Reflections on the World Humanitarian Summit with the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator
Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.
The Brookings Doha Center (BDC) hosted an event on May 29, 2016, to reflect on the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit, held the prior week in Turkey. The event featured Stephen O’Brien, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator at the United Nations. Sultan Barakat, director of research at the BDC, moderated the event, which was attended by members of Qatar’s diplomatic, academic, and media community.
O’Brien began his remarks by summarizing what he called the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II. More than 130 million people need humanitarian assistance, 41 million are internally displaced, and 20 million are refugees. O’Brien said the United Nations and partners are seeking $21 billion to aid 91 million people in 40 countries this year, but have only received $4 billion. He added that “the causes of the suffering are clear”: political failure to resolve conflicts, flagrant violations of international humanitarian law, worsening and increasing natural disasters, and growing inequality.
As a result of the obvious need for expanded and improved humanitarian response, the U.N. secretary-general convened the Summit with the theme “one humanity, shared responsibility.” O’Brien outlined the five core responsibilities:
- Commit to prevent and resolve conflicts—“the most powerful action leaders can take.” A number of states pledged to take early action to resolve crisis before they deteriorate.
- Uphold the norms that safeguard humanity—“the last protection against barbarity.” O’Brien spoke of states committing to train both state and non-state armed forces and support for improved monitoring and reporting systems.
- Leaving no one behind—a follow-on from the Sustainable Development Goals. Participants committed to finding better long-term solutions for displaced people and there was a push to increase the involvement of women, disabled, and youth in humanitarian response.
- Changing people’s lives by ending need—the United Nations signed a breakthrough commitment to collaborate in a new way that will meet needs, reduce vulnerability, and manage risk better by working toward collective outcomes.
- Invest in humanity—a grand bargain was achieved with donors that will lead to more efficiency and effectiveness in humanitarian action, including a commitment to directly channel 25 percent of funds to national and local responders by 2020.
O’Brien said the Summit succeeded in generating political will and optimism, but that now it is necessary for the participants who made commitments to drive change. He thanked Qatar for its financial contributions and lauded Qatar as a humanitarian pioneer in the region.
Barakat asked if only one G-7 leader attending reflected a lack of interest in the Summit. O’Brien commented that each of the G-7 countries were represented, some at very high levels, and emphasized the importance of getting others involved more cohesively. He added that it was truly a world summit with 173 countries and more than 50 heads of state participating and every region represented at over 70 percent. O’Brien explained that the multi-stakeholder process made some states uncomfortable, but the organizers stuck to their guns because humanitarian response is done by such a wide range of actors and no one entity can handle it alone.
Barakat asked about the tension of some states providing aid with one hand and fueling conflict with the other. O’Brien said the issue was discussed, with participants mainly focusing on how to incentivize a shift from spending on arms, which is enormous, to humanitarian aid, where there is a comparatively small $15 billion gap. Addressing criticisms of how the United Nations uses funds, O’Brien admitted that there will always be a transaction cost, and said the key is to be as efficient as possible. He added that the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has committed to reducing its overhead costs from 13 percent to 7 percent, and stressed that rumors about U.N. overhead costs being as high as 70 percent are a myth.
Regarding an increased role for the private sector, O’Brien was adamant that there is nothing wrong with profits, as they drive efficiency, and can release additional funds for reinvestment. Additionally, companies have divisions that are not fixated on profits, and also do pro bono work, such as after disasters. O’Brien also spoke of the importance of aid being “untied” from any national or group interests, as ensured by full transparency. But, he said, “Let’s not restrict the offers of help.”
Asked about the increasing use of cash, O’Brien said the issue was tied to the empowerment and gender issue. “If you get it right for girls and women, you get it right for development, full stop,” he argued. He said that diversion of funds must be addressed, but it is a relatively small problem, and cash is much more fungible than in-kind assistance.
Barakat brought up the problem of state fragility and non-state actors in the Middle East, and O’Brien argued that the world must find the political courage to intervene earlier. The challenge is proving the counterfactual—being accountable when investing what are ultimately public funds to prevent something from happening.
In response to questions from the audience, O’Brien conceded that the commitments given at the Summit were voluntary, but suggested that had the United Nations used an intergovernmental approach with the goal of a binding statement, the Summit may not have happened at all. “If we focus on process we’ll get lost,” he added, emphasizing again the importance of having all the stakeholders involved and the will the Summit generated.
As for refugees, O’Brien clarified that there would be a meeting specific to the issue in September, and that the Summit was a stepping stone for that. More broadly, he emphasized the importance of trust—getting stakeholders to come back and participate a second time. He said OCHA, through its consultations, is aiming to support a vision, and actions through commitments, “of the highest common factor.”
Asked why the needs of specific groups such as Palestinians were not highlighted at the Summit, O’Brien explained how important it is for the United Nations to avoid politics and maintain its impartiality so it can meet needs wherever they arise. He noted, however, that UNRWA fully participated in the Summit. O’Brien also acknowledged the difficulty of raising funds for humanitarian assistance and said he knew that the requested $21 billion would not be raised at the Summit, pointing to how many humanitarian response plans are woefully underfunded. “We have a major crisis of resource,” he concluded.
Turning to Yemen, Barakat expressed concern that the responsibility of aiding the Yemeni people had seemingly been left to the Saudis. O’Brien noted that he had been “extraordinarily noisy” on the issue and that the United Nations was reaching 3.5 million people every day, but said the ongoing conflict made the situation difficult and that much more was needed.
The final questions were about funds ending up in the wrong hands, NGOs’ distrust of the United Nations, and restructuring the body. O’Brien asked for anyone observing the abuse of U.N. funds to report it to enable a proper response. He opined that suspicion always exists between local actors and institutions, but said “we have to be judged on our actions” and the huge need means “you have to have that partnership.” Lastly, O’Brien stated that the United Nations needs to be better at working across its silos to improve coordination and speed in responding to humanitarian needs.
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