Representatives from member states, civil society organizations, affected communities, United Nations agencies, the private sector and academia met in Jordan to discuss the Middle East and North Africa's most pressing challenges during a regional consultation. What can everyone expect at the summit and what concrete outcomes might emerge? Photo by: World Humanitarian Summit

Some 5,000 representatives from nongovernmental organizations, foundations, aid agencies and dozens of United Nations member states will gather for the first World Humanitarian Summit next week. The scale of the event — the summit was originally meant for just 2,000 — is matched only by its ambitions: to reform a humanitarian system that is perpetually short on resources to address a growing number of global crises.

At issue are a host of thorny debates about how to fund, organize, coordinate and account for humanitarian aid. Discussions are expected to focus on how to make limited resources stretch further, for longer, and in situations that show no signs of resolving soon.

But the meeting won’t look like most U.N. summits. There is no single goal or objective — no negotiated document for countries to sign on the dotted line to herald a successful conference. Instead, a multitude of actors — from the largest governments to the smallest charities — will each be making their own commitments to reform.

“The summit’s success will come down to whether key players — states, large U.N. agencies and NGOs — can muster the courage to make serious commitments and live up to them,” said Sara Pantuliano, the managing director at the Overseas Development Institute.

Skeptics to that approach abound. Médecins Sans Frontières, one of few organizations to provide health care in some of the world’s hottest conflict zones, pulled out of the summit earlier this month over concerns that WHS would fall short on the most fundamental indicator of success: protecting humanitarian professionals and civilians in crises. Aid worker security is not on the official agenda in Istanbul. MSF’s concerns are also shared by many who are attending and fear that the lack of specificity in the agenda will serve as a cover to replace real action with talk.

Organizers, however, say the open-ended nature of the summit is exactly why it could work. Every organization will need to undertake its own introspection and come to the table ready to reform, they say. The U.N. has planned for three years, speaking with 23,000 people in 153 countries to prepare for the discussions. The resulting ‘Agenda for Humanity,’ produced by the U.N. Secretary General’s office calls for five “core responsibilities” that all stakeholders are being asked to commit to. 

“We’re optimistic going into the summit,” says Jens Laerke, deputy spokesman for the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which is organizing the summit. “We think there really is an interest among all the stakeholders including the member states to push the agenda for humanity. The hope is that with the announcements made, we’ll have real champions pulling change from the front.”

A need for change

If there is one point that all attendees seem to agree upon, it’s that the status quo can’t hold. So far this year, U.N. crisis appeals are only 16 percent funded, leaving systems overstretched, projects scaled down, and benefits to those in need dramatically reduced.

“There is an overwhelming demand on the finances” for humanitarian crises, said Allan Jury, vice president of public policy at World Food Program USA. Few conflicts are being resolved, meaning that “each new crisis is just additive” to the demands on the system.

It’s not just the magnitude but also the orientation of crises that require rethinking, he said. Many humanitarian disasters today are protracted, requiring a longer term strategy. Refugees and internally displaced persons are not facing emergency conditions but long-lasting realities. The average duration of displacement: 17 years.

“We need to think differently about the programming and response for a situation in which people are displaced for so long. A traditional relief-only response isn’t sufficient when one is facing refugee situations that are lasting 10 to 15 years,” Jury said.

Emergency development

Protracted crises have led many humanitarian practitioners to turn to what U.N. Development Program Administrator Helen Clark has called “emergency development.”

“Really the focus has shifted to developmental approaches to humanitarian work,” she told a panel discussion at the Center for Global Development on May 17, by video message.

In other words, humanitarian crises are forcing a convergence between the humanitarian and development communities. Debate about synergies and tension between the two groups is expected to continue in Istanbul.

One of the most discussed issues in the lead up to the summit is the question of how to let refugees work legally in host countries so they can build their own livelihoods, rather than relying on handouts over dozens of years. Protracted crises also call for long-term education and health care programs — the sort of programming that development professionals might expect to undertake.

The flipside is also true: More and better development programming in the most fragile states could help prevent crises — or at least mitigate their fallout when they occur. The U.N. secretary-general has proposed that 1 percent of development assistance be devoted to disaster prevention.

“A lot of the time, we see resistance [to reallocating funds] in the development community, because they have their own programs in education, health, and so forth,” said Shannon Scribner, a humanitarian policy adviser at Oxfam America. “But the reality is that you’re not going to meet those development goals if we keep losing them to humanitarian crises.”

Banking on change 

Emergency development is drawing in at least one unexpected player, which many international NGOs see as a possible game changer: the World Bank.

For the first time, the bank is designing financing packages with refugees in mind. Jordan, for example, recently signed a deal with the World Bank to finance a series of special economic zones that will employ both Jordanians and Syrian refugees.

The zero-interest deal was able to draw out a concession from the Jordanian government that humanitarians have long called for: letting Syrians work. The bank “brought something extra to the table,” World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim told the CGD event. “We structured a deal.”

