Merkel to attend first-ever world humanitarian summit

Residents of Malakal, South Sudan,demand accountability for the international community’s shortcomings in safeguarding their lives. [OCHA, official website of World Humanitarian Summit]

German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be among some 50 leaders attending the first-ever world humanitarian summit in Istanbul to rethink the global aid strategy, UN diplomats said yesterday (9 May).

The 23-24 May summit has been criticized by medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which announced it will not be taking part, calling it a “fig leaf of good intentions”.

Merkel, who has been at the centre of Europe’s refugee crisis, confirmed her attendance, as did Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, whose country holds the six-month presidency of the European Union.

A question mark remains over the representation from France and Britain. The United States is expected to send the head of the US Agency for International Development.

Others attending include Kuwait’s emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou and Lebanon’s Prime Minister Tammam Salam, whose country is hosting more than one million Syrian refugees.

In all, 110 countries have confirmed that they will send a delegation to the summit, which has been in preparation for the past three years.

MSF said it was pulling out of the summit because it had lost hope that it will address “the weaknesses in humanitarian action and emergency response” in conflict areas and during epidemics.

One of the top issues on the agenda is the crisis in humanitarian financing.

Governments attending the World Humanitarian Summit are expected to commit to reducing the funding gap for life-saving aid work, in return for promises of greater efficiency from the humanitarian sector.

A flagship report on humanitarian financing, released by a high-level panel earlier this year, put the sum needed in 2015 to help 125 million people suffering from wars, earthquakes, floods and other crises at $40 billion.

The total raised in 2015 for global humanitarian aid – including money flowing outside the UN appeal – was just under $20 billion, down from around $24 billion in 2014, pointing to an annual shortage of up to $20 billion.

The Istanbul summit is set to endorse measures to fill that gap, including cutting out inefficiencies in response, expanding the traditional pool of donors to Gulf states and emerging economies, giving aid in the form of cash rather than supplies, and raising funds from “sukuk” bonds issued by Islamic banks.

Often the consequences of inadequate humanitarian funding are far less visible, said John Holmes, who served as the UN emergency relief coordinator from 2007 to 2010.

“The number of people who die who wouldn’t have died otherwise is absolutely enormous because their lives have been disrupted in every possible way,” said Holmes, now director of UK-based think tank The Ditchley Foundation.

Holmes said one obvious way to source more money for emergencies would be to double the proportion of official development assistance (ODA) used for that purpose, from around 10% to 20%.

Britain, for example, has established a new reserve of 500 million pounds ($725 million) to respond faster and more flexibly to new or worsening crises, and will allocate half of all its development spending to fragile states and regions.

Prevention is cheaper

Most aid officials agree the best solution is to shrink the size of urgent aid needs by putting more political effort and cash into resolving conflicts and protecting people better from extreme weather, earthquakes and other natural hazards.

“It is clear you have to reduce the demand as much as you have to meet the need,” said UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien.

Efforts are underway to refine how aid agencies determine needs, to avoid duplication and more accurately assess the cost of responses – a tricky feat in volatile conditions.

But Sophia Swithern, head of analysis with UK-based research group Development Initiatives, said improving efficiency and transparency, while necessary, would not be enough.

“If you’re really looking to reduce the bill, we all know it’s cheaper to respond to early warnings and to prevent crises,” she said.

Increasingly, humanitarian action plans are seeking to protect people against future shocks by building quake-resistant homes, reconciling community tensions, or helping farmers adapt to the impacts of climate change.

But when donors have a limited pot of money, these longer-term elements of aid work often fall by the wayside.

“We will never get to grips with $20 billion a year of humanitarian need if we don’t tackle the underlying reasons why we have that need in the first place,” said Jan Kellett, a senior adviser with the UN Development Programme.

“We need to shift the rhetoric away from crisis and towards development.”

What can the EU do at the World Humanitarian Summit for children?

The World Humanitarian Summit takes places in Istanbul on 23-24 May. With the EU as one of the world’s largest humanitarian donors, it can be a real ‘game-changer’, writes Marco Nardin.

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