CONVENED in response to the highest level of human suffering since the Second World War, but criticised within the aid sector as a “fig leaf of good intentions”, the World Humanitarian Summit gathered this week in Istanbul.
Aid agencies gave mixed verdicts on what had been achieved as it ended on Tuesday. The executive director of Oxfam International, Winnie Byanyima, said that world leaders — most of whom did not attend — had “dodged their responsibility to protect civilians from the ongoing suffering of wars and natural disasters”.
Médecins Sans Frontières, which pulled out of the gathering earlier this month, warned that the summit “neglects to reinforce the obligations of states to uphold and implement the humanitarian and refugee laws which they have signed up to”. It had become “a fig-leaf of good intentions, allowing these systematic violations — by states, above all — to be ignored”.
Speaking from Istanbul on Tuesday, World Vision’s humanitarian grants technical director, Julian Srodecki, defended the summit. He pointed to the “grand bargain”, signed, after 18 months of preparation, by 21 donors, including the UK government and 16 humanitarian organisations.
Designed to “get more means into the hands of people in need”, the agreement includes commitments to: channel 25 per cent of financing to national and local bodies “as directly as possible” by 2025; improve the use of cash assistance and multi-year funding; reduce the amount of funds that are “earmarked” for particular crises; and to establish greater transparency about where funding goes. It seeks to make $1 billion in efficiency savings over the next five years.
Mr Srodecki pointed, too, to the launch of the fund “Education Cannot Wait”, which seeks to provide 13.6 million children and young people with education over the next five years. The UK government has pledged £30 million over the next two years.
While admitting that “the problems of the humanitarian system are never going to be solved in a two day summit”, Mr Srodecki said that it had brought together experts to work on “big intractable problems”, and that “the kind of political leadership that can move us forward is given a shot in the arm by this kind of event”.
Funding was growing, he said, but was being outstripped by an “unprecedented” level of demand. Hope could be found in new forms of financing, including an “increased emphasis on Islamic financing”. He spoke of estimates that suggested that up to 70 per cent of refugees were Muslims, and of the “more faith-based approach” of Middle Eastern donors, who were becoming “more significant”, for example in responding to the Syrian crisis. “There is a growing understanding that, for effective communities, faith can be a positive element of fully rounded humanitarian response.”
A discussion on “evidence for religious groups’ contributions to humanitarian response” was held on Monday at the summit. Greater localisation was requested by the ACT Alliance, which includes several Anglican churches and ecumenical aid agencies, including Christian Aid. Currently, just 0.2 per cent of international humanitarian funding is given to national and local NGOs.
“Too often, Western donors, whether they’re governments or NGOs, hold all the cards, and are reluctant to make use of the local skills and knowledge available on the ground,” the head of humanitarian policy at Christian Aid, Michael Mosselmans, said.
Christian Aid later welcomed the “grand bargain” agreement to pledge 25 per cent of humanitarian funding to the front line of disaster relief as a “significant step forward” but warned that the participating donors and NGOs must be held accountable between now and 2020.
Mr Mosselmans said on Wednesday that agreement is a “big deal” and “recognition that the world needs to put more power into the hands of those communities affected by humanitarian disasters.”
He went on: “Government pledges will translate to the UN General Assembly in September but keeping track of the other commitments will be more difficult. At the very least we need the UN General Assembly resolution to lay out the concrete steps showing progress between now and the stock taking in 2020.
“As humanitarian policies and practices are developed following the summit it’s vital that the different impacts on women, men, boys and girls, are more fully addressed.”
Also present in Istanbul was the inter-faith adviser of the diocese of St Albans, the Revd Bonnie Evans-Hill. The gathering was "absolutely worthwhile," she said on Wednesday. It was a chance to make commitments, and to "change the focus. Humanitarian aid has been seen as short-term but now we are looking longer-term. . . We need to change how we develop our strategies and that is something that faith communities can contribute to, through local connections on the ground, and a specificity of culture that enables aid to be better distributed."
She had been particularly struck by what she had heard about young people and women, two groups that were "highly vulnerable" to violence, exploitation and trafficking. The "incredibly powerful" stories of young Syrian refugees should be more widely heard, she said. "Two really big focuses that came out of the summit were the importance of the inclusion of women and young people at the centre of any action that is taken, and the importance of including human rights law in humanitarian assistance."
While faith groups faced challenges in these areas, they could also make "positive contributions". Baptisms were an opportunity to distribute birth certificates, for example. Faith groups also had an "important responsibility to help build a vision of shared humanity, and in many ways we could consider it a theological challenge as well."
The summit was convened by the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, in response to the fact that the number of people who need humanitarian assistance to survive has reached a record high of 130 million. In a report to the summit, he set out a litany of crises and failings, including 11 civil wars, 60 million displaced people, and “considerable frustration with the international aid architecture”, which was seen as “outdated and resistant to change, fragmented and uncommitted to working collaboratively, and too dominated by the interests and funding of a few countries”.