Under Kim’s leadership those sorts of conversations are happening for the first time. For example, the bank chief is looking more broadly at how concessionary finance can be used to create economic opportunities for refugee hosting communities.

A grand bargain

Innovative financing, including the new approach from the World Bank, is also expected to be discussed at the summit. In January, the U.N. secretary-general convened a high level panel on humanitarian finance, aimed at tackling the hard question of how to find resources to match the rising needs.

The report proposed a “grand bargain” between donors and aid agencies, through which grants would become more flexible and less politicized in exchange for NGOs and U.N. agencies ensuring their work is more efficient and targeted. In particular, humanitarian actors would be asked to improve transparency about where their money is going, to increase the share of funds going directly to cash assistance, and to boost support for local organizations that often have a lower overhead and better access.

Consultations on the grand bargain have been going on for months, and some close to the discussions tell Devex there are still big question marks about how the reforms would be undertaken. Agencies have a bureaucratic tendency to hold onto their current mandates — their turf in the humanitarian and development spaces.

Still, advocates for reform say that the grand bargain may represent the best chance for a concrete outcome in Istanbul.

“It’s about how do you look at the efficiency of aid,” said Jodi Nelson, senior vice president for policy at the International Rescue Committee. “The grand bargain for us and many others was a welcome shift in the summit discussion because it was finally something specific.”

When it comes to boosting efficiency, some stakeholders also see the U.N. system itself as ripe for introspection. “NGOs would have liked more proposals on how the U.N. could revise its way of working and continue its transformative agenda,” said Kathrin Schick, director of VOICE, a European network of NGOs involved in humanitarian aid. “This is a pity as the U.N. is the main coordinator of humanitarian aid.”

Benchmarks for progress

The idea of tacking specific indicators to these discussions of reform is contentious, according to some close to preparatory talks.

Some large donors are pushing for specific measurements of change. For example, the U.N. secretary-general has proposed that a larger proportion of assistance be given in cash and a higher percentage of donor funds go to local and national — rather than international — NGOs. Donors and implementers disagree over whether to assign specific, numerical targets to those objectives.

Concrete benchmarks or not, a number of large stakeholders, including the IRC and the World Bank are pushing for a stronger emphasis on evidence in humanitarian work. While the development community has shifted to more heavily rely on data and measurement in recent years, most emergency interventions do not rely upon or produce evidence on efficacy. 

Humanitarian work “requires us to be as rigorous and evidence based as we can,” World Bank President Kim said. “This is not just charity … I think we have to be hard on ourselves and ask tough questions about what do we know about things that work and don’t work.”

Private sector

Private companies are also being acknowledged at the summit for their role in rethinking the humanitarian system. Firms increasingly see a business case for getting involved — to safeguard access to consumers, guard long-term market share, and secure supply chains, for examples.

Humanitarian crises are “a very important ongoing trend that we see many of our companies interested in,” said Lise Kingo, the executive director of the U.N. Global Compact.

In September 2015 the U.N. Global Compact and UNHCR launched the Business Action Pledge to get companies involved in supporting efforts to address the emerging refugee crisis and help come up with solutions. Since then more than 80 companies announced activities or commitments in line with the pledge.

Kingo will be at the summit, where the pledge will be repeated. But, she said, she’s also there to better understand the challenges facing humanitarian aid and find out about the key focus areas. She will then work to help translate those issues to the U.N. Global Compact member organizations.

“It is such a huge challenge,” she said, adding that companies are part of solving all of the world’s global challenges today and that humanitarian relief “is not an exception.”  


Humanitarian organizations and stakeholders can only do so much to resolve ongoing crises; politics matters equally. The ongoing Syrian conflict, for example, will continue to devastate the lives of millions until the fighting stops and security is restored. Respect for international humanitarian law, while on the agenda, may well be outside the remit of those attending — largely aid implementers rather than politicians.

Momentum, rather than any specific documents or announcement, will be the true marker of success, according to many WHS attendees. In the days and weeks after the summit, they hope political leaders, diplomats, U.N. agencies, and NGOs will start to act on the pledges and reforms discussed in Istanbul.

“One thing we hope will come out of the summit is that everyone agrees that this a launch pad not an end point,” said Neal Keny-Guyer, Mercy Corps CEO. “If you look at the big summits that have occurred up to now, for example the climate summit in Paris, they were the culmination of years of work to drive a common agenda and reach a common action plan.

“It’s too early to put down concrete or specific solutions to action, though I think we can get closer to a road map, and the WHS can help point the compass.”

Daphne Davies contributed reporting to this story.

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About the authors

  • Dickenson beth full

    Elizabeth Dickinson

    Elizabeth Dickinson is a former associate editor at Devex. Based in the Middle East, she has previously served as Gulf correspondent for The National, assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy, and Nigeria correspondent at The Economist. Her writing also appeared in The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Politico Magazine, and Newsweek, among others.
  • Saldiner adva

    Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.