If governments don’t tackle the causes of conflict and the refugee crisis, will the World Humanitarian Summit be a damp squib?

Ed CairnsEd Cairns Oxfam’s humanitarian policy adviser, sets the scene for next month’s World Humanitarian Summit as we publish our curtain raiser for the event.

After years of preparation, and a roller coaster of expectations plunging and soaring, it is almost upon us. One month from tomorrow, dozens of world leaders will gather in Istanbul for the World Humanitarian Summit. The UN has finalised the commitments it hopes world leaders will agree, and NGOs and think tanks have been busy offering their views.

One of the most challenging came from the Humanitarian Policy Group at ODI, whose Time to let go says that ‘the humanitarian system is simply not doing a good job in the eyes of the people it aims to help.’ While accepting that humanitarian agencies are ‘caring for more wounded and more hungry people in more places than was conceivable even a generation ago,’ it judges years of humanitarian reforms as ‘rearranging the deck chairs’ rather than tackling the ‘fundamental assumptions, power dynamics and incentives’ that deny affected people and local organisations influence over the workings of humanitarian aid.

WHS 2Oxfam came to similar conclusions in last year’s Turning the Humanitarian System on its Head, calling for greater support for local NGOs. Over a hundred NGOs, including Oxfam, have endorsed the Charter for Change ahead of the Summit, which commits them to, for example, pass 20% of their humanitarian funding to local and national NGOs by May 2018. In fact, Oxfam has promised to hit a target of 30% by that date.

But I think the ODI report falls short, failing to draw all the logical conclusions from its analysis. It argues that it’s the starkly unequal power dynamic between affected people, local and international organisations, and donors that’s at the heart of the problem, and that previous humanitarian reforms have done nothing to change that. True.

But it also argues that humanitarian crises are more frequent and affect more people because of a host of human factors from climate change to the conduct of conflicts. ‘Civilian suffering in conflicts in Syria, South Sudan and Yemen,’ it says, ‘is a sobering reminder of the international community’s failure to translate legal obligations around the conduct of war into tangible benefits for civilians.’ In other words, political choices cause humanitarian crises and the human suffering in them.

Time to let go offers no solution to that, and like much of the debate ahead of the Summit, puts the emphasis on changing the ‘humanitarian system’, rather than changing the policies and politics that are driving up humanitarian needs in the first place.  Simon Maxwell wrote last month that a great risk at the Summit is that political issues, such as the causes and conduct of conflict, would ‘overload the humanitarian system with responsibilities that it cannot, indeed should not, assume.’ But I suspect the two greatest risks are very different.

The first is that governments, UN agencies and NGOs turn up and make broad statements rather than practical WHS 1commitments to change – or that some heads of state or government don’t even turn up. The second is that the only major progress is around the ‘Grand Bargain’ proposed by the UN Secretary-Genera’s High Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing in January, whereby donors and aid agencies collaborate to increase multi-year funding, reduce duplication, and improve financial transparency. That is vital but somehow misses the big picture.

The World Humanitarian Summit will take place not only in the shadow of Syria’s terrible conflict and the greatest refugee crisis of our age – but weeks after its host, Turkey, and the EU struck a refugee deal that may trade human beings for political concessions. If anyone ever doubted that politics drives humanitarian crises, they know now.

The Summit will also take place in a world in which warring parties kill civilians without consequence, in which El Niño highlights yet again the rising tide of disasters affected by climate change, and in which most governments do everything possible to keep the world’s displaced people from their doors. Even the most generous donors are becoming less humanitarian about welcoming refugees. Only three countries – Canada, Germany and Norway – have met their ‘fair share’ towards Syria’s crisis in terms of both aid and resettling its refugees.

If the World Humanitarian Summit does not begin to address that, that truly would be a failure. That’s why Oxfam is publishing a rather unusual paper today, Commitment to Change, which not only sets out our own commitments to change, but our calls to world leaders to make commitments themselves.

