The World Humanitarian Summit’s Uncertain Outcome

The first-ever World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) concluded on 24 May in Istanbul, with more than 1,500 commitments coming out of a staggering number of panel discussions, closed-door roundtables and impromptu announcements. The two-day event proved to be an impressive logistical challenge, with more than 9,000 stakeholders attending the meeting, including the vast majority of UN member states, as well as representatives of United Nations (UN) agencies, and organizations from civil society, philanthropic, private, academic and research sectors. Prior to the Summit, certain organizations registered serious doubt over what the organizers could achieve. Of 173 countries attending the WHS, only 55 were represented at the Head of State or Government level.

The Summit seemed to achieve success on certain key goals. As expected, “localization” figured as a priority during the Summit. One of the most concrete outcomes of the two-day event was the Grand Bargain, a package of reforms on humanitarian funding that 30 top donors and aid agencies signed to express their commitment to work together and increase financial transparency and efficiency. The WHS also saw the launch of NEAR (Network for Empowered Aid Response), the first-ever global network of southern NGOs, and also of Charter4Change, a commitment to enhance the locally-led response by funding national and local humanitarian actors.

Another notable highlight was the United Nations Children’s Fund’s (UNICEF), launch during the Summit of the “Education Cannot Wait” fund which aims to coordinate support for education of more than 75 million children and youth living in crisis situations by 2030. A new Charter which commits signatories not to discriminate against people with disabilities during humanitarian emergencies, attracted the support of nearly 100 governments, humanitarian organizations, funding bodies and non-profit organizations.

Furthermore, the Summit represented a major step forward also for fragile states, with the launch of the Global Preparedness Partnership, a V20, United Nations and World Bank collaborative effort. The project aims to prepare vulnerable countries and communities better prevent humanitarian crises, address disasters in future, and minimize the impact of disasters on development.

Significantly, the leaders of the wealthier and more powerful countries, including President Obama, stayed away from the WHS: German Chancellor Angela Merkel was the only leader of a G7 state to attend. The WHS was convened without prior agreement among member States over many key agenda items.

Although UN Secretary-General released a report to guide discussion and action prior and during the Summit, the agenda was perhaps too wide and too unfocussed. This was perhaps one reason why member States failed to express their clear commitment to concrete policy goals. The absence of the more powerful world leaders also showed a lack of commitment.

Despite these shortcomings, the WHS turned out better than many critics seem to have expected. The Summit could be considered as an opening door for the 71st session of the UNGA in September where world leaders will convene for intergovernmental negotiations. However, the outcomes the WHS produced are mixed. There is still a need for a roadmap and a framework of accountability for what comes next in order to enable all actors to respond effectively to the humanitarian plight of millions. The Summit offers hope for improving the humanitarian system, but it was by no means a breakthrough, especially considering a certain lack of vigor displayed by key players. Recognizing that the Summit exceeded expectations, the international community now needs to ensure that the commitments coming out of this Summit are taken seriously.


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