What should we expect from next year’s World Humanitarian Summit?

WHS logoThought all the big development-related summits were scheduled for 2015? Think again. Ed Cairns, Oxfam’s seniorEdCairns policy adviser on humanitarian advocacy, introduces its new report/shot across the bows of the World Humanitarian Summit, 2016.

Humanitarians tend to be practical people, and so when they learn lessons it’s usually from what has failed or succeeded in real crises. Take MSF’s challenge to the world’s ‘inefficient and slow aid system’ on the back of Ebola; or the new Core Humanitarian Standard which really is the culmination of twenty years of evaluations, reviews and soul-searching since the Rwandan refugee crisis in the mid-90s.

So when the UN Secretary-General decided to have a World Humanitarian Summit not learning lessons from any particular crisis, but to ‘make humanitarian action fit’ for the future, it was a bold step.

Oxfam Community Support Workers teach children in West Point, Mon-rovia how important it is to wash their hands to help prevent contracting Ebola, West Point, Monrovia, Liberia, December 2014. Photo:  Abbie Trayler-Smith/Oxfam
Oxfam Community Support Workers teach children in West Point, Mon-rovia how important it is to wash their hands to help prevent contracting Ebola, West Point, Monrovia, Liberia, December 2014. Photo: Abbie Trayler-Smith/Oxfam

How could it focus? What could it change? As Christian Aid neatly put it, how could the summit be worth the climb?

Well, we’re now half way through the UN’s ambitious, sprawling consultation process to the Summit in Istanbul in May 2016. We’re getting close to the deadline of 31 July for NGOs, governments and everyone else to post their thoughts before the team under the UN’s new Emergency Relief Coordinator, Stephen O’Brien, draws up the report that will shape what the Summit will actually discuss.

Today it is Oxfam’s turn, in a new report called For Human Dignity. Oxfam’s put out quite a lot of relevant stuff in the last few months – new reports on lessons from Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, Haiti’s devastating earthquake, and even the Indian Ocean tsunami ten years ago. Later this month, my esteemed opposite numbers in Oxfam America, Marc Cohen and Tara Gingerich are publishing their research on how much more international donors must do to support local humanitarian action at the grassroots. For Human Dignity tries to tie these different strands together, and set out some things that the World Humanitarian Summit could and should do.

The promise of swifter, more appropriate and more accountable aid must be kept – not only for disaster response, but also to invest more humanitarian and development aid in reducing the risk of future disasters, and in the long-term recovery from the world’s tragically long list of protracted crises. But it would be wrong for the World Humanitarian Summit to focus solely on how aid agencies and donors must change.

In the preparations for the Summit, millions of words have been written about how to make further administrative changes to international aid. But along the way, some simple truths seem to have been largely forgotten: that injustices, both global and national, lie at the heart of humanitarian crises. To the men, women and children struggling in humanitarian crises, a failed state is one that fails to fulfil its responsibility to ensure its citizens’ access to aid and protection. And to the men, women and children who have just survived this year’s typhoon, flood or other disaster, a failed world is one that allows climate change to overwhelm the world’s most vulnerable people.

One Summit cannot change everything, but the organizers of the World Humanitarian Summit will want to be able to

Oxfam's warehouse in Saada, Yemen after an airstrike in April 2015. Photo: Oxfam
Oxfam’s warehouse in Saada, Yemen after an airstrike in April 2015. Photo: Oxfam

point at its achievements. For Human Dignity sets out some tests of integrity and success. Here is a handful:

First, the Summit should demand that states are held to account for their international obligations on assistance and protection. Perhaps more than anything else, the Summit would justify its cost if it could really help rekindle outrage at the conflicts, atrocities and war crimes that drive so many humanitarian crises. A new UN Secretary-General will take office a few months after the Summit concludes. The Summit should call on her –hopefully it will be the first female SG – to lead a new international effort to expose the states that now so ruthlessly violate their citizens’ rights to assistance and protection.

Second, the Summit should embrace the idea of ‘subsidiarity’, in which local, national, regional and international humanitarian organisations all have vital roles to play, and in which they all support, wherever possible, the efforts of affected people themselves to cope and recover from crises. International agencies will remain vital; in some crises it’s an illusion to think that local organisations will be able to respond without international support for the foreseeable future. But overall donors should give far more to strengthen the capacity of local and national states and other bodies, such as NGOs to lead humanitarian action. The new Global Humanitarian Assistance report shows that the share of international humanitarian aid given directly to national and local NGOs had fallen to a derisory 0.2 percent in 2014. The time has come to put a figure – at least 10%, and others have argued passionately for more – to raise donor funding to anything near a reasonable level.

A woman and her child take shelter as a jet bombs the streets around her home in, Aleppo, Syria in 2012. Photo: Sam Tarling/Oxfam
A woman and her child take shelter as a jet bombs the streets around her home in, Aleppo, Syria in 2012. Photo: Sam Tarling/Oxfam

Third, there may be many ways to make humanitarian funding more efficient, and Ban Ki-moon has a High Level Panel coming up with ideas on that right now. But beyond everything else, there just needs to be more humanitarian aid – and we should be bolder and blunter about that. In 2013, the world spent $60 billion on ice cream, almost three times as much as on humanitarian aid. Yes, humanitarian aid is rising, but not as fast as climate change and conflicts are driving up the need for it. The UN should bring forward genuinely bold proposals to address this, perhaps with some form of assessed as well as voluntary contributions, a percentage of which could be dedicated to developing local capacity.

Fourth, national governments, funded through progressive taxation, should lead the way in reducing the vast economic and human cost from disasters. But international donors must do far more to support them. The promise to help countries build their resilience to future disasters has not been delivered, with still only a tiny fraction of aid devoted to Disaster Risk Reduction. The Summit should encourage international donors to contribute, by 2020, at least $5 billion of total global annual aid and to help countries vulnerable to disaster build their resilience and reduce the risk of future disasters.

To see our whole For Human Dignity paper, please click here.  And please join us in hoping that the Summit really will make some real difference for the millions of people struggling in humanitarian crises.

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