Why the World Humanitarian Summit matters

May 11, 2016

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  • Instructors training for a play therapy program gather in the Central African Republic. Our peace-building program worked with community leaders on both sides of the conflict and had a profound impact. Photo: Jean Fiston Koyamoussa/Mercy Corps

There is an important sub-plot unfolding at a major global summit. My own organization, Mercy Corps, is at odds with a peer we admire greatly, Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF – Doctors Without Borders).

In less than two weeks, global leaders gather in Istanbul for the first World Humanitarian Summit. Its stated aim is no less than ending human suffering. It seeks to reform the global humanitarian system, on which millions of lives depend, so that it can face up to a world wracked by sharper, more frequent crises. What cause could be nobler or more urgent?

Yet our esteemed humanitarian peer, MSF, has announced it is pulling out of the Summit. MSF worries both that the Summit won’t challenge the kind of impunity that sees hospitals and schools bombed and civilians killed in their thousands in savage, limitless wars; and that it will fold humanitarian emergency response into a wider agenda of resilience and development, subordinating humanitarian action to politics.

We hold MSF in the highest regard. We work alongside them on the frontlines of the world’s toughest humanitarian challenges – in Syria, in Afghanistan, in Yemen and elsewhere. Their courage is indomitable. But Mercy Corps still plans to be in Istanbul, alongside hundreds of colleagues from civil society, governments, business, the UN and other multilaterals. Here’s why.

The wars and conflicts we face today are the greatest challenge to humanitarian action. One in four people worldwide struggles to survive in poor, fragile countries trapped in cycles of conflict. These conflicts are nasty, bloody, and destructive. Once a country experiences major violence its poverty rate kicks up 21 percent, and the impact stunts growth for generations. Even as wars grow fewer in number, they become less tractable and ever deadlier – conflict mortality has more than doubled over the last nine years. Almost all humanitarian aid funding now goes to save lives amidst chronic conflicts that have dragged on for more than three years.

MSF is right to say that the UN and governments must rediscover their will to enforce the laws of war – laws that place civilians and civilian infrastructure such as hospitals off limits. In Syria alone, recent weeks have seen the deadly bombings of a children’s hospital in Aleppo and a camp for displaced civilians in Idlib.

But ending such suffering will not be achieved by disengagement. It’s hard to see how the Summit could be expected in one fell swoop to change the incentives for rogue regimes to kill indiscriminately or the license to slaughter felt by non-state violent extremist groups. Nor will the suffering be ended by simply increasing funding. We have to reform a broken system and change the way we humanitarians work.

Mercy Corps is going to Istanbul with one forceful message: we can face down conflict and deliver better lives for people and communities beset by crisis. We can make progress even where diplomacy and statecraft struggle to deliver the goods. This isn’t just do-gooding: we know it works because we’ve seen it work.

For example, in the Central African Republic, a bloody civil war pitted rival Christian and Muslim militia against each other, with civilians caught in the middle. Our peace-building program worked with community leaders on both sides of the conflict and had a profound impact. It transformed people’s views of the ‘other side’ – there was an 86 percent jump in people saying they trusted the rival group, and 96 percent of people involved in our study reported feeling hopeful that they could deliver peace in their communities together. More than 200 fighters from the rival militias voluntarily disarmed and joined community peace groups working to resolve tensions and rebuild their hometowns.

We need to push beyond the tendency for humanitarian aid to churn in endless cycles of crisis and emergency response. To get this right, we need to address the root causes of fragility and conflict from the get-go, investing in conflict management, peace-building and governance programs alongside helping meet basic needs like shelter, healthcare, water and food.

We’ve learned that attention to the ‘software’ of fragile societies is at least as important as improving infrastructure. From Iraq to Nigeria, people have told us that their feelings of exclusion, lack of voice, and injustice profoundly affect how they view groups like Islamic State or Boko Haram. Where humanitarian aid recipients have been asked about their feelings about what they’ve received, they tell us that they’re really glad not to be dead – but after that, they need safe communities, access to good education and decent jobs, and a voice in how their government decides things that affect them.

All of that goes beyond what ‘classic’ humanitarian aid delivers. All of it is vital in strengthening resilience and lessening fragility. Sadly, it’s also under-funded and too often pushed aside by humanitarians as something that happens during ‘development.’ So, while we greatly respect and value MSF and its work, we have a different perspective. The only way that people and communities snared in the conflict trap can break free is if we end stop/go cycles of emergency aid and focus on investing in their resilience even as we meet urgent needs.

That’s going to take a new kind of humanitarian politics – smarter but also not afraid of getting its hands dirty to deliver greater impact. One that breaks the stove-pipes that corral humanitarian and development assistance into separate streams and redirects them to one purpose: better, more peaceful, and more productive lives for the people and communities we exist to serve. The World Humanitarian Summit is a big opportunity to push that message from rhetoric into reality. That’s why we’ll be there.