For it is governments that must commit to tackle the toll of civilian death and displacement as warring parties violate International Humanitarian Law – and too many governments around the world, in effect, permit them to do so through their continued military support, including the transfer of arms.

WHS logoAnd it is governments that must take a fair share of the responsibility for the world’s most vulnerable people, which, for almost all wealthy countries, means welcoming far more refugees than they have – and far greater international support to host countries who themselves must do more to give refugees a future with dignity, livelihoods and education.

In some ways, those are all part of far longer struggles. Almost 70 years since the 1949 Geneva Conventions, the struggle to ensure respect for International Humanitarian Law goes on. More than 60 years since the 1951 Refugee Convention, the struggle to uphold it is more vital than ever.

We should not expect the World Humanitarian Summit to switch on a new world in which international law is strenuously upheld. But it would equally be wrong to think that nothing can change. Governments see the unsustainable cost of the rising tide of disasters. They see the destabilising contagion of conflicts that drive millions of people from their homes. They, well some of them at least, see the political cost of failing to help resolve the world’s crises. And – I hope – they see the World Humanitarian Summit for what it is: a chance to make the strongest possible commitments to make the profound, tangible changes that are so vitally needed.

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3 Responses to “If governments don’t tackle the causes of conflict and the refugee crisis, will the World Humanitarian Summit be a damp squib?”
  1. Loukas Petridis

    Ed, thank you for these thoughts and your pragmatic approach. I actually think that you are too kind with the ODI report, which often uses deeply flawed assumptions and confused argumentation. As a principle, partnerships with community-based organizations should indeed be encouraged; however, recommendations regarding interaction with the security establishment, authorities that have often different agendas and religious groups sound astonishingly naive. The analysis on issues such as the humanitarian principles is fragmentary and problematic – if not dangerous, as MSF already pointed out. The report’s few logical conclusions and propositions are lost in a mix of usual clichés (the arrogant western and the poor victim we don’t want to listen to). Looking at what’s going on today in places like South Sudan, Yemen or the Lake Chad, the ODI narrative seems seriously disconnected with the most basic field realities.

  2. Sam

    I agree fully.

    The current major humanitarian crisis is because governments kill and terrorise their own people without impunity. This is not something the humanitarian system can and should be responsible for.

    This unprecedented crisis of crime of only a few powerful against the weak, is now seen as a means to call for wider reform, namely depending on the side you are on, more money, more money for me, or more money for my client.

    The ever bigger crisis make believe there will be evermore needs for reform. Where the new standard is always unprecedented.

    It is time that criminal leaders are brought to book (how?), and disaster preparedness and disaster prevention gets sufficient attention. Both are core tasks of any responsive government, not of the humanitarian system.

  3. Christina Bennett

    Many thanks Ed for prompting this interesting debate.

    You rightfully point out that the causes of crises and their consequences must be laid at the feet of those who make those political choices to start and perpetuate war. And that the World Humanitarian Summit should, at every turn, remind states of their responsibility in ending crisis and ending need. But the role of politics in crisis should not distract from the need for the reform of a system that is outmoded and ineffective. And any hand-wringing over the lack of political will should not constitute taking action by humanitarian organisations – at the WHS and beyond – when these organisations too have a responsibility to fundamentally change the way they operate to make humanitarian action effective.

    Also, Time to Let Go does not say, as Loukas asserts, that humanitarians should naively embrace the motivations and practices of anyone wishing to tout the ‘humanitarian’ label. On the contrary, the report argues for a more honest use of humanitarian principles when and where they matter and by organisations that can uphold them. Trotting out humanitarian principles by aid organisations as and when it is convenient (while not consistently living up to them) has been shown to diminish the overall value of the principles and further discredit humanitarian organisations and humanitarian action in the eyes of warring parties. The most basic field realities in Syria, in Yemen, in Somalia are testaments to that.

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