World Humanitarian Summit: Laudable, but short on hard political commitments

Last week’s World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul was by any measure, quite a spectacle. There were celebrities (Ashley Judd, Daniel Craig, Forrest Whitaker, and Sean Penn) mingling with heads of state and diplomats, government and multilateral bureaucrats, private relief agency heads like myself, business CEOs, representatives of affected populations, and even the Geeks Without Bounds, who were hacking away for humanity. A torrent of Tweets, Facebook posts, and other social media poured forth.

But was it a success? That depends on your expectations.

On a basic level, the summit succeeded in raising awareness of the massive problem confronting the international community: the increasing frequency and complexity of humanitarian crises and emergencies that is overwhelming the ability of nations, multilateral agencies, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to respond.

Climate change is fueling more frequent and more devastating natural disasters, and climate- and conflict-fueled crises are triggering simultaneous, pan-regional emergencies. These crises are spurring record levels of migrants seeking safety and survival, which in turn are triggering crises in Europe, the United States, and developing countries that are both humanitarian and political.

The international response has been woefully inadequate.  A high-level panel’s report to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in January noted that the world is spending $25 billion a year, or 12 times the amount it was 15 years ago, to provide live-saving assistance to 125 million people devastated by wars and natural disasters. Still, the exponential growth in the need has left a funding gap of more than $15 billion. This is a lot of money, but not, as the report notes, out of reach for a world producing $78 trillion of annual GDP. 

It is not just money, but a new paradigm that is needed.  The old model where national governments write checks for multilateral agencies and huge international NGOs is no longer sufficient. The scale of these problems is overwhelming their ability to respond. Multifaceted approaches that encompass the breadth of actors impacting the world today, from multinational businesses to local organizations, are necessary to tackle the problem. 

A great example of the power of harnessing ingenuity is in Rwanda, where UPS is partnering with a local robotics company along with Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, to develop the nation’s first drone delivery network to carry blood and vaccines to isolated rural communities. As Africa has the world’s highest rate of death due to postpartum hemorrhaging, these blood deliveries will literally save lives.  Imagine similar results in the future for reaching victims of natural disasters and civilians suffering in war-ravaged conflict zones.

The summit also made progress in directing more funding to local first responders and NGOs at the front lines through an agreement on a “Grand Bargain” on humanitarian financing. The bargain, in which donors agree to allow resources to be used more flexibly in return for aid organizations reciprocating with greater transparency and cost-consciousness, includes a commitment to deliver at least 25 percent of humanitarian funding to local and national responders by 2020, compared with 2 percent currently.  This reflects a long-standing frustration by many on the ground that the funds going into the humanitarian pipeline are siphoned off in overhead and inefficiencies, with only a fraction reaching intended beneficiaries.

In addition, to promote a more efficient allocation of resources, more aid will be provided in cash rather than vouchers, food or material resources, and there will be less earmarking of funds. This will go a long way toward making aid more flexible, efficient and timely, and it will be more appropriate to the specific local context, with safeguards added to address issues of transparency.

While there were many impressive commitments and a great deal of momentum at the Summit, there was also nervousness that the absence of high-level world leaders meant insufficient support for tackling the urgent and growing humanitarian challenges. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was the only G7 leader to attend.  Because none of these commitments are binding on the U.N. or national governments, continued buy-in and leadership at the highest levels will be needed to make progress on solving our humanitarian conundrum—and that was not evident in Istanbul.

More importantly, despite some wonderful rhetoric in the chair’s summary, the summit did nothing to address the political and institutional failure of the U.N. Security Council and its permanent members to address conflicts that cause survivors to suffer and present challenges for responders.  In fact, with the increasing bombing of hospitals and schools and the use of food as a weapon, we are going backward in terms of commitments to “humanity.”  A joint statement by 24 nations affirming the importance of adhering to international humanitarian law and expressing concern for civilians and the vulnerable was welcome, but lacked any real teeth.

In the current state of world affairs and geopolitics, humanitarian aid is a poor and ineffective substitute for the critical, but politically difficult, focus on conflict prevention, support for peace negotiations and enforcement, and the protection of civilians. 

Until world and regional leaders find new and powerful ways to keep the peace and put civilian lives and humanitarian interests above their national agendas, humanitarian needs will continue to outpace the international community’s ability to respond—no matter how many summits are held.