World leaders hold humanitarian summit, but is there hope?

From May 23 to 24 the World Humanitarian Summit was held in Istanbul. Thousands of government officials, diplomats, humanitarian aid managers, and experts met to discuss ways to improve the international aid system. Despite three years of preparation, regional consultations, hundreds of meetings, high-level panels and several documents, there is very little hope that the WHS will have any major impact.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon opened the WHS at a time when the very humanitarian principles on which aid agencies operate have been undermined and flatly ignored in many crises, especially in neighboring Syria. More conflicts are putting unprecedented pressure on the international aid structure, and on agencies that help protect refugees, address children’s needs, feed hungry people and treat the sick and injured.  Governments and donors are squeezing aid organizations for more efficiency by cutting costs. Many academics believe the system is outdated, resistant to change, fragmented, uncommitted to working collaboratively and too dominated by the interests and funding of a few countries. Local and regional NGOs complain about the superfluous role of the giant agencies, which receive the largest funding and use NGOs for implementation. Finally, the very people who receive aid complain about lack of protection, insufficient aid and politicized decision making by aid providers.

The WHS is not going to wave a magic wand to solve these complex and interlinked problems. My concern is whether it would help us to move a little in the right direction.

Having served in the United Nations for 14 years in several aid and peacekeeping agencies, I learned to think of the lofty humanitarian principles of impartiality, neutrality and humanity as an ideal toward which we should strive but could never attain. I learned that the whole endeavor is often at the mercy of powerful political and socioeconomic considerations, but does not have to be subservient to them. Finally, I learned that discussions on effectiveness and efficiency are secondary to the more important discussions on politics of control, the quality more than the quantity of funding and internal and inter-agency decision making processes. Any reform of substance needs to touch on these latter issues.

This is why I doubt the value of Istanbul’s gigantic get-together and am suspicious of whether it will lead to any serious remedies. Even worse, I worry that this spectacle could do more harm than good and make frustrated people even more cynical about humanitarian aid.

Syrian refugees, grief-stricken parents who lost their children to the Mediterranean Sea, hungry children in South Sudan and health workers in bombed hospitals in Afghanistan and Syria are probably unaware of the summit meeting, and they are not properly represented there. And, to begin with, these people did not think highly of the system. According to a study conducted by the international IRIN humanitarian news agency in 2015, refugees and other people affected by crises in the Middle East have a very unfavorable view of aid agencies. Here are some of the ratings they gave aid agencies:  

  • Treating people with respect and dignity: 3.5/10
  • Being neutral and impartial: 4/10
  • Making people feel safe and protected from violence: 3.5/10
  • Meeting priority needs: 3/10
  • Helping people prepare for future crises: 2.5/10
  • Considering their opinions: 2.5/10


The same sentiments reverberated in a statement that several Syrian NGOs addressed to the conference last week. They stated that aid agencies have “forfeited a needs-based strategy by choosing an access-based strategy. This led to the injection of a disproportional amount of subsidies for the provision of services in certain warring parties’ territories, therewith effectively making their funds available for their war efforts.”

Is the UN sticking to a position of comfort?

Senior aid officials, such as UN undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs Stephen O’Brian, insists that the system “is not broken – but it is broke”, as if throwing more money at the problems would resolve it. In a report published in early 2016, a high-level panel estimated that an additional US$15 billion is needed to cover annual humanitarian needs. Humanitarian aid’s financial needs are not that exorbitant. Middle Eastern countries spent US$196 billion on arms deals in 2014, which is about eight times as much of the total among of money spent on humanitarian aid in the same year. Some of this armament spending was then used to bomb places in Yemen and possibly Syria only worsening humanitarian crises. Aid agencies will probably continue to get more money especially as they promise – and hopefully implement – plans to increase efficiency and cut overhead costs, but this does not address the many other problems plaguing the system, primarily the political manipulation of donor governments and recipient authorities and the marginalization of recipient communities and local NGOs.

The aid system, at least at its intermediary levels, is largely controlled by big agencies. According to the UN OCHA Financial Tracking System, few large aid agencies control the majority of funding from donors and then subcontract the actual work to local and international NGOs. For example, the World Food Program (WFP), which constitutes the world’s biggest aid agency, received 27% of Financial Tracking Service-tracked funding in 2013. WFP, UNHCR and UNICEF managed more than half of the funding reported that year. Some of these agencies continue to believe in a command and control structure where all decisions are made at the top, and which is increasingly recognized as being out of touch with reality on the ground. On the other hand, big donors prefer to deal with one big contractor rather than hundreds of small NGOs who need to be assessed, audited and monitored.

To increase efficiency, the WHS developed what they call a “Grand Bargain:” donors need to be more flexible and provide multi-year funding that hasn’t been earmarked, while recipients are to become more transparent and cost-conscious. When it was launched in Istanbul, a handout stated that the plan would save US$1 billion a year, or about 5 percent of the total estimated spending on humanitarian funding in five years. Even though an International medical organization like Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) believes there is a general shortage of operational emergency response capacity, particularly in conflicts and epidemics, it argues that it is not primarily because of lack of funds but due to how and where funds are allocated. Donor funding is too often driven by political and security considerations. MSF UK Director Vickie Hawkins described the handling of the Ebola outbreak, South Sudan and Central African Republic crises as “a real failure of the humanitarian system.” “We don’t think the WHS is addressing that,” she added.  

