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Refugees in Greece © DW/D. Cupolo
Image: DW/D. Cupolo

World Humanitarian Summit interview

Anke Rasper
May 22, 2016

The first-ever World Humanitarian Summit is taking place in Istanbul. DW asked Christina Bennett, one of the experts attending, why this summit is needed and if it can spur fundamental change.


The first ever World Humanitarian Summit will take place in Istanbul next week, attended by leading politicians, UN workers, NGO representatives, private companies, aid workers and researchers. Among them will be Christina Bennett, a research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), a London-based think-tank.

DW's Anke Rasper asked her why a summit on humanitarian issues is needed when many of the topics are already being discussed at other international meetings like the Climate Conference, the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction and the Sustainable Development Agenda.

Christina Bennett: I think the fact that we have held summits on the Sustainable Development Goals, on disaster risk reduction, and on climate change means that the humanitarians need to think in global terms about what the new challenges of this world mean for the humanitarian sector. Humanitarian action is a part of development action; it is a part of disaster risk reduction and a product of climate change. So we need to be thinking more holistically about where we sit as humanitarians within these global frameworks.

Christina Bennett © ODI
Christina Bennett worked in the UN humanitarian system for more than a decade and says fundamental change is neededImage: ODI

DW: ODI recently published a report about humanitarian aid that said reforming existing structures and organizations, including INGOs, the UN, and so on, might not be enough. What does it mean by that?

We have this feeling within ODI, and based on four years of research that we did, that all the reforms of the humanitarian sector in last 25 years have amounted to little more than rearranging deck chairs on the sinking Titanic, rather than building a more seaworthy ship. We've seen lots of reforms of the existing system tinkering with processes, mechanisms and organizations here and there, but we haven't seen the type of fundamental reform that the system requires to function more effectively.

You call this a "modern humanitarian action" that you're proposing. What do you mean by that?

The humanitarian system was developed 75 years ago. Today, you have more disasters, more intense disasters, and more costly recovery from disasters. Conflicts are different. They are more internal; they are fought between armed groups rather than states. They are fought with new forms of warfare such as drones. And parties to the conflict are often more nonstate actors than sovereign states. The system, the structures, the architecture, and the institutions that evolved in 1945 are no longer fit for today's humanitarian crises.

Hunger in the Sahel (c) Fatoumata Diabate
Disasters are increasingly a result of global warming – part of a web that means humanitarian action is closely tied to climate change, development and disaster risk reductionImage: Fatoumata Diabate/Oxfam

Do you think the humanitarian summit can fundamentally change these things?

I think at the end of the day, the summit will have done some good things and put some good ideas on the table. For one, you have this idea of a "Grand Bargain," which is a sort of compact between the 15 largest humanitarian donors and the 15 largest humanitarian organizations. The donors will agree to provide more money - more flexible money and more long-term money. And for their part, the humanitarian organizations will agree to be more transparent, more accountable, in the way they use those funds.

This is very important, but we don't think it goes far enough. As with other reforms of the sector, it doesn't concern the many local organizations, private sector groups, diaspora groups, regional organizations that participate in humanitarian action. I think that's where we need to see more systemic shifts to be able to reorientate the sector to a more local way of responding.

Convoy of aid vehicles, Syria © Getty Images/AFP/O.-H. Kadour
Opposition forces escort a convoy of aid vehicles in Syria: The nature of warfare has changed since the humanitarian system was developed after the Second World WarImage: Getty Images/AFP/O.-H. Kadour

You have worked in humanitarian aid for other organizations, including in South Sudan and in Afghanistan. How do you think that aid workers need to rethink what they do?

Humanitarians have traditionally been the part of the aid system that parachutes into a conflict or a disaster, takes care of some of the short-term, life-saving needs of some of the people involved and then pulls out in order to let either government or other aid organizations step in and do more of the recovery and longer-term development. They can contribute more to that development of these countries – and not see themselves as these kind of cowboys that come in, do humanitarian response, and leave.

There has been a lot of criticism ahead of the summit. One concerns people who are in emergency situations right now. How much impact will the summit have on their fate?

Hopefully the summit will put some critical things on the table and launch a change process that will eventually help the way that we do business and the way that we serve people on the ground. It is unfortunate, as organizations like Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders/MSF) have pointed out, that the summit is not going to galvanize states around some of the most important issues facing humanitarian crises today, the neglect of states to uphold the laws of war - international humanitarian law - causing the undue suffering of civilians. The fact that the summit isn't an official meeting in the same way the Sustainable Development Goals Summit was an official meeting, means governments might not take it as seriously as they might have a more official gathering.

Refugees, Greece © Reuters/A.Konstantinidis
The summit comes as Europe struggles to respond to the needs to refugees living through a humanitarian crisis on its bordersImage: Reuters/A.Konstantinidis

MSF - Doctors Without Borders - have actually pulled out of the summit because they say it's a "fig leaf" event. Do you think there is a danger of that?

There is that danger. I'm hoping the fact MSF drew everyone's attention to this fig leaf metaphor will force people to make more concrete commitments. I think it is up to all of us to make this World Humanitarian Summit something meaningful. If we can put concrete commitments behind the words, in the form of targets and timeframes so these aren't empty promises but things we can actually act on once the summit is over, then it will have been a success.

Christina Bennett is a research fellow at the Humanitarian Policy Group of the London-based think-tank the Overseas Development Institute (ODI). The institute has recently published a study on the global humanitarian system recommending profound changes.

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