Did the Humanitarian Summit change anything?

I was planning to write a blog post about the Humanitarian Summit – held on 23-24th May in Istanbul – in the lead up to the actual event, but like so many half-hearted bloggers… I forgot. Now this probably doesn’t bode well for the Summit that I forgot to write about it, but I was thinking and talking about it a lot in the weeks leading up to it taking place. A few things happened in those weeks that made me think about the Summit and whether it was the pivotal moment of humanitarianism that it was hyped up to be.

Firstly, there was the dramatic withdrawal of MSF less than 20 days before the Summit. Now, most humanitarians are aware that MSF aren’t always the most collaborative of NGOs. In fact, during a conversation about the possibility of electronically tagging all aid workers for the sake of easier coordination, a friend and I likened MSF to the one rogue

Angy badger

MSF – the rogue angry badger in the crowd of other badgers (credit: freyafaulkner)

specimen who would – upon release into the wilds – immediately find a stick and prise off the tag, like an obstinate badger or a cat that refuses to wear its glittery collar. However, there is no denying the force of MSF’s voice; as a humanitarian agency they are fearless, they are at the front line and they hold firm to their principle of bearing witness to natural and man-made atrocities as well as responding to them. When they released their statement explaining they would not attend the summit whilst hospitals were being bombed and refugees turned away, there was a collective gasp across the humanitarian world. Their reasons? They did not believe the Summit would address fundamental weaknesses in the humanitarian system, and they did not believe the Summit would hold attending state leaders to their responsibilities to protect their own citizens.

Secondly, there were a series of reports and articles issued in the run up to the Summit with titles such as ‘remake the humanitarian system’ or ‘is the humanitarian system broken?’ calling for major changes to the system. Helpfully, the articles and papers took diametrically opposite views: One paper, ‘Time to Let Go’, released by ODI, sees the ‘formal system’ – the UN, INGOs, ICRC and IFRC – as self-interested and unwilling to diversify, echoing many of the sentiments rising in the lead up to the Summit that the humanitarian system is ‘broken’. Others, including ALNAP and Marc DuBois, claimed that ‘broken’ is an unhelpful label, claiming that placing responsibility for changing what is essentially the political way of the world and who holds the cash, should not have to be something that INGOs have sole responsibility for changing, and noting that the purpose of humanitarian action is ‘to fix the human being, not the system’.

It’s telling that the word most mentioned by participants – recorded by IRIN – for the Summit was ‘expectation’. What were we expecting? That the Summit would cure humanitarianism’s woes and bring forth a new era in which humanitarian and development actors drink tea under rainbows rather than scowling at each other over separated funding streams? That the Summit would influence the only G7 member in attendance – Angela Merkel – to get on the blower to Dave, Obama and her mate Vlad to say, ‘hey guys, this summit made me realise we’ve got to stop messing other people’s countries up and then not really caring what happens, apart from whether they still want to buy our guns’? Or that the same Angela Merkel would call up the different leaders of the EU to say, ‘hey guys, let’s cut refugees some slack, right? I know we’ve got our own issues, but hey, we’re kinda mixed up in causing theirs… you should have heard the chats I just had with Dave and Vlad!’?  Perhaps we should be expecting a bill for Angela Merkel’s phone calls (It makes me giggle childishly to think that Angela Merkel starts her conversations, ‘hey guys’, and maybe ends them with the high-pitched ‘byeeeeee!’ – the curse of all professional women).

The summary video on the Summit’s website looks a bit like a BBC attempt at mashing together a summary of a G7 Summit meeting, a UN conference and a United Colours of Benetton advert. If  there was a clip of Beyonce singing ‘I was here’, they would have nailed it, but instead they opted for some dubious actor types carrying what appear to be bin bags around a conference room. One interviewee notes that this is the moment to put together a plan to really do things differently; another says it’s their opportunity to speak to people face to face, not as a beneficiary but to be seen as mothers, sisters, brothers. I wonder how much time they had to address their concerns directly to one of the handful of world leaders who attended the conference… One says he hopes this time we would not only commit, but hold ourselves to those commitments.

So what did we commit ourselves to? Apparently over 1,500 different things. I really hope they have a stellar programme manager on board because setting that work plan is going to be a nightmare! But, let’s go back to our expectations, did we achieve anything? Well, we didn’t get much in the way of political commitments to end conflicts because… well, no one with any power to do that really showed up (no, I’m not forgetting Angela. Thanks Angela). We didn’t get a better deal for refugees, but we are ‘going to pursue a new approach’, which is sufficiently vague to hopefully keep people quiet for a bit until they realise it doesn’t mean anything. What about the rainbows and tea? Well, we have now a new way of working that will break down silos between development and humanitarian action, but the problem is, everyone spent too much time at the side events and sneaking out to sightsee in Istanbul and forgot to articulate what that actually is.

I am probably being too flippant; there were gains made in the Humanitarian Summit – commitments for more locally driven responses (including a Grand Bargain to give 25% of aid to local responders rather than INGOs) and a commitment to give more for education in humanitarian crisis – but after months of planning, millions of dollars and an extremely high telephone bill for Merkel, we still have the question, so what’s next?

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