Is there a leadership gap in humanitarian relief?

Women and children from Kassab camp for IDPs in Kutum, North Darfur, queue to be examined by doctors. When it comes to humanitarian reform, is the sector's decentralized structure an asset or a hindrance? Photo by: Albert González Farran / UNAMID / CC BY-NC-ND

In two weeks representatives from relief organizations, United Nations agencies, donor governments, and civil society will assemble in Istanbul to advance a humanitarian reform agenda. The first-ever World Humanitarian Summit will highlight the gap between the humanitarian sector that exists and the challenges it is supposed to address: 60 million people displaced from their homes and communities, ongoing violence and attacks against supposed safe zones, and $20 billion in annual humanitarian need.

But according to some prominent voices, moving the humanitarian agenda forward in a meaningful way will be difficult unless the international community can answer a simple question: who is in charge?

Speaking at Georgetown University last month, David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, put it bluntly. “It is vital to acknowledge the widespread skepticism about whether there is sufficient unity of leadership in this diverse sector to deliver change,” he said.

Refraining from calling it a humanitarian “system,” which would imply different parts working in coordination, Miliband described a humanitarian “sector” that is multipolar and motivated by different agendas.

“Each U.N. agency has a different mandate, and so a different set of incentives. The implementing NGOs are funded to deliver programs, not to exist, and so are in a constant battle to raise core funds,” he said.

In the lead up to the World Humanitarian Summit, expectations are both high and low. On one hand, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has identified five core responsibilities and motivated major donors to participate in a “solutions alliance” to address protracted displacement, and negotiate a “grand bargain” for political commitments to humanitarian response.

But on the other hand, some groups, such as Medecins Sans Frontieres, have given up entirely on the idea that the summit will produce the concrete action necessary to push back against eroding humanitarian norms, inadequate resources, and a lack of political will to prevent and end conflict — and to make the safety and dignity of imperiled people an international priority.

That sort of preemptive judgement about what the summit will or will not produce could foreclose some of its value as the start of a conversation, not the end of one, according to those involved in convening it.

“I think a lot of people misunderstood that the [World Humanitarian Summit] will be a sort of end point and there will be big declarations and everything will be signed. I don’t think it’s that. I think WHS is a beginning of something that’s very serious in terms of changing ourselves,” said Izumi Nakamitsu, assistant secretary-general of the U.N. and assistant administrator for the U.N. Development Program.

For Nakamitsu and Miliband, a challenge for the World Humanitarian Summit is to arrive at a common vision for what kinds of outcomes the humanitarian system needs to achieve, similar to — if not quite as expansive as — what the development community has constructed in the Sustainable Development Goals.

The absence of a “limited set of agreed upon outcome measures,” Miliband said, “prevents us from operating like a proper system, with clear focus of activity and effort.”

“The result is energy is wasted, accountability is undermined, responsibility is dispersed, silo mentality is reinforced, and the divide between people and institutions who consider themselves to be working on “development” rather than “humanitarian” issues is reinforced.”

Still, Nakamitsu cautioned that for a set of challenges as complex as humanitarian relief, centralizing power could risk sapping the creative potential NGOs and agencies bring with their diverse mandates and approaches. “I think this diversity is actually an asset for the international community. The challenges are so massive that one single approach will not solve the problem,” she said.

The key is to arrive at a shared strategic vision, Nakamitsu said, but not necessarily to do so in a way that requires the humanitarian sector to respond to a “monolithic” authority.

“It’s not going to be controlled and commanded from one central point. The humanitarian organizations don’t operate like that,” she said.

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About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.