With the ongoing aerial bombardment of Syria, the rise of hawkish calls such as that from Britain’s ex-PM/ disgraced Middle East peace envoy Tony Blair for a “proper ground war”, and the brutal clearing of Greece’s Idomeni refugee camp, the United Nations’ first World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) seemingly could not come soon enough.
Held in Istanbul, Turkey, from the 23-24 May, the WHS was part of an initiative to reassess the workings of the international humanitarian aid system. The summit’s capacity to effect meaningful change however has been met with growing scepticism from both the participants and the international community.
The aid system as it currently functions is overburdened to say the least, standing $15 billion short of the necessary funding levels. More fundamentally, the system is inefficient and flawed, as a High-Level Panel UN report found in the build-up to the WHS.
According the UN General-Secretary Ban Ki-moon’s five core principles, the summit was aimed at both reducing humanitarian crises through promoting development, and emphasising long-term developmental goals in crisis response.
From the outset however, scepticism was high. Most significantly, Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF), the international organisation of medical workers in humanitarian crises, pulled out of the WHS earlier this month.
The organisation’s withdrawal critiqued what it sees as the futile nature of non-binding agreements in encouraging state responsibility for crises. Lukewarm high-level commitment and the absence of all but one of the G7 leaders (just Angela Merkel attended) a telling sign in this regard.
Furthermore, the summit’s aim of promoting long-term development was also seen by MSF as a way to weaken the support for, and activities of, emergency humanitarian aid responses. MSF’s boycotting of the Summit illustrates two major flaws in the WHS.
The first is that its goals could actually undermine emergency relief efforts by diverting much-needed resources away from aid work.
The second is that the institutions involved in aid work are by nature unable to effectively address crises due to the concentration of funding in only a handful of large organisations such as the World Food Program (which received 22% of all of 2015’s humanitarian funding) and UN agencies like the UNRWA.
This naturally leads to a foreign-driven, top-down approach that generally disregards the specifics of local need and opinions.
That aid organisations are almost chronically underfunded, and have a tendency to override grassroots needs, shows that alternative and localised or targeted aid mechanisms are essential for dealing effectively with crises in integrated, humane ways.
Brian Reich, founder of the UNHCR-linked New York start-up Project Hive, which works to develop alternative ways to fund and promote awareness of the current refugee and migration crises, outlined this concern.
Reich told Independent Turkey that “We need better coordination and collaboration between the actors to improve the current approaches and response to the crisis [as] the existing approach just isn’t sufficient”.
One of the few tangible outcomes of the WHS was a commitment to expand funding for localised efforts and streamline the donor-aid agency relationship through a “Grand Bargain” between donors and aid agencies.
IRIN, an independent news agency specialising in the humanitarian sector, was sceptical of those involved in the WHS’s attempts to change the fundamental “architecture” of the global aid system. IRIN argued that such grandiose statements are symptomatic of the lack of binding accountability from nation states, donors and aid agencies involved in the summit, adding to concerns that the summit represents intent rather than an action plan for change.
Some outcomes of the summit were a commitment to improving access to aid for people with disabilities, to promoting the security of women and children in conflict zones, and the acknowledgement of the central role of the media in crisis situations.
These are positive steps in establishing a critical global discussion about humanitarian aid and indicate a push to protect those most vulnerable in crisis settings. However, these commitments are not binding and it remains to be seen how well they will be implemented.
Moreover, the commitment to media freedom highlights one of the greater ironies of the summit. It was held in Istanbul amidst ongoing and ever increasing efforts to repress the media and intimidate journalists, seen most recently in the cases against the editors of Cumhurriyet and journalist Arzu Yıldız.
The summit’s timing was also notable, occurring just a few days after the AKP-dominated Turkish parliament voted for the lifting of MPs immunities, which has been largely understood as an effort to undermine the pro-Kurdish HDP and further erode Turkish democracy.
Considering how President Erdoğan continues to use the refugee crisis as a bargaining tool in his negotiations with the EU, the high-level conversations of the WHS seem hollowed out by political agendas and systematic inertia.
As Oxfam India tweeted after the close of the summit, “#WorldHumanitarianSummit only effective if world leaders don’t dodge it.” Non-binding in its attendance as well as its outcomes then, it seems MSF’s early scepticism was warranted and the commitments made during WHS may soon be eclipsed by the magnitude of regional crises.