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3 Takeaways From The World Humanitarian Summit

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Written by Nicolas Moyer on May 25, 2016, and upon his return from attending the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul.

The World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) concluded in Istanbul on May 25th. It was the biggest ever meeting of the global humanitarian community, a first ever time to tackle outsized problems we are all faced with. If there was one area of near total consensus, it was that the present "humanitarian syste"' is unable to cope with the global crises and scale of suffering around the world. Established long-ago and now pressed with unprecedented levels of needs, the system simply isn't fit for purpose anymore. And so aspirations for the WHS were high.

It did not meet those aspirations. As analysis of the WHS outcomes rolls out across the globe, here are my early top takeaways from the WHS and what it should mean for Canadian humanitarian organizations.

1. The WHS has already made a big difference

Even as critiques of the humanitarian system proliferated in the lead up to the WHS, donors, aid agencies and key actors were forced to analyse their performance critically and face up to the need for change. Major discussions and negotiations leading up to the WHS have helped solidify consensus around priorities and has already generated worthwhile progress.

The highest profile outcome was a "Grand Bargain" for greater efficiency has delivered commitments by donors for greater flexibility of funding through reduced earmarking and multi-year agreements and reduced reporting burdens in exchange for greater transparency from aid agencies. It has also advanced the localisation agenda by leaps and bounds -- with commitments that 25 per cent of humanitarian funding be channeled through local and national organisations by 2020 (up from 0.4 per cent today).

The WHS also gave higher profile for important themes among priorities for ongoing improvements to the humanitarian system. For example, gender was given prominence through the WHS process after having been largely excluded at the start, and the engagement of the Private Sector was reinforced. The latter area suggests the humanitarian community may be overcoming its internal aversion to working more closely with businesses where this can deliver results for disaster-affected populations.

2. The WHS fell far short of the need for reform

And yet, the WHS has been a major disappointment to humanitarians that recognize the immense failures of the present "system." Most prominent among these was the total lack of genuine leadership needed by state governments to address the causes of the conflicts which are driving humanitarian needs worldwide. This is about cause over symptoms and we cannot expect humanitarian assistance to replace political leadership to prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable; nor should we design it to.

If any progress is to be made at all to improve the humanitarian system, it must come from within the humanitarian community.

Also damning for the WHS was the very incrementalism that generated the positive developments mentioned above. At the core of the humanitarian system's challenges are structures and approaches inherited from decades past. Aid agencies, donors and UN bodies are rampant with duplicated infrastructure and capacity, competition for resources and legitimacy, and incentive structures unconnected to their humanitarian impacts. See more about this from ODI.

As was repeated so often at the WHS: "if we had to design a humanitarian system from scratch, we would never have chosen this one." And while only the most utopian would argue for a redesign of the system from the ground up, the ongoing failure to address systemic issues assures their perpetuation.

Leaders of the world's humanitarian institutions can and should do more to eliminate duplications, transcend competition and develop incentives that promote impact over organizational growth. This applies without reserve to all humanitarian actors: public, private, non-profit and multilateral.

3. We have been delivered an amazing opportunity

The WHS has given us a shopping list of areas for improvement, from program innovation and funding to structural and cultural system reforms. Global media coverage and awareness of the Summit also taught us that very few around the world were paying any attention. If any progress is to be made at all to improve the humanitarian system, it must come from within the humanitarian community.

The six months before us offer a once-in-a-generation opportunity to have a strong influence on the global humanitarian system and lead by example. Global Affairs Canada (GAC) is in the midst of its international development policy review process; including humanitarian response. GAC has is looking for civil society guidance. Here is a real chance for Canadian aid agencies to set a vision for the sector over the next five years.

Imagine what the Canadian NGO community could produce at this juncture if it only took the time to try. Sit humanitarian directors and NGO leaders in a room for two days and they could form sweeping consensus for change based on the learnings distilled through the WHS process. This could range from commitments to transparency (ex. IATI) and policy asks for GAC (multi-year funding, reduced reporting requirements), to developing brand new mechanisms to improve the timeliness and effectiveness of needs-based program funding through NGOs and increase the role of southern humanitarian organizations.

Arguably, the opportunity for Canada's humanitarian community to influence change is as great as it has ever been. What is less clear, is whether humanitarian agencies will take action in consequence.

As much as we could have hoped from the WHS, it was only ever the action that followed that would determine its impact. We can wait to see what others will do, or be a part of the solution by acting ourselves.


Nicolas Moyer is Executive Director of the Humanitarian Coalition. This blog represents his personal views only and does not represent the views of the Humanitarian Coalition, its members or partners. **

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the positions of CCIC or its members.

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