A disheveled man holds his young son in his arms on a dark street corner a few blocks from Istanbul’s famous Taksim Square. His wife explains in broken English that her name is Sabriyya and they are trying to survive after fleeing violence in Syria. The man stares blankly ahead while clutching his son, slowly chanting in Arabic as he sways back and forth.
Across the street, just a few hundred yards away, a packed auditorium of well-dressed world leaders and dignitaries listens to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon speak at the opening ceremony of the World Humanitarian Summit, the first-ever global meeting on humanitarian issues, held May 23-24.
“Today we declare: We are one humanity, with a shared responsibility,” Ban tells the estimated 4,500 officials and representatives of governments, international aid agencies and the private sector. “Let us resolve here and now not only to keep people alive, but to give people a chance at life in dignity.”
Ban called for the global meeting four years ago, and since then, the scale of humanitarian disasters has only grown. In 2014, the last year where comprehensive statistics are available, the U.N. estimates that conflict displaced 42,000 people a day in addition to the 53,000 displaced daily due to natural disasters. As a result, the number of refugees — people like Sabriyya and her family — and those internally displaced within their own country swelled to more than 60 million people, the most at any point since World War II.
At the same time, the U.N. estimates, another 65 million people rely on humanitarian aid for survival in their own communities. While aid is distributed around the world, from conflict-riddled Afghanistan to drought-stricken Zimbabwe, if the 125 million recipients of humanitarian aid existed as a single country, it would be the eleventh largest in the world, just behind Japan.
The U.N.-sponsored summit set out to coordinate an international relief effort by asking attendees to commit to specific action on issues from education to emergency response. Some participants were optimistic about the outcome, but there was also skepticism from aid agencies and humanitarian observers. In the most high-profile example, NGO Doctors Without Borders pulled out of the summit just two weeks before it began, calling it a “fig-leaf of good intentions” that would allow systematic violations of human rights to be ignored.
One of the biggest questions to emerge from the summit is whether international coordination has the power to solve the complex political situations that create emergencies in the first place and limit the reach of aid to those who need it most.
Unintentionally making a bad situation worse?
The unprecedented scale of humanitarian need has led to unprecedented giving by governments. But although aid donations are 12 times greater today than 15 years ago, a U.N. panel on humanitarian financing recently found there is still a $15 billion funding gap annually because of the number of complex emergencies.
With limited resources, aid agencies are forced to choose whom to help, and the politics of that choice risk further crises.
For example, with Syrian, Iraqi and Afghani refugees now entering European countries en masse, many governments that traditionally contribute the bulk of humanitarian financing are now spending on refugee issues within their own borders, including detention programs, food vouchers, housing and integration programs.
This means that international spending on a Syrian refugee outside of Syria is now three times that for a Syrian still inside the country, noted Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council and the special adviser on humanitarian access for the Syrian peace talks. “And if anything,” he said, “I would say that the people inside Syria are in an impossibly worse situation even than the refugees outside.”
Many Syrian NGOs agree that refugees like Sabriyya and her family struggling in Turkey are still better off than those still in Syria. “We currently have 4.6 million refugees, and inside Syria we have 6.7 million displaced people,” said Kais al-Dairi, the general coordinator for the Syria Relief Network, an umbrella organization of more than 60 Syrian relief organizations operating inside Syria.
“Those displaced people have nothing to lose. As soon as they see that more services are being provided in neighboring countries, they will cross the borders and they will also become refugees,” he said
Finding political will
One of the chief goals of the summit was to address such political issues — not only the policies that lead to conflict, but also issues of burden sharing and the neglect of some populations when others, such as Syrian refugees in Europe, dominate the political discussion.
On a dedicated stage in the convention center in Istanbul, governments and aid organizations announced hundreds of commitments, from new financial contributions to the launch of a new data center for humanitarian operations. As the centerpiece of the summit, 18 governments and 16 major aid organizations formally endorsed the Grand Bargain, a list of commitments designed to change the way donor countries finance humanitarian action and improve transparency on how such funds are spent. But while commitments were quick to come in, their relevance and ability to change the situation on the ground remained unclear.
“The commitments are great,” said Egeland. “I like the commitment that we would all do more to prevent violent conflict. Nothing would lower this number [of displaced] better than the end of the catastrophic failure of diplomats and politicians to prevent conflict and to settle conflicts. And I hear them all talking about that all the time, which is good.”
But for veterans of the aid sector and countries overwhelmed by refugee flows, frustration over the lack of policy change was palpable. Participants voiced their frustrations at a side event hosted by the International Committee of the Red Cross on ensuring safety and dignity for migrants.
“We have been receiving people — thousands and thousands — since 20 years ago. Every year, we know perfectly the range of people who is coming and we cannot be better prepared,” said Francesco Rocca, the president of the Italian Red Cross. Yet that predictability has not made the situation better for the nearly 200,000 refugees who arrived by sea in the past 18 months.
“Finding a dignified solution,” he said, “it's always about the will of the politicians.”
Looking for a way forward
Not all the blame for humanitarian failings fell on governments. During the session on migration, Ali Akgul, head of emergency management for the Turkish Red Crescent, expressed that after 15 years in the aid sector, he was fed up with the summits, conferences and international meetings that claimed to be pushing for change but only seemed to lead to more talk.
Even among the most optimistic, enthusiasm was tempered. For Yasser Wafi, a Syrian who escaped his hometown of Aleppo in 2014 and now works for Masrrat, a Syrian NGO based out of Gaziantep, Turkey, the summit offered an opportunity but was also not the miracle event he had hoped.
“I like the summit very much. I got information to new NGOs and international agencies and I think that will be beneficial for our work to cooperate with different people who are willing to work to provide humanitarian aid [inside Syria],” he said. “But I still feel we are not doing all that we can. Not only for Syria, but for all the humans who need help or assistance.”
For now, many aid organizations and advocacy groups are focusing on the next opportunity to push for policy changes with a special, high-level U.N. meeting on migrants and refugees scheduled for September in New York. Despite the lack of concrete political action at last week’s summit, it serves as a reminder that progress to international systems is often slow.
“We had many meetings with the [German] government in the run up to the summit,” noted a World Vision International representative from Germany. “The most important things is we feel that we are really being listened to. The change might be slow, but if it helps people, then we are happy to participate.”
Kimberly Curtis is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. You can follow her on Twitter: @curtiskj