May 24, 2016, by Editor

World Humanitarian Summit- a new way of solving the old problem?

Written by May Tan-Mullins.

I am not a fan of big summits and conferences. I find it a waste of time and money, which could be better used to help the world’s poor, sick, hungry and insecure. However, big summits are becoming a necessity in today’s globalized world, to harness global leaders and institutions, to identify and prioritise issues, and to agree on big solutions to solve these problems.  The recent success of the Conference of Parties (COP) 21 in Paris left many people euphoric. However, the World Humanitarian Summit currently taking place in Istanbul Turkey seems to embark on a different trajectory.  

Held aptly at the centre-stage of a huge migrant crisis, at a time when 125 million people globally are in desperate need of humanitarian support, this summit is timely and should be basking in positive limelight. It aims to reform the ways in which humanitarian crises are managed in today’s world. Identifying the following action points, the summit hopes to restructure the ways aid is distributed and governed, and look at how responses could be coordinated in events of war, natural disaster, and refugee crises. A set of concrete actions and commitments to better prepare and cope with crises hopefully will be inked by the attending 175 leaders at the end of the summit. The seven action points are:

  1. Prevent and end conflicts
  2. Respect rules of war
  3. Leave no one behind
  4. Catalysing action for gender equality
  5. Respond to disaster and climate change
  6. Working differently to end need
  7. Invest in Humanity

However, criticisms of the summit have been mounting. Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) called it a ‘figleaf of good intentions’ and pulled out of the event. Oxfam GB said it is an‘expensive talking shop’ photo opportunity and John Norris from Foreign Policy naming the summit as ‘a total mess’ and train wrecked – all pretty strong words from  practitioners and observers/ academics. I am not surprised by MSF’s move, especially when 75 of the hospitals they have operated in the war zones were bombed by countries who are attending this summit, such as Russia and the United States. The idea thatbombing a hospital due to an error is an acceptable consequence of war is all wrong. Tell that to any injured or family members of the victims and they will tear you apart.

Many of these criticisms came as a result of the way the summit is organized, without an agenda but as a platform to hear the ‘voices’ of different stakeholders. It also came from the acknowledgement that ‘there is no humanitarian solution to humanitarian problems’and political resolutions are at the forefront of discussion. As such, it is a diversion from the traditional way of doing things, away from agenda-setting and sugar-coating the root issues, towards transparency and democracy.  As a result the summit seemed disorganized and lacks focus. The issues tabled for discussion ranged from equitable funding, the role of local NGOs, reaffirmation of ‘humanitarian principles’ and prioritizing political solutions. This represents a shambolic collection of concerns and indicate a cohesive outcome and agreement from the summit might not be possible.

But now let’s just move away from the frivolous bickering of the process and to the real issue- the humanitarian crises happening under our watch in many parts of today’s world. Many of the discussion points at the summit are not breaking news, such as Internally Displaced People (IDP), gender equality, conflict resolutions and respect for international humanitarian laws. Inequitable distribution and governance of aid, lack of coordinated response to post-disaster events and poverty alleviation further add to the long list that falls within the humanitarian remit. Some 60 million people are refugees or displaced, due to unresolved national and international conflicts.  The reasons why these problems are still prevalent today is because we have not done a good job addressing the root issues, such as poverty, lack of livelihood and food security. Political solutions seem to be the way forward but nation-state priorities are inevitably national interests.

Take the refugee crises for example, it has exploded beyond a manageable scale due to conflicts in the Africa and Middle East regions, and the situation will only become worse with no resolution in places such as Syria and Iraq. The ISIS further pushes people out with their inhumane rule. Global powers such as the EU have not managed the crisis well by negotiating deals with regimes with poor human rights records to rehouse and rehabilitate the migrants. Keeping the problem out of their backyard helps in the short run but the sustainability of these solutions is compromised by a lack of adequate long-term resources and stable governance. How do we get out of this mess? I don’t have an answer here and now- and if I do I would be tweeted from the summit as a keynote speaker.

However, what is more important here is the process and the congregation of the different stakeholders. The Summit is celebrated for having voices from various actors. Coming together, having a voice, discussing the issues and being heard is a good start towards a globally agreed solution. Nevertheless, after all the pompous talk, the different stakeholders will return to their respective workstations and resume their humanitarian work. The main bulk of the responsibilities will still fall to governments, especially those who refused to move forward with political solutions in conflict zones, those who are reluctant to provide needed assistance and those who received the help but misappropriated it for further political and personal gains.  In order to get out of this mess, we as an international community need to harness whatever we have, even the summit as a wreck train postulated by John Norris, to put pressure on those reluctant and rogue states. It is only by coming together at a formal platform as a collective force, will we be able to move forward in resolving global humanitarian crises.

May Tan-Mullins is a Professor of International Relations in the School of International Studies, University of Nottingham, Ningbo China. She is Co-investigator of the ESRC/DFID funded project ‘Poverty Alleviation in the Wake of Typhoon Yolanda’. You can follow this project on Facebook as Project_Yolanda and Twitter @Project_Yolanda. Image credit: OCHA/Ivo Brandau

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