On 23rd May Istanbul hosts the first ever World Humanitarian Summit. Amidst a context of an unprecedented number of active and simmering conflicts throughout the world, in the shadow of Syria’s five year war and the single greatest refugee movement of our age, there is much to discuss.
I am sure many in our community have observed from afar the changing nature of the humanitarian landscape. Political failures continue to drive the world’s ever expanding humanitarian crises. While we should be proud of our Jewish International fire brigade, World Jewish Relief, the increased presence of global Jewish and Israeli humanitarian agencies is a reflection of our willingness to play our part in this fractured world. Indeed this context is getting increasingly crowded and we should welcome two initiatives, the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Response and the Pears inspired Olam, which seek to bring collaboration not competition to this dynamic and exciting group of Jewish agencies.
The World Humanitarian Summit will however highlight that despite the growth of well known international charities and the massive resources that are mobilised in response to disasters, the humanitarian system is simply not good enough. We can rightly shift some of the blame to a political ineptitude to eradicate the scourge of war or to warring parties who disregard international humanitarian law, yet it is clear that we need to design a better humanitarian system. In September last year, governments committed to “leave no-one behind” in their establishment of the Sustainable Development Goals, yet the gap between those requiring assistance and the scale and quality of assistance being provided gets ever wider.
One might be forgiven for being sceptical of these global conferences that traditionally appear to be big on words and thin on actions. Yet some of the dialogue in the build up to Istanbul, particularly from the UN Secretary General has been pleasingly angry. Angry at our collective failure to do more about so much human suffering, angry that state priorities seem to dominate over individual rights and angry that some disasters seem to get more attention and resources than others. Refreshingly it calls for fundamental change not just small scale tinkering.
There are many bold suggestions on the table. A new international finance platform to resource protracted crises; a watchdog to monitor breaches of international humanitarian law including the establishment and even the suggestion of the suspension of the Security Council veto in cases of mass atrocities. At a more operational level, one should welcome new ideas to resource and support local organisations at times of disaster rather than just listen to the mega charities, to encourage and enable the distribution of cash rather than goods in kind (what would we do with a sack of rice when we need help!) and to use technology and commercial partnerships where additional capabilities can be gained.
At a time when all charities are under pressure to rebuild trust with their supporters, demonstrating that we must deliver a more effective response to those we serve in a more complete way must outweigh our secondary desire to raise more funding. A commitment to identify solutions locally, to help prevent or mitigate disaster in the first place, to prioritise the needs of women and children, to look at longer solutions to protracted displacement crises and to be ever more accountable to those who support us are no brainers of course.
Let's hope Istanbul is more action than words and marks a moment in humanitarian history that reshapes a commitment to a more humane world.