Not much can be done without political will

Debating complex issues related to humanitarian aid in a truly open conference with good representation by all stakeholders would have been certainly useful. But big and very expensive events like the WHS are not the best venues for such discussion, which can take place in a less costly manner within existing networks composed of academics and practitioners. The WHS is ultimately a political spectacle that is not backed by any clear political will and does not have any serious proposals. Led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, more than 60 senior state representatives showed up this week in Istanbul, but there is no real deal on the table. Seventy-two countries signed a communiqué prior to the summit. Egypt is not one of them but Jordan, Israel, Oman and Qatar signed on. The communiqué outlined five commitments: reducing and preventing conflict, upholding humanitarian law, ensuring fewer people are “left behind,” reducing risk and securing larger and better financing. The communique, however, is not “legally binding and does not affect the signatories’ existing obligations under applicable international and domestic law,” as its fine print asserts.

In the last couple of years, many states have complained that they carried a disproportionate share of the burden. Some have taken extreme measures to show their dissatisfaction with this unequal distribution of humanitarian responsibilities. Kenya threatened to close down the largest refugee camps in the world where 600,000 Somali refugees have lived for 20 years. Turkey first let tens of thousands of Syrians cross its borders into Europe and then, when a deal was reached with Europe, it restricted access into its territories to the extent that border guards shot several fleeing Syrians dead.

Talking is good as long as it leads to action

I do believe in a shared humanity and in international humanitarian aid, an endeavor that I served for years. I am fully aware of its incompetence and inefficiencies but what has worried me most is how it has become increasingly politically manipulated.  

I have absolutely no doubt that food aid, for example, has saved the lives of millions of people. I saw that first hand, in Afghanistan, Sudan, the occupied Palestinian territories and elsewhere, where I worked in complex aid operations. But I have also learned that despite the best intentions of some in the aid community – including donors, humanitarian agencies, recipient governments and authorities –  this humanitarian enterprise operates in a very politicized environment. At best, aid agencies engage in politics to raise funds, secure and enable operations and ensure safe access to the people who are meant to receive assistance.  But more often than not, and especially since the early 1990s, food aid operations have to deal with bigger political questions. For example, it is common practice for a government or a party to a conflict to grant an aid group “clearance,” by which is meant the ability to distribute food, in return for a concession by their adversary. Facilitating access almost exclusively to areas loyal to a particular government could also be used as leverage over other parties in the conflict. In short, food aid is sometimes used as a weapon and this is absolutely unethical and illegal. 

WFP, for example, claims that in working with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), which is largely controlled by the government in Damascus, it has distributed food to more than 4 million Syrian nationals per month in 2015. Most of those 4 million people are in government-controlled areas inside Syria, however, and include people who have been displaced because of the fighting. These are the areas made accessible to the UN after government clearance.

But there is about 1 million people living under siege in Syria in dozens of locations, the vast majority of which are besieged by government forces or allied militias. In besieged areas, between 1 January and 31 August 2015, WFP and partners were only able to deliver food assistance to about 0.6 percent of people. More recently, WFP chief Ertharin Cousin told the UN Security Council, “there are 18 besieged areas and close to half a million people completely cut off from food and other crucial humanitarian assistance.” If you add to this the fact that almost all aid agencies ceased to work in ISIS-controlled areas primarily due to ISIS intervention, but also because they feared legal and financial reprisals from their main western donors, then aid is extremely tilted in favor of the Syrian government. 

The UN knows that, with the exception of two villages, Kefraya and Fo’a in Idleb province, it is the government that is responsible for most of the sieges. Access to basic necessities, most importantly food, becomes severely limited and exorbitantly expensive, pushing civilians to leave the country or flee to territories controlled by the government despite their opposition to its policies.

How do aid managers on the ground justify this? They say that the government controls the majority of the population who is in need and this government can, as it has abundantly proven, curtail access to them, if UN agencies do not “behave.” Senior aid managers then are faced with the decision of whether to stand fast and refuse to be manipulated for political ends, which would be to jeopardize aid shipments to millions of those in need in areas under government control. Even worse, without government permission to access besieged areas, the safety of shipments and aid workers will be at a grave risk everywhere. In its own evaluation of operations in Syria, WFP management acknowledged that “as a United Nations agency, WFP’s role in delivering food to the maximum number of people in need was best served by maintaining relations with the Syrian Government and negotiating access.” The one option that seems to be systematically off the table for aid agencies is to stand their ground and refuse to work in places where the work become blatantly partial. Or at least threaten to do that. 

Aid managers believed that they do their best under the circumstances, thus letting the Syrian government indeed use food aid as a weapon. I say this while knowing that their distributions have also saved lives. A UN official that I know described the situation in Syria to me as follows: “The UNSC passed Resolution 2165 in 2014 authorizing humanitarian organizations to deliver aid without government consent. But this does not guarantee aid convoys safe passage. We must still strive to gain access through multiple checkpoints – and the groups in charge can change by the day. In addition, 60 percent of requests we have made to reach besieged areas have been met with no answer at all,” referring to the government.

This all should not serve as an excuse for being instrumentalized in conflicts. Aid agencies should expose the reality and the challenges they face instead of using sanitized language and beating drums for fake success and commitments to humanitarian principles that they have become unable to uphold.

It is this intermingling of the political and the humanitarian that should have been disentangled rather than obfuscated in Istanbul. In its inaction, humanitarian assistance will increasingly become subservient to national security considerations, as well as business and political interests. 

Khaled Mansour 

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