The World Humanitarian Summit is this month. The UN Secretary General’s report One Humanity: Shared Responsibility forms the basis of Summit. The report announces a new direction, or at least the aspiration for a new direction. There’s a lot to like. There are also questions that come to mind.
Big Question 1: When it comes to upholding the cardinal rules of war, is it good enough that states may (or may not) reaffirm their commitment to their past commitments?
Follow up questions: Faced with ever more widespread disregard for existing obligations under international humanitarian law and an ascending moon of impunity, shouldn’t humanitarian actors be aggressive, fighting for more than a recommitment & photo op session? Why does the Summit feel more like a kumbaya moment than a protest one? In its kumbayaness, does the humanitarian sector not show more solidarity towards the system of powerful states than to the people suffering unfathomable deprivations generated and sustained by that system of states? What is the cost of the sector accepting vast amounts of its funding from states that routinely violate fundamental humanitarian norms or fail to uphold them? Is it not time for humanitarians to rethink rather than solidify their close cooperation and partnership with all states?
The question not being asked: Given trending global norms of violence against civilians, blockages/abuse of humanitarian aid, and impunity, and given the humanitarian sector’s two decades of growing central role in all this crisis, is it not time to examine our (wishful) framing of the problem as an external one?
Big Question 2: Is ‘ending need’ a humanitarian goal?
Follow up questions: What does it mean that the UN Secretary General proposes to make humanitarian action accountable to the Sustainable Development Goals? Isn’t that what development efforts aim to do, while humanitarians address the consequences in the meantime? Where is the (humanitarian) opposition to the SG moving the sector’s goalposts? What happens to access if humanitarians are asked to end need by addressing the underlying politically-charged power dynamics of poverty, inequality, marginalization and war? Does getting rid of the humanitarian – development divide actually require erasing the distinctions between the two? Are the two really nothing more than ‘artificial institutional labels’? What does it mean to place paramount emphasis on reinforcing national authorities when such a large chunk of humanitarian aid responds to conflicts involving those same authorities?
The question not being asked: What political and economic forces are driving the redefinition of humanitarian action as a subsidiary of state-building and development work (and what are humanitarian actors going to do about it)?
Big Question 3: Is it possible that major donors will invest in humanity differently than they have been able to do in the past?
Follow up questions: How does the ‘Grand Bargain’ on humanitarian financing propose to reverse recent trends in funding when other efforts, notably the Good Humanitarian Donorship Agreement, have not? More importantly, why didn’t that 2003 agreement work? In other words, how does the ‘Grand Bargain’ alter the political commitments of the major donors (e.g., to aid oversight committees and voters in their home societies) that have pushed aid funding towards short-term, project-based grants, direct links to homeland national/security interests, supply-based targets rather than human-based needs, ‘value for money’, etc.? Are the major donors ready to overhaul their policies and organigrams to make this work? What of the heavily bureaucratized grant reporting that has evolved to demonstrate to voters that their taxes are well spent in these days of austerity – how in real terms do we arrive at significant direct funding to local NGOs?
The question not being asked: Given decades of humanitarian actors blaming their inaction on the lack of external funding, what is Plan B in terms of humanitarian organisations taking responsibility for their financial (and hence operational) independence?
Bonus Question: Why is this billed as a World Humanitarian Summit?
Bonus Answer: The Summit is not about humanitarian action (as I first expected it would be). This Summit is primarily about preventing and ending humanitarian crisis, not alleviating its impact on people. Good. But that is a story of war, politics, development, marginalization, inequality, or even gender and ethnicity and culture. I see that states will be at the Summit. I know that humanitarians have booked their tables. Who else? Has the development sector mobilized? How about the peace and reconciliation communities? Human rights and global justice agencies? Civil society organizers? Forget the H in WHS, this is their Summit too, because while humanitarians fix people caught in crisis, we need completely different actors to fix the crisis itself.
Double Bonus Question: Does anybody have any idea what is going to come out of the Summit?
Double Bonus Answer: Not me.