Guest Editorial

A message to the World Humanitarian Summit

Humanitarians are forever striving for order. In spite of (or perhaps because of) the chaos that we see on a daily basis, we have an overwhelming urge to categorize, to organize. We distinguish between mandates, we cluster by sector and we respond in phases.

Of course we know that this is at least partly artificial. When conflict starts or a disaster hits, we respond, adapt, innovate and find new solutions to unexpected challenges. But as the situation calms, we use those experiences to reclassify, refine and refocus. A revised order emerges.

The changes we have seen over the past five years have forced some of us to ask whether the very foundations of this order are still relevant. We are witnessing more and more protracted conflicts plunging people into dire need and making it difficult to classify humanitarian contexts. Increasingly we encounter the same communities affected by multiple hazards: conflicts compounded by disasters, disasters aggravated by climate change and the acute risks associated with unplanned urbanization. We see them taking initiatives, too, building their own resilience, but also having very specific needs.

We are also observing a globalization of fragility and humanitarian needs. We can no longer consider suffering and vulnerability to be the sole domains of the global south (if this was ever really possible). The majority of the world’s poor live in middle- and upper-income countries. The arrival of more than 1 million vulnerable migrants on European shores in 2015 illustrated the regional and global consequences of chronic and intractable suffering.

Needs are changing and our response must adapt accordingly. The World Humanitarian Summit is an opportunity to do just that. Collective and collaborative responses should go beyond traditional boundaries, mandates and thinking. No single organization can hope to respond to the needs of vulnerable communities.

Crucially, these partnerships need to embrace the extremely important role of local humanitarian organizations, including National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. The international system still places too much emphasis on international actors, leaving local organizations with not enough influence over decision-making and not enough access to global humanitarian financing.

What is the World Humanitarian Summit?

The World Humanitarian Summit will bring together heads of state, thought leaders, representatives from the private sector and humanitarian organizations of all sizes to Istanbul, Turkey in May 2016 in order to “set an agenda for change to make humanitarian action fit for the great challenges we face”, according to the United Nations, which is organizing the gathering.

This imbalance must change. While recognizing the importance of international actors, we need to ensure that the capacity of principled local actors is a key priority. They must be seen as true partners, not as mere implementers. This includes protecting and insuring those groups who operate in dangerous conditions. At the same time, we should be careful not to swap one form of imbalance for another. Our call is for an ecosystem that emphasizes the complementary strengths of local, national and international actors. There will always be contexts, for example, where the neutrality of international organizations will be needed. In those cases, roadblocks to international access must be swiftly and completely dismantled.

Finding the right balance will allow us to respond more effectively to need of all kinds. Crucially, by emphasizing long-term and mutually valuable relationships between local and international partners, it will also allow us to provide more sustained support for communities suffering from chronic crises. We will be better able to help them to identify and address their own risks and vulnerabilities, to integrate them in the response and to become stronger and more resilient in the process. The role of humanitarians will be to accompany communities as they design their own solutions, rather than prescribe answers to questions we might not always understand.

This approach will allow us to create linkages between the many different systems that are involved in humanitarian response. The component that many of us are most familiar with — what we often term the ‘traditional’ humanitarian system — is only part of a collection of diverse systems that are too often out of sync.

We need to embrace change. The World Humanitarian Summit is a once-in-a-generation chance to do this on a system-wide scale. We need to have the courage to seize this opportunity and to make it happen.


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