Coauthored with Theresa Lou, research associate in the International Institutions and Global Governance program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The first-ever World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) concluded this week in Istanbul with mixed results. Although a few significant initiatives emerged, including on financing and education, the summit made little headway on other urgent priorities. These include mobilizing a new crop of humanitarian donors, ensuring compliance with the 1951 Refugee Convention, and getting states to uphold international humanitarian law, including the safety of relief workers. Progress on these fronts will await the opening of the seventy-first session of the UN General Assembly in September, when world leaders convene for real intergovernmental negotiations. The Istanbul summit was merely the first step in mobilizing global attention and political will on the need to rescue a world in flight.
The most pleasant surprise was a Grand Bargain between donor countries and aid organizations to get more assistance directly in the hands of local humanitarian organizations. Today, the vast majority of emergency aid is channeled through international agencies and service providers, with the six largest UN agencies managing nearly 50 percent of that aid. By contrast, national and local humanitarian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) receive only a pittance—perhaps 0.2 percent. Under the new arrangement international actors pledged to increase the share going directly to local on-the-ground NGOs to 25 percent by 2020, reducing bureaucratic inefficiencies and saving an anticipated billion dollars over the next five years. They also agreed to provide more aid to beneficiaries in the form of cash rather than vouchers, which aid experts say provide more bang for the buck. By endorsing this agreement, donors and aid organizations are committing to work together to increase financial transparency and efficiency.
In another bright spot, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) launched the “Education Cannot Wait” fund to better coordinate support for education for children affected by the protracted crises. The UNICEF initiative responds to a bleak reality: Children now comprise more than half of the global refugee population, and their displacement risks contributing to “lost generations” of uneducated school-age children from Syria to Yemen, Mali to Somalia. Donors in Istanbul made an initial down payment of $90 million, but the real money is yet to come.
Finally, the WHS also launched the Global Preparedness Partnership, as well as the World Bank-sponsored Global Financing Response Platform. These aim (respectively) to prepare fragile states against future shocks and promote their economic resilience. These initiatives reflect a lesson of experience: Tomorrow’s flows of refugees and internally displaced persons are most likely to emerge from today’s stock of poorly governed, conflict-prone developing countries. Protecting these vulnerable nations from sudden-onset crises, whether natural or man-made, is central to preventing displacement. Both initiatives seek to employ longer-term development assistance in a fashion that reduces the likelihood of future humanitarian crises. They build on another financing initiative launched jointly last October by the World Bank, the United Nations, and the Islamic Development Bank Group to meet the financial needs of Middle East and North African countries coping with the costs of housing millions of refugees.
But that is, unfortunately, where the good news ends. Despite acknowledging that “humanitarian action cannot be a substitute for political action,” participants did little more than reaffirm the importance of political will in preventing and resolving conflicts and the need to uphold international humanitarian law. Weeks before the summit commenced, the prominent NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF or Doctors Without Borders) announced that it would not be participating, precisely because it did not believe member states would be held accountable for their repeated violations of humanitarian principles.
Two main factors limited progress in Istanbul: First, this was essentially a UN-run show, rather than an actual intergovernmental summit. Indeed, world leaders were conspicuously absent, with only fifty-five heads of state or government in attendance. Among the Group of Seven (G7) leaders, only Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany chose to attend. The summit brought together thousands of participants from the private sector, civil society, and NGOs, but no-shows by President Barack Obama and other prominent leaders suggested that they did not take it seriously and were skeptical that it could deliver substantive change.
Second, the United Nations unwisely chose to hold this event without prior agreements among member states on critical agenda items. In the run-up to the event, the United Nations did conduct extensive consultations with governments, aid agencies, NGO service providers, and host governments. In February, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon released a report to guide discussion and action. Unfortunately, the summit agenda was too sprawling, and the United Nations failed to generate traction among member states for concrete policy decisions.
Luckily, the year is yet young. September will provide two more opportunities for breakthrough. First, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) will host a plenary meeting on refugees and migrants. Beyond building worldwide support for the various WHS commitments, this intergovernmental session provides an opportunity for UN member states to recommit themselves to the legally binding asylum principles under the 1951 Refugee Convention, which are under increasing threat, to judge from the EU-Turkey refugee deal and Kenya’s threat to close the Dadaab refugee camp (the world’s largest). In parallel, the UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council should pass new resolutions reaffirming international humanitarian law, which has been routinely violated in Syria and in other recent conflicts.
Second, President Obama intends to use his last UNGA appearance to host a more selective meeting of current and potential donors to the humanitarian enterprise, which continues to be dominated by a handful of countries, led by the United States. Modeled on the successful “pay to play” approach the president used at last September’s special session on UN peacekeeping, the U.S.-led meeting offers the best opportunity to generate new financial commitments from major emerging countries such as China and India, as well as Persian Gulf nations, to bridge an estimated $15 billion annual shortfall in humanitarian spending.