What we need from the Humanitarian Summit
By Stephen O’Brien
NEXT week (May23-24) at the first ever World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, leaders from governments, international agencies, the private sector and civil society will gather to announce their commitments to address some of the most critical challenges we face today.
The needs for the Summit are clear: conflicts that know no end causing untold suffering, mass displacement, and political and economic turmoil; flagrant violations of international humanitarian law; eye-watering levels of hunger and child malnutrition; more severe and more frequent natural disasters linked to climate change; and growing inequality that is cutting off millions from development progress.
The statistics are staggering: more than 130 million people need access to humanitarian assistance and protection and the numbers keep on rising. Over 40,8 million people are displaced within their own country as a result of conflict and violence and a further 20,2 million people have sought refuge in other countries. In 2015 alone, 19,2 million people were displaced due to natural disasters in 113 countries.
Prioritising the most vulnerable, the United Nations and our humanitarian partners are seeking almost US$21 billion to provide aid for 91 million people in 40 countries this year. Yet, almost half-way into the year, US$17 billion of that vital US$21 billion is still missing, denying our ability to assist people who in many cases have lost everything.
When UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit four years ago he recognized that the status quo cannot continue. The timing for such a gathering has never been more acute. World leaders must grapple with the reality of humanitarian needs spiraling out of control.
We now have this once in a generation opportunity to set in motion an ambitious agenda to change the way that we alleviate, and most importantly prevent, the suffering of the world’s most vulnerable people. To succeed, the Secretary-General in his “Agenda for Humanity” calls for commitments and actions that focus on catalysing change.
To transform the lives of millions of people, one of the most critical shifts we need to see at the Summit is to redirect the international spotlight onto conflict prevention and resolution. As a start, political leaders must harness their combined determination and responsibility in recognising that the only way we can reduce human suffering on such a protracted and massive scale is to do better to prevent and end conflict. This will require world leaders to significantly increase their investment in shoring up stability and giving proactive preventive diplomacy the primacy it deserves.
Leaders must also address violations of international humanitarian laws – laws that bind all States and non-state armed groups. In today’s conflict settings, international laws are violated with impunity: civilians killed in their homes and hospital beds or besieged to the point of starvation, and humanitarians and health care workers who try to help them targeted in illegal, often fatal, attacks.
The Summit must also bring life to the commitment leaders have already made as part of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, to leave no one behind and to start with those furthest behind first. We heed the call of crisis-affected people: they don’t just want to survive and be protected; they want a chance to have hope and to thrive. We need to find better ways once and for all, to reduce need and build resilience.
We must all commit to adopt a new way of working by forming inclusive partnerships with governments, civil society, development and humanitarian actors.
Finally, none of these – and many other – changes will be possible unless we find smarter ways to finance and mobilize resources to alleviate suffering and reduce vulnerability and address risk.
At the Summit of dozens of ambitious and realisable initiatives will be launched, attesting to the vibrancy and diversity of the humanitarian sector:
We will call on leaders to commit to halve the number of internally displaced people from 40 million in 2016 to 20 million by 2030.
We will call on leaders to support a new “Global Preparedness Partnership”, which aims to achieve a minimum level of readiness for natural disasters in 20 countries by 2020.
The Connecting Business initiative will be launched, aiming to transform private sector engagement in disaster risk reduction, emergency preparedness, response and recovery at the local, national and regional levels. There will also be new exciting partnerships on global health emergencies and urban crises.
Over the past few decades, humanitarians have improved every aspect of humanitarian response: stronger analysis; better cooperation; more local and national capacity; and higher operational standards. Yet we must not stop striving to improve, to become more effective and efficient at saving and protecting more lives.
As part of this determined drive, we will ask leaders across the humanitarian spectrum to sign on to a “Grand Bargain” between donors and agencies by redirecting one billion dollars in efficiency savings to the front-line of humanitarian action over the next five years. In signing up to this bargain, aid agencies agree to improve the efficiency and accountability of the money we spend.
For our part, my office will start by significantly streamline funding processes, lay greater stress on funding frontline local and national responders and champion the new way of working.
We recognise that these changes will not always be comfortable. They will involve disagreement and compromise. The Summit presents a historic, ground-breaking opportunity and it is our moral responsibility as leaders to take action – the cost of not doing so, is too high. Join us!
Stephen O’Brien is the United Nations under-secretary-general and emergency relief coordinator.