GLOBAL Concrete action at the World Humanitarian Summit

By Gareth Price-Jones, Senior Humanitarian Policy and Advocacy Coordinator, CARE International

Recently Stephen O’Brien, the UN’s Emergency Relief Chief, briefed UN Member States on the Road to Istanbul, outlining six priority areas for “concrete action” to make the World Humanitarian Summit a success. He said many of the right things (CARE are particularly delighted to see the transformative gendered approaches in his priority list), but there is a risk that the final summit will focus too much on tweaking the work of humanitarians, rather than calling for the kind of political action needed to reduce the current high demand for humanitarian assistance in the first place.

Disappointingly, O’Brien made no comment on the massive impact that the policy response to the refugee crisis is having on humanitarian action. Although the refugee crisis itself is eminently manageable in global terms – Turkey alone has been hosting twice as many refugees as all of Europe combined – the policy and media response to it is presenting a fundamental challenge to humanitarian action globally. It is unprecedented to see senior politicians in Europe and America calling for the abandonment of the fundamental principle of humanity, as one of the American Republican Party front runners, Jeb Bush, did when he proposed that humanitarian assistance should be based on a person’s religion rather than their needs. 

It is shocking to hear rumours that European governments, once traditionally champions of refugee rights due to their experience of post-World War II mass displacement, are now considering repudiating the 1951 refugee convention. This after accepting only a mere fraction of the displaced people that countries such as Iran, Ethiopia and Turkey host as a matter of course (1m, 780,000 and 1.9m respectively). Traditional champions of a far-sighted approach to aid such as Norway and Sweden have been making the crisis worse by redirecting sorely needed assistance to refugee services in their own countries, where it aids much smaller numbers while reducing the support to those who stay in their home regions – who tell us they are more likely to migrate themselves as a result.

By throwing into doubt the commitment of key donor states to refugee rights, humanitarian principles and sufficient funding for humanitarian aid, the refugee crisis has made the need for real impact from the Summit far more urgentthan it was even six months ago. The risks are enormous if we fail to make tangible progress on these critical issues, and the summit must address this. However, on the plus side, by creating a sense of urgency about the requirement to both meet needs and to manage vast flows of desperate people the crisis also offers an opportunity for the Summit itself to make much more of a difference. With the crisis and its causes top of political and media agendas globally, things can change.

What’s the deal?

A potential bargain between the humanitarian system and the world’s political leaders could consist of the kind of supply side changes that O’Brien outlined, coupled with a robust and meaningful political commitment to reduce thedemand for aid. Six months ago this would not have happened given that attention to humanitarian issues was just not on the political agenda. With the refugee crisis, and the security impacts that have been (inappropriately in our view) linked to it, the resources and political will may become available and we humanitarians should make every effort to make this happen – and hence ensure a tangible success from the Summit.  For success to be achieved, however, concrete commitments from both humanitarians and political leaders must be made in order for both to work in closer consort.

CARE believes that the commitments from humanitarians should include the following:

1. We all place people at the heart of humanitarian operations, ensuring they are treated with dignity. To achieve this we must better channel sufficient money and people directly to the first responders (local NGOs, INGOs, frontline UN agencies), so that they can consistently deliver the scale required and the best practices outlined in the Synthesis Report [1].

2. We ensure that the needs and rights of women and girls are realised, finally ensuring the appropriately gendered responses that are so sorely required [2].

3. UNHCR and its partners propose a Refugee Hosting Deal to enable effective, large scale support to refugees and the nations and communities that host them. In particular, such a deal will explicitly recognise that the vast majority of refugees are hosted in the Global South, and support those nations to meet refugee needs near to countries of origin whenever possible [3]. This would demonstrate that the Summit has relevance to the headline humanitarian issue that we see in our newspapers.

4. Humanitarian Country Team members work with host governments in all willing and able countries to create preparedness and response agreements. These will include context-specific national governance specifically designed to connect to the international response system when needed, ensuring that local capacity and systems are not undermined and that international support is effectively deployed and utilised [4]. Ethiopia is a current demonstration of this kind of partnership as they respond to their current El Nino drought.

5. Finally, Humanitarians will make commitments to supporting local civil society leadership, building on the dynamic localisation debate at the Geneva Global Consultations [5].

…and in return the politicians will commit to the following:

1. World Leaders will sign off on the refugee hosting deal outlined in 3 above, and publicly support it as a practical and affordable response by championing it to their populations and building popular support for it globally through solid communication strategies.  This would ideally include correcting general misperceptions about the cost of such a deal relative to other economic activities.

2. As O’Brien and the consultations have called for, we need States to take concerted political action to work with all parties to resolve conflicts, invest in disaster risk reduction (DRR) and address climate change. This may include more concerted and grounded diplomatic and other efforts to address individual conflicts and/or serious UN Security Council reform, perhaps along the lines of the French ‘No Veto in Humanitarian situations’ proposal. The political will for this could come from recognition that the security and sovereign interests of all states are served by rapid resolution of conflicts and serious action on DRR and Climate Change. The Sendai Framework, Paris agreement and the SDGs could all be part of the framing for this.

3. States must publicly and practically protect aid workers and reinforce humanitarian space – Delivering on recommendation 11 from the Synthesis Report. In practice this will mean publicly condemning all such attacks either by their own forces or by the forces of others, and ensure diplomatic and other penalties on states that do not take such attacks seriously. They will ensure anti-terror laws and financial controls have clear humanitarian exemptions that recognise the realities of our working environments. To make this work, the media will need to will hold them account for doing so.

4. Finally, States will provide more money in recognition of the good investment humanitarian aid represents. It’s an old saw, but globally we still spend more on chewing gum than on humanitarian aid [6]. CARE would like to see more states achieve the 0.7% target for international assistance, as many have repeatedly committed to doing. Recognising that the bulk of this goes to development assistance, even an increase to 0.1% of global GDP to humanitarian assistance would mean a quadrupling of current funding, and tackle the problem of consistently underfunded appeals. Longer term, more secure funding, perhaps through assessed contributions, would be useful, though we are less convinced about funnelling this increase through UN-led combined programs, and think value for money would be better assured through multiple approaches.

If the Summit could commence with an outline of a potential pact presented by the WHS Secretariat, clearly based on the recommendations of the Synthesis report, it could be genuinely discussed and developed in Istanbul by the political and humanitarian leaders present. Assuming a broad commitment, the details would need to be worked out by diplomats and humanitarians at subsequent Humanitarian Segments and UN General Assemblies, but the result has the potential to be genuinely transformative. We could achieve real change in the humanitarian system on how assistance is provided to the millions of people who need it, and real commitment to reducing the demand for aid on the political side. It’s a win-win for both humanitarians and political leaders, but only if they each commit to making a deal and sticking to it.

If that deal could be struck, this could be the concrete outcome that everyone is looking for.


[1] This would deliver on the first recommendation from the executive summary of the Synthesis Report (SR).
[2] This would fall under the Dignity heading outlined in the SR, and deliver on recommendation 3 from the SR.
[3] Delivering on recommendation 13 from the SR.
[4] Building on recommendations 16 and 17 from the SR combined.
[5] Delivering on recommendation 23 from the SR.
[6] $24.72 billion on gum versus $24.5 on humanitarian aid.