Global conversation on humanitarian action kicks off

The event itself is still nearly two years away, but already the "pre-summits" are in full swing. Concept notes have been written, regional consultations have started, and online forums are open for comments - all leading up to the World Humanitarian Summit itself, scheduled to take place in Turkey, probably during May 2016.

The meeting was proposed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and is timed so that it will take place just as his second term of office will be drawing to a close. If it succeeds, it would establish his legacy as a champion of the UN's humanitarian role.

The Summit organizers insist the agenda for the meeting is not predetermined - that is what the wide-ranging consultations are for, so that aid donors, aid givers and aid recipients can collectively decide what needs to be talked about. "The agenda," says Breanna Ridsdel, spokesperson for the Summit, "will be determined on the basis partly of the regional consultations, and partly through global research".

Although these consultations are so extensive, Ridsdel told IRIN they should not be seen as an end in themselves. "Everything is just the means to an end, including the Summit itself in 2016. It will be more like a key moment in a conversation which has been going on for decades, and needs to go on for decades to come."

One aim is to draw as many people into that conversation as possible, including the new players in the humanitarian field whose presence is one of the things changing the environment and making the conversation necessary.

In the past, humanitarian organizations consciously held themselves apart from anyone with military and commercial motives. Now they are being urged to collaborate with the private sector and in some cases, even the military. In the past, aid was given by rich, developed countries to the poor and the undeveloped. Now the lines are not so clear. Former aid recipients are now middle income countries and aid-givers themselves, and they approach things in a different way. Big multinational NGOs, based in the West, have been joined by a host of local NGOs and civil society organizations working in their own countries. And awareness has grown of the instrumental response role played by aid-affected communities themselves.

So although this is dubbed a "Summit" and its organizers are hoping that heads of state and government will attend, it is not being planned as an inter-governmental meeting. Sara Pantuliano, director of the Humanitarian Policy Group at the UK's Overseas Development Institute, says getting the balance right between the different actors will be crucial to the event's success.

"It's a UN summit, not an inter-governmental summit," she told IRIN. "If the recommendations which emerge are strong enough, it could make the changes in the humanitarian architecture which are so badly needed, and an inter-governmental process probably wouldn't be able to move so far. But states have to be on board so that they can take the Summit's outcomes to the General Assembly and get the decisions required. They've got to get this right. Governments will be invited but they won't be driving the process."

Local actors key

So far the UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, which is organizing the Summit, has held two regional consultations, in Abidjan and Tokyo, and the third - in Pretoria - will take place next month. One clear thread to emerge so far has been the need for international humanitarian action to take far more account of the views, knowledge and capacity of local actors - local NGOs, members of affected communities, and local and national governments.

The conclusions of the North and Southeast Asia regional meeting set out this thinking clearly. "Humanitarian action is a shared responsibility," they say, "with everyone involved having clearly defined roles, and with governments taking the overall lead.

“There's a risk we are going to see unmet expectations, and a danger that the agenda can still be hijacked by political interests. And there's the danger of underfunding. If we don't have the money to invest in a new architecture, then it's not going to do what it intends.”

Any new thinking about humanitarian action should focus on including and empowering local communities and their representatives to be in a position to respond more effectively.

The emphasis on the role of national governments is not entirely unexpected; these regional consultations are hosted by governments in the region and chaired by government ministers, and the Asian group meeting included China. But in the online consultation, which opened at the beginning of August, many of the participants are posting as individuals, and a greater scepticism about the role of governments is already showing through. So far the number of posts in these discussion groups - organized by the four main conference themes of Effectiveness, Risk and Vulnerability, Innovation and Conflict - has been fairly modest, but it is still early days.

Radical proposals lacking?

The major international agencies are already active, both in the regional consultations, and in organizing their own, parallel events. Save the Children's senior humanitarian adviser, Juliano Fiori, told IRIN they had had good feedback from the Tokyo meeting and felt it had been a positive event. "You didn't quite get the diversity which you do get in this region in the response to crises - the private sector organizations, for instance - but there was the opportunity to express the main points we wanted to make. The disappointment was that there wasn't anyone coming out with really radical proposals for improving the humanitarian system. The great opportunity of this summit is that it's a chance to do more than just tinkering and making technical improvements, the way we have been doing up till now."

Fiori is also one of those feeling constrained by the four discussion themes offered by the organizers. "Some things we want to talk about are more structural than would fall under these four headings. We are being asked to think about transformational change, but the things that might bring about transformational change - Security Council reform, issues in relation to sovereignty and so on - are not being tackled head on."

At the moment there's still a sense of both individuals and organizations feeling their way, trying to get to grips with what exactly the Summit is and whether there is a good possibility that it can do what is needed. Pantuliano would like to believe it can. "It's timely," she says, "and it's needed. We need a conversation about reshaping humanitarian action. It has the ambition to be global and to involve people from as many traditions as possible. That is definitely right."

But, she says, there are still risks. "There's a risk we are going to see unmet expectations, and a danger that the agenda can still be hijacked by political interests. And there's the danger of underfunding. If we don't have the money to invest in a new architecture, then it's not going to do what it intends."

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