World Humanitarian Summit – Shifting power or shifting money?

By | May 24, 2016

One can be forgiven for losing track for how many times since the 2nd World War a period has been described ‘ as the worst refugee crisis’ to date. We are again in one of these periods. UNHCR estimates that close to 100 million people are currently displaced due to man made disasters, in and outside the countries they come from. Another UN agency, UNOCHA looks at 125 million people in need of humanitarian assistance for 2016. Many of these people are fleeing armed conflict and its consequences. Yet while some conflicts and migration may be driven by increasing experiences of resource-scarcity, these dynamics are not a Malthusian inevitability. Together the world can cope, and do better than this. If it were indeed ‘together’ for that matter. The reality is that it is not. It is deeply divided, on its national interests, its propensity to use or fuel armed violence, its humanitarian impulse, and on the ways, if at all, that humanitarian crises and their causes should be addressed. All this makes it even more surprising that in the midst of division  the UN has succeeded in calling a world level humanitarian summit for the first time. In itself this is an achievement, even if late given history.

Yet against the programme set out in the ‘grand bargain – a shared commitment to better serve people in need‘ the expectations are muted. Some in the international NGO world are warning that the summit may just be an expensive talking shop. MSF, one of the largest humanitarian aid agencies, has pulled out of the event.

Yet positively, although quite hidden in the near-to-fairground-atmosphere of the conference programme, are demands for greater, more innovative and data driven accountability approaches which are supposed to become more accessible to citizens. The accountability issues permeates the ‘grand bargain’ document alongside requests for more, more reliable and more flexible funding. There should always be hope for greater resources and better ways of allocating them. However, the accountability agenda may be the only element in the grand bargain which has the true potential to be a game changer and enable people to hold governments and other big funders and influential actors to their promises. Yet the buy-in for stronger accountability, especially driven by those who may not be able to engage with technology ‘powered’ accountability systems, is not a given, not even for international NGOs.

Pierre Michelletti, former President of MSF, rightly speaks of the continued power imbalance also in the NGO world and challenges the ‘monopoly’ of the western NGOs as out of tune with the realities of the new world. Enabling those most affected by humanitarian crises to truly hold those involved in the provision of aid to account, in terms of finances, services and policy, may prove too disruptive for those non-governmental actors who are part and parcel of the established aid chain. Shifting power is the real challenge of the future. The focus on funding may betray how unwelcome the power-shift proposition really is for many involved.