Why the World Humanitarian Summit is adrift – and how to salvage it

IstanbulWith two months to go until delegates assemble in Istanbul for the first-ever UN summit devoted to humanitarian affairs, the odds on a successful outcome are slim. As Nick van Praag of Ground Truth Solutions maintains, the problem is not lack of urgency in shoring up a sector under strain. The challenge is translating a long list of disparate topics into a coherent debate that ultimately drives action.

Looking back at previous UN summits on subjects like climate change and disaster preparedness, three success factors stand out.

The first is a forgeable consensus that action is preferable to inaction. Even the equivalent of climate change deniers would have a hard time arguing that all is well on the humanitarian front. Yet the main players are far from agreement on how to fix it.

Europe is distracted by the migrant crisis and, as the spring travel season looms, shows greater interest in using the humanitarian system to keep refugees out than in reaffirming its fundamental principles. With honorable exceptions, like Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe’s politicians are more intent on staying in step with their least compassionate constituents than taking a humanitarian leap forward.

With the Middle East the focus of attention, Russia offers little prospect of supporting humanitarian advance. On the contrary, President Vladimir Putin’s government cynically ignores the human consequences of its actions in Syria. The US, meanwhile, is unusually restrained in pushing for change. The presidential election in November is perhaps one reason.  Another may be chagrin that the ripple effects from US intervention in Iraq have stretched the humanitarian sector to breaking point.

The second condition for success is strong leadership matched by good preparation. Determined steer on issues where progress is possible – like more cash transfer programs, greater accountability to beneficiaries and increased financing for national and local relief agencies – would help move things forward. Unfortunately, the worthy generalities in the Secretary General’s report to the summit offer few handholds. Meanwhile, staff at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, who are putting last minute touches to the agenda, are hard put to come up with a core of compelling themes.

The third success factor is an engaged host government able to bring the parties together. COP 21was a triumph for French diplomacy and its relentless foreign minister Laurent Fabius who stroked and cajoled delegates to a successful conclusion of the climate change conference last December. Although Turkey has shown generosity in hosting 2 million refugees from Syria, it has forfeited the international standing necessary to pull off another Paris. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s horse trading on asylum, his government’s crackdown on journalists, and the regime’s creeping authoritarianism have cost it the moral high ground.

Right now the summit looks likely to be longer on talk than on action – and even the talk part lacks focus. To avoid squandering this opportunity, Istanbul cannot be the end of the affair. Taking a leaf out of the climate change playbook, it must kick off a longer-term, step-by-step negotiation on a more daring program of humanitarian reform.

Nick van Praag directs Ground Truth Solutions which is supported by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, the IKEA Foundation and DFID.

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