of the private sector and civil society, with an emphasis on women and youth activists, marked a recognition that peace-building and humanitarian action extend far beyond the domains of diplomats and politicians.

Norris lamented the venue for the summit, noting that Turkey’s government “increasingly resembles the kind of autocracy that triggers humanitarian emergencies in the first place.” He’s right. But the planning for this summit began four years ago, before Turkey’s autocratic evolution began. Those years of planning, in fact, underscore the prescience of the decision to hold the summit, a decision made before the world boiled over with its historic levels of displacement and crisis.

Now that the humanitarian summit is over, one wonders why it hasn’t happened before, following the approach of quadrennial development summits that set and monitor a shared global agenda. Norris and other critics rightly demand concrete results, and not just talk, to reform and upgrade our humanitarian system. We can best maintain the pressure for results through international public attention. So let’s aim for another humanitarian summit in four years, at which governments and humanitarian institutions can be sure that their performance will be publicly scrutinized against the promises they have made.

Photo credit: OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

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