Aid workers with the European Commission’s humanitarian organization deliver pallets of medical and hygiene supplies to Ebola-stricken Sierra Leone. The first World Humanitarian Summit will take place in May 2016 in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo by: ECHO / CC BY-ND

The Nepalese earthquake, with its widespread devastation and rising death toll, has raised public concern and generosity. Sadly, this is likely to be short-lived until the next disaster, leaving humanitarian aid workers to prop up an increasingly shaky system.

It was to find solutions to dilemmas like this that the first World Humanitarian Summit in May 2016 in Istanbul, Turkey, has been called for. U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos, who heads the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, believes radical changes are needed to disburse funds and support for humanitarian disasters, as needs have more than doubled in the past decade, reaching “unprecedented levels.”

This summit promises to be different from previous U.N. meetings, in that it is not an intergovernmental process, so member states are not obliged to negotiate a final outcome. There is a very broad consultation process bringing together all those concerned with delivering humanitarian aid: governments, nongovernmental organizations, civil society organizations, intergovernmental bodies, business, those affected and the military.

“It would be good if, in contrast to many U.N. summits, this one has a practical outcome for those working in the field, so the outcomes are closer to those who live the reality,” said Kathrin Schick, director of the Voluntary Organizations in Cooperation in Emergencies. VOICE is the European network of NGOs involved in humanitarian aid.

Summit preparations

The summit preparations take place through a series of global and regional consultations, and the European consultation in Budapest in February prompted a lively interchange. Jemilah Mahmood, head of the WHS Secretariat, feels the regional consultations have opened up an interesting debate.

“I don’t see the summit as the end point,” she said. “I think it will lay the groundwork to sort out key areas that require shifting.”

Schick, who is also a member of the steering committee preparing the regional consultation for Europe and other groups, echoed this sentiment.

“The whole ongoing process is as important as the final outcome of the summit, and I hope will continue beyond the summit,” the VOICE director said.

As the world’s second-largest donor of humanitarian aid, the European Union is actively involved in the summit and the European Commission’s humanitarian organization is co-hosting the European consultations. ECHO has said that it has a responsibility to “seize every opportunity to make humanitarian assistance more effective and humanitarian work less dangerous.”

The WHS Secretariat has identified four key themes being debated during the preparations: humanitarian effectiveness, managing risk and reducing vulnerability, transformation through innovation, and serving the needs of people in conflict.

Protecting those in conflict — a key demand

As over 80 percent of all humanitarian crises are concerned with conflict, Schick believes this issue should run through all the themes and that the protection of people caught in conflict is a key focus area.

In addition, Pauline Chetcuti, humanitarian advocacy adviser from Action Contre La Faim, highlighted how aid workers are increasingly the targets of violence in times of conflict. She believes the international community should do more to give aid workers legal protection and that the summit needs to develop concrete tools against the culture of impunity plus a mechanism that can hold states and nonstate actors accountable for their actions. ACF is also calling for the appointment of a special rapporteur to review current protection measures and, in the long term, for a treaty or convention to give additional protection for humanitarian personnel.

For ECHO, the way to protect aid workers is to ensure that humanitarian principles and the international humanitarian law are respected. This is a “precondition for the safety of humanitarian workers, and we would like to see strong provision in this respect at the summit.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross defines IHL as a set of rules designed to limit the effects of armed conflict, protecting persons who are not, or no longer, participating in hostilities.

IHL enshrines four principles to support populations in disasters and to act as a guideline for those delivering aid: humanity — to help anyone in need; impartiality — prioritizing the most urgent cases, regardless of race, gender or religious belief; neutrality — not taking sides in hostilities when delivering aid; and independence — operating autonomously from political, economic, military or other objectives.

But this is little known outside the humanitarian aid community.

Counterterrorism must not dictate humanitarian concerns

Following concern at the EOG regional consultation that states and other organizations might be backsliding on these principles, a group of 38 humanitarian NGOs issued a statement calling on “humanitarian actors, donors, states and all parties involved in conflicts to reaffirm their commitment to respect and promote these four principles.”

“The statement was aimed at going back to basics, to ensure that the founding principles of humanitarian action remain relevant and valid,” explained Anne Street, head of humanitarian policy at CAFOD, the official aid agency of the Catholic Church in England and Wales. “There was some concern that counterterrorism measures might overrule humanitarian concerns.”

Chetcuti agrees that “the WHS should develop clear guidelines to keep humanitarian action separate from counterterrorism strategies, and promote the exemption of humanitarian actors from complying with counterterrorism measures.”

There is underlying concern from some humanitarian organizations that the EU might disburse humanitarian aid for security purposes — which ECHO feels is unfounded.

“We are confident that this is not a risk anymore,” the EU’s humanitarian arm stressed. “All WHS regional consultation so far confirmed the importance of all humanitarian principles and recognized them as common to all culture. We expect that the summit will reconfirm this fully.”

Local actors’ role in on-the-ground aid delivery

The debacle following the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, with outside charities tripping over each other to deliver aid has taught international agencies that aid can be delivered quicker and more effectively when outside agencies work closely with national NGOs.

CAFOD saw how working with national NGOs after Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines speeded up the response, extended the coverage and strengthened the relevance of humanitarian aid. In a VOICE newsletter, Oxfam Novib’s Tilleke Kiewid described how in Myanmar, the response in the initial weeks following Cyclone Nargis in 2008 was managed entirely by local actors who did unexpectedly well.

Street is optimistic the summit will take on board the importance of national NGOs playing a larger role and for international NGOs to work in partnership with them. ECHO also believes local actors should play a more active role when they are equipped and willing to do so, and goes so far as to say that the international system should only step in when needed.

Strengthening national NGOs will not render international groups irrelevant, as strength lies in partnership. In addition, as national organizations have less direct access to foreign funds, the main international groups based in the “global north” will continue to influence how the aid system operates.

However, some governments, particularly those where conflict is endemic, such as Ethiopia or Sudan in Africa and Pakistan and Cambodia in Asia, are suspicious of NGOs in general and introduced legislation to restrict their activities and space to operate.

“The important message to the summit is that the first responsibility of the governments affected is to help their populations,” Schick stressed.

But where will the resources come from?

Beyond financing, ECHO’s view is that it is “crucial to ensure timely and effective delivery of quality aid, coordinating with others to measure the impact of our action and be accountable to affected populations.”

A current move is to leverage business support, both financial and logistical. For example, OCHA already works with DHL, which manages air cargo operations to deliver aid. GlaxoSmithKline meanwhile partners with humanitarian aid organizations to distribute medicines.

But ACF’s Chetcuti remains skeptical about the private sector’s role in aid operations.

“The private sector’s mandate — to make profit — is contradictory to the principles of impartiality and a needs-based response,” the humanitarian advocacy adviser said. “Aid financed by the private sector may have a counterproductive effect on principled agencies, with aid workers considered partial and therefore legitimate targets.”

NGO-business partnerships can work well in delivering aid, however, as CAFOD found in the Philippines when the local chamber of commerce created a task force that channeled aid through local businesses.

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About the author

  • Daphne Davies

    Daphne Davies is a London-based freelance journalist and consultant with more than 30 years' experience in international development. She has worked with the U.N., the European Union, national governments and global civil society organizations, including Amnesty, WWF and LDC Watch. Her expertise is in monitoring government policies in relation to international cooperation. Her interests are in sustainability, social and economic matters, women and least developed countries.