The road to sustainable development runs through Istanbul and the Humanitarian Summit

By Michael Klosson 14 October 2015

A young girl carries books and pens at a refugee camp in Jordan. A major marker of success for the World Humanitarian Summit will be how well it addresses the needs of children, who make up half of the world's refugee population. Photo by: Georgina Coupe / Crown Copyright / CC BY-NC-ND

When 193 countries ratified the new set of Sustainable Development Goals at the United Nations last month, many of us applauded world leaders for launching an impressive blueprint to advance human development in all countries — rich and poor — over the next 15 years.

The new goals call for transformative change across the world through 2030, including eliminating extreme poverty, ending preventable maternal and child deaths and combating climate change.

But these lofty goals will fail unless world leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, also take concrete action now to address the world’s mushrooming number of vulnerable and desperate people trying to manage in fragile and conflict-ridden countries and ongoing crises.

The first step? Leverage the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit next May in Istanbul, Turkey to begin making significant changes in how the world deals with this distress, especially for future generations who will have to finish the job.

The importance of the WHS in helping achieve the SDGs cannot be overstated. In many ways, what happens at that summit — as well as at COP21 climate negotiations in Paris in December — will help determine whether the SDGs represent more than just wishful thinking. The SDGs pledged to leave no one behind. But unless world leaders step up in Istanbul, that pledge will ring hollow.  

Why is the WHS so important? Because it will address directly the growing number of people living in the most desperate circumstances imaginable — including families fleeing their countries due to war, conflict, natural disaster, political persecution or extreme poverty — as well as millions of other families left behind in these fragile states to fend for themselves.

The recent surge in refugee flows into Europe serves as a stark reminder that the world is witnessing the greatest displacement crisis since the end of World War II, with 60 million people — one in every 122 people — having been forcibly displaced. Because of the scale of response required, governments and humanitarian agencies alike face a widening gap between the leadership attention and available resources on the one hand, and the vast needs of those affected by conflict, on the other.  

While some of the new SDG goals and targets speak to aspects of humanitarian crises, successful implementation of the SDGs requires major changes in how we go about humanitarian work and how we link humanitarian activities with long-term development. For this reason, the U.N. Secretary-General has called for the WHS to chart a visionary and ambitious way forward. Given the level of humanitarian distress we see around the world, it is essential that President Obama and other world leaders do not waste this opportunity.

One major marker of success for the WHS will be how well it addresses the needs of children, who are often the most vulnerable. Half of the world’s refugee populations are children, yet their preferences have not been sufficiently addressed by the international community. Too often, in fact, the views of parents and children who are most affected are ignored.

Consider the issue of educating children in emergencies. As many studies show, parents and children are well aware that school is the key to their protection and future, yet currently, education is one of the lowest funded sectors of humanitarian aid, receiving less than 2 percent of funding and leaving 33.8 million children in conflict-affected countries without access to education. In addition, child protection has also been woefully underfunded, with many projects receiving less than half of their funding requests.

Another marker for a successful summit will be the extent to which the humanitarian system empowers national and local actors to be the main architects of action. Just as country ownership has been embraced as a guiding star for development work, so too must the humanitarian system reform its way of working to put national and local actors — both government and civil society — at the center of its responses wherever possible. Too often local actors are treated as contractors by donors and international agencies. Between 2007 and 2013, less than 2 percent of humanitarian funding was channeled through local and national nongovernmental agencies — even though local actors are often better equipped to overcome obstacles and stretch resources.

Besides focusing more deliberately on the needs of children in crisis, we also recommend increasing the amount for humanitarian aid channeled through local and national organizations in order to grow their capacity in crisis-prone countries. Both items should be at the top of the humanitarian summit agenda for increased leadership, attention and resources.

The Obama administration has made the Paris summit on climate change a top priority and has placed less emphasis on the humanitarian summit; this now merits increased attention. Both provide huge opportunities for U.S. leadership not only to build momentum behind the SDGs, but also to transform how we address the widespread suffering we see in so many conflicts and natural disasters around the world.

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About the author

Michael klosson profile
Michael Klosson

Michael Klosson is vice president for policy and humanitarian response at Save the Children. He oversees the agency’s public policy and advocacy work with the U.S. and foreign governments as well as contributes to its global humanitarian response work. Prior to joining the organization in 2007, Klosson served as a career foreign service officer with numerous overseas posts in Asia and Europe.

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