“For how much longer do we want to witness the annual palaver of these global conferences on poverty and undernutrition, while nothing is done on an adequate scale to help these tragically neglected people? Is it not true that all the millions of dollars spent on organising such recurring high-level summits over several decades could instead have been used to save many such lives already? Meanwhile, we — the minority privileged who take the human rights of Article 25 for granted — continue to overconsume and waste the world’s food and other essential commodities, instead of demanding that our governments redistribute our nation’s surplus resources to where they are most critically needed.”
– Mohammed Mesbahi, Heralding Article 25
It’s no exaggeration to claim that the world today is besieged by a host of interconnected crises that are destabilising every aspect of life on earth and forcing concerned citizens everywhere to question the distorted priorities of their governments and political leaders. Despite a series of high-level international conferences that have been convened in recent years, little has been achieved to reduce entrenched levels of poverty and widening inequalities, or to curb global carbon emissions and prevent run-away climate change. However, the ongoing failure of UN Member States to safeguard the most vulnerable was most recently demonstrated by policymakers meeting at the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) as they squandered a crucial opportunity to prevent an ongoing and rapidly escalating humanitarian crisis.
The demand for humanitarian assistance is already higher than at any time since the Second World War, with many millions of people now trapped in chronic cycles of life-threatening deprivation. As emphasised in One Humanity: shared responsibility, the UN report circulated ahead of the WHS, conflict and civil war is now the primary driver of this ongoing humanitarian emergency, affecting 125 million people and accounting for 80% of all humanitarian needs. An estimated 43% of the world’s poor currently live in ‘fragile’ situations as a consequence — a figure that will increase to 62% by 2030. Across Africa, the Middles East and Europe more than 60 million refugees have made perilous journeys to escape war and persecution, and many are struggling to survive in temporary encampments without access to basic amenities. At the same time, climate change is displacing many millions more as CO2 emissions continue to spiral and disrupt the biosphere. On average, 218 million people a year are affected by natural disasters alone.
It was hoped that the World Humanitarian Summit — the first of its kind — would signal a turning point for a disjointed and ineffectual humanitarian relief system struggling to cope with an acceleration in violent conflicts and climate-related disasters. To this end, the Agenda for Humanity report that accompanied the WHS articulated five high-minded objectives for collective government action, including preventing conflict, upholding international humanitarian law, and ‘leaving no one behind’. Indeed, the #sharehumanity framing adopted by the UN to publicise the event highlights a key notion that should underpin humanitarian action in the period ahead: that the citizens of all nations are part of one interdependent family, and that preventing humanitarian disasters must therefore be a foremost imperative for the international community as a whole.
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Weak Commitments Without Obligation
A number of notable albeit piecemeal outcomes did emerge from the Summit and were welcomed by many in the humanitarian and development sectors, especially organisations working in the Global South. For example, a ‘grand bargain‘ was struck to make aid financing more efficient and effective — although the suggested measures are only likely to yield annual savings of $1 billion over a five-year period. A commitment was also made to double the size of the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund to $1 billion (a program that allows UN agencies to respond faster and more flexibly at the onset of a crisis), alongside pledges from donors to finally provide humanitarian grants on a multi-year basis.
In addition, governments pledged to reshape the top-down humanitarian system by increasing the amount of funding provided to local and national agencies to 25% (currently a mere 2%), which was commended by non-governmental organisations that have long campaigned for the localisation of aid. Among the many other relatively loose commitments made at the Summit, there was recognition of the need to channel additional funds towards prevention and risk management and provide a greater proportion of aid in the form of cash transfers.
However, specific targets and timelines were not specified for any of the above pledges. And given the current scale of the humanitarian emergency, the vague commitments made at the WHS were altogether insufficient and uninspiring. In spite of the enormous expense and effort involved in convening a global summit of this nature, almost nothing was agreed that could substantially reduce the burgeoning humanitarian funding gap, which has grown exorbitantly in recent years to over $16bn. Nor did governments demonstrate the political will needed to reverse the growing disregard for international humanitarian law and protect civilians in conflict situations — let alone agree on a concrete political framework to curtail protracted civil wars, or tackle a refugee crisis that is overwhelming the humanitarian system.
From the outset, there was concern that the summit was not preceded by substantive intergovernmental negotiations on humanitarian reform of the kind that have taken place before other major global conferences. And despite a sizable turnout of around 8000 people (including 55 heads of state, representatives from UN agencies, civil society organisations and the private sector), most of the world’s most influential leaders were conspicuously absent. Thus it was expected from the beginning that the conference would not materialise the political leadership and agreements needed to uphold the five core responsibilities set out in the Agenda for Humanity.
Humanitarian Aid as a Substitute for Justice
Notably, Médecins Sans Frontières — a Nobel Prize winning organisation working on the frontline of crisis situations — pulled out in advance of the summit stating that they “no longer have any hope that the WHS will address the weaknesses in humanitarian action and emergency response, particularly in conflict areas or epidemic situations.” A vigorous debate also ensued about whether linking humanitarian activity to the broader development framework (a central pillar of the Summit) will ultimately politicise such interventions and make providing assistance in conflict-ridden countries far more difficult — which is pertinent given the overriding need for humanitarian work to remain politically neutral and independent of government influence.
An overarching and long-standing concern is that the UN lacks the power to enforce any of the commitments made at this and previous global summits, not least to ensure that governments follow through on their regular pledges to provide additional funding for humanitarian endeavours. A footnote on a political communiqué signed by summit delegates is revealing in this respect, stipulating that “This communiqué is not legally binding and does not affect the signatories’ existing obligations under applicable international and domestic law.”
In light of the overwhelming moral imperative to share planetary resources more equitably and protect many millions of people in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, the WHS is yet another reminder of the unsurmountable gulf between the priorities of UN member states and the desperate reality of the world situation. For too long, policymakers have put short-term political and financial interests before the protection of human life, and they have routinely failed to pursue the diplomatic measures needed to resolve protracted global problems. Instead, the inadequate provision of humanitarian aid has been used as a substitute for reforming a global economic and political framework that exacerbates poverty, conflict and climate change — even when humanitarian activities fall far short of their stated objectives.