The World Humanitarian Summit: What to Expect?

On 23 – 24 May, the United Nations Secretary-General (SG) Ban Ki-moon will convene the first ever World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) in Istanbul, Turkey. The WHS seeks to secure commitments from governments, humanitarian organizations, people affected by humanitarian crises, civil society and the private sector, to propose solutions to the most pressing challenges concerning humanitarian assistance. Restructuring of the field is desperately needed. The Summit presents a real opportunity to create the necessary momentum for change, yet its challenges are daunting.

The Summit comes at a critical time. Major natural disasters continue to be a significant cause of death and displacement, while numerous armed conflicts leave civilians paying the highest price. Today, 125 million people desperately need humanitarian assistance, and the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide has almost doubled in just a decade, reaching to date almost 60 million people. These numbers certainly stand as a testament to the human suffering caused by the growing number of humanitarian crises and the inability of the international community to tackle them.

Anticipation and expectations are high for the Summit. The international community has a historic chance to come together and reshape the way humanitarian aid is delivered and conceptualized. Yet, legitimate concerns have been raised on the effectiveness and vision adopted by the organizers. A large portion of the Summit focuses on prevention and abolishing the need for humanitarian assistance, and less attention is given to the actual assistance during humanitarian crises and its funding. Unlike the Sustainable Development Goals or COP climate change conferences, which at the time of the meeting had already produced major agreements through previous intergovernmental negotiations, wider reform of the humanitarian system seems to be off the table at the Summit. It remains unclear if or how the WHS will form the starting point for such negotiations and as such, many fear it will become another forum where well-meaning aspirations and promises change very little.

Several key stakeholders are critical of the Summit. The international medical organization, Médecins Sans Frontières has announced its intention to withdraw from the Summit describing the meeting as a “fig-leaf of good intentions” to cover systematic violations by states. Furthermore, instead of representation at the highest level, the Russian Summit delegation will be led at the level of Deputy Minister of Emergency Situations, Vladimir Artamonov. The Russian Federation argues the agenda of the Summit has left the views of UN member states “on the sidewalk.”

The Summit’s agenda addresses a wide variety of issues, including gender, religious engagement, protection of journalists, migration, disability issues, youth and education. This diffusion is the consequence of an unusual agenda-setting process. The WHS is the outcome of three years of consultations, covering 23,000 interviewees in 153 countries. Issues could be raised during these consultations or via an online messaging system. Such an innovative approach indicates that the United Nations is experimenting with “opening up the humanitarian sector to a much wider group of actors, and leading an inclusive process.” While these steps towards inclusivity certainly deserve to be applauded, it should not mean the loss of coherency and focus. Casting such a wide net during the WHS might result in a process without real punching power.

It remains to be seen what this diffusion means for the WHS’ outcomes. Decisions and commitments made during the event are non-binding. Therefore pledges made will merely start a process to improve the humanitarian system. To date, the implementation and monitoring process lacks a blueprint. For the Summit to succeed, participants will have to enforce their commitments to long-lasting solutions and take their responsibility to humanity seriously. Otherwise the Summit will fail to deliver on its promise, and millions of people in need of humanitarian assistance will remain at the mercy of an outdated system.

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