Istanbul is a city living under the shadow of the war in neighbouring Syria. A bomb blast in the heart of the historic tourist centre earlier this year killed several people including foreign visitors, causing the tourist dollar, which many rely on, to evaporate. Locals allege the Assad regime was behind the terrorist attack in retaliation for Turkey's support for anti-Assad forces.
Locals claim an influx of Syrian refugees has undercut local wages, driving resentment and exacerbating economic malaise. Young men are drafted into military service to fight the separatist Kurdish PKK or hold the line on the border with Syria, and then released, embittered and psychologically scarred by the death of friends and family.
Against this troubled backdrop, 10,000 delegates descended for the World Humanitarian Summit earlier this week. The Summit (held, paradoxically, in a subterranean convention complex buffered by rings of police, secret service with helicopters overhead) aimed high, to climb lofty peaks. Where it landed though was somewhere in the foothills.
The question at the heart of the Summit was how to revitalise and restore a failing international humanitarian system. The answers to this big question were either negative or positive in proportion to the degree of expectation the participants invested.
The sheer scale of the Syrian refugee crisis and other complex disasters globally – 60 million people displaced, and rising, coupled with an inexorable rise in climate-induced disasters – means the aid response is woefully inadequate to meet the scale of need.
The humanitarian system, created at the end of World War II and comprising five or so large donors, a cluster of UN agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross and half a dozen international non-government organisations (INGOs), is sclerotic. Increasingly professional and rarefied, with principles that are being openly flouted by states, it is unable to meet demand and apparently unable to reform itself. What is to be done?
The common view at the Summit was treatment is required, but there was divergence on the cure.
Antono Donini from the Feinstein Institute, a guru and sometime stirrer, argued persuasively that there were no humanitarian solutions to the crisis because the causes were political and lay with states. The humanitarian system was a buffer to the failure of states, he argued. Looking to states to fix the problem was to look in vain: 'You cannot dismantle the master's house using the master's tools,' he intoned. Better to build coalitions and garner public support to force politicians to change, he claimed.
But change what, and where to begin? At this point, as conference participants dropped down from the paralysing macro analysis to the mezzo and micro solutions, presenting a bewildering array of fascinating ideas and initiatives, as well as compelling advocacy prescriptions. This was where the real richness of the humanitarian endeavour was to be found, and was the major success of the Summit.
'Localisation' was all the rage, with the Network for Empowered Aid Response (NEAR) being launched by 20 southern INGOs. Driven by a sense of disempowerment and injustice arising from decades of lousy engagements with the 'system' of donors and northern INGOs, who purport to support but override and bypass Southern actors, the network claimed they were not getting mad but hoping to get even. 'Don't give us more capacity building in humanitarian response standards, give us 10 percent overheads to build our organisations in the same way as INGOs have grown fat over decades,' they demanded.
Backed by Gates and Rockefeller Foundations, NEAR is exploring new funding instruments that allow pooled donor funding. Their powerful call to donors to work directly with the South left INGOs forlornly claiming they were local because 'all their staff were nationals', or rather more defensively arguing that it wasn't about North and South but the outcomes.
A variety of new 'instruments' were presented. Insurance policies being trialed by the World Food Program in Africa promised to have states divert some resources into preparation instead of putting all into response, by buying premiums against disasters such as drought. Insurance risk assessment would be better able to predict the local impact of incipient disasters, and pre-payments can be made to help authorities respond early before the disaster became a crisis. The point was made that states needed to pay premiums over years as opposed to one-offs, and the prospected of multilateral donors augmenting and building state contributions generated interest with Government delegates.
Of the Sustainable Development Goals however, there was nary a sighting. Reflecting the decades-old separation of humanitarianism from development, and a wariness about being expansive in embracing new agendas, my colleague captured the humanitarians' mood, opining 'there's a reason you build silos: it keeps the (humanitarian) grain in'.
Away from the engaging side seminars, the formal sessions ground on in traditional UN format: behind time, full of short, monotone statements by state leaders and other actors. The wordsmithing skills of the hardworking team of DFAT officials was on display as Australia's Minister for Development, Concetta Fierravanti Wells, set a record for how many initiatives one could commit to in the minutes allotted to her in the plenary session. Caught in caretaker mode by the Australian election, no cash promises were made.
The official solution to what ails the humanitarian system, offered by UN humanitarian head and former UK politician Stephen O'Brien, were 'commitments' where states and humanitarian actors such as INGOs would all publicly pledge to improve and reform. Hundreds of commitments were made and covered important areas such as disability, for example. But the fact remains, no adequate mechanism to monitor the promises made, let alone hold anybody to account, was agreed at the Summit.
The Holy Grail of all the commitments made was to be the 'Grand Bargain' whereby states would increase funding in return for greater efficiency and effectiveness by humanitarian responders in the UN and INGOs.
The Bargain was already looking challenged, however, by the much reported absence of heads of G7 states beyond Germany's Angela Merkel. The Grand Bargain's high-powered session, featuring UNDP Administrator Helen Clark, UK Development Minister Justine Greening and 10 others, was startling for its lack of Asian participants and only one eloquent African from the International Committee for the Red Cross. Underscoring the Euro-centric/Anglosphere love-in audience, question time was led by state members from Denmark, Luxembourg, Sweden and others getting up to approve of the speakers' statements. If the Grand Bargain couldn't muster China, India or Indonesia to its plenary sales pitch, then it looks rather like the post-World-War-II humanitarian order will roll on, arthritis and all.
Except that it won't. Increasingly, it is being observed that new players like China, who delivered a huge but under-reported response to the earthquake in Nepal, will be responding on their own terms. What does this mean for the sanctity of 'humanitarian principles'? Well for Antonio Donini it marked the emergency of a 'pluri-versalist' humanitarian system: different folks, different strokes. Don't expect that new players are going to sign up to the old player's rules. A period of co-existence was predicted.
So at the end of the two days of the World Humanitarian Summit, I certainly feel more 'committed' to the humanitarian endeavour, alert to new ideas and improvements, and have immense respect for the ability of humanitarian responders. And the promise of a 'Grand Bargain' fixing the humanitarian system? Well, it is a bit like all advertising: caveat emptor.
Photo by Flickr user Pablo Cuneo.