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Theatre without actors or action

The first World Humanitarian Summit flopped, except for Michael D

The first ever World Humanitarian Summit, held in Istanbul last month, is symptomatic of everything that is wrong with our world and our politics today. It brought the global political theatre, which has replaced real action at the UN in recent years, to new lows. These lows are all the more reprehensible when the lives of millions of people, caught up in humanitarian emergencies of all types, depended on the success of this Summit.

Such a summit has been long overdue and will now become a regular event. It was the first time that the ‘humanitarian eco-system’ – the plethora of agencies involved in the burgeoning humanitarian industry, came together to examine their mission and role. The system is almost at breaking point, with the scale of need outweighing the funding and the capacity made available.

Climate change and continued protracted conflict are destroying lives and economies. This year alone, El Niño, compounded by a spike in global temperatures due to climate change, has resulted in 50 million people right down along the east coast of Africa being in need of food aid. The UN Sustainable Development Goals cannot be reached if such calamities persist.

Despite an 18-month lead-in process, and the substantial efforts of the humanitarian community, the Summit produced no outcome of substance. All that resulted was a weak communique, rich in hyperbole, but devoid of political reality. Most world leaders declined the invitation to attend. The failure of the G7 nations, particularly the permanent members of the UN Security Council, to attend the Summit meant no serious political discussion could take place. Angela Merkel was the only G7 leader who made it.

The ongoing widespread violations of international humanitarian law in conflict zones, such as Syria, and the failure of countries to honour their responsibilities to take in refugees were the two big elephants in the room at the Summit. The choice of Turkey to host this Summit predated the crisis now unfolding on Europe’s borders. The location, and the EU’s seemingly unending migration crisis formed a critical backdrop. Yet none of this political context was even discussed.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) called the event a “fig leaf of good intentions”. They refused to go, given the controversy about the EU-Turkey migration deal and the ongoing targeting of their hospitals in conflict zones. Last year 75 MSF hospitals were bombed, killing and injuring hundreds of civilians, including their staff.

However, the Summit did produce some small shifts, which will have an impact on the delivery of humanitarian relief, if implemented.

One of these was the so-called ‘grand bargain’ which recognises the importance of international actors working together with smaller, national organisations in crisis situations. The irony of most current humanitarian responses is that the arrival of major international agencies often crowds out the local ones. This makes them more vulnerable to future crises and more dependent on external support.

There were some important statements about the need to increase funding and to make it more flexible. The reality is that the humanitarian aid system is at breaking point. It is being overwhelmed, and the Summit did nothing to stem this trend. This is because there are simply too many crises; too many people displaced for too long who cannot integrate, cannot live lives without dependency on humanitarian aid; and the very high cost of sustaining people while wars continue. The resolution requires sustained political will and attention. This was not evident at the Summit.

Ireland was represented at the Summit by President Higgins rather than a member of the Government. Perhaps this was a matter of timing, given that the Minister of State for Development Aid, Joe McHugh, was only appointed the week before the Summit.

President Higgins made a big impact, if not on the outcome, certainly on the tone of the debate.

His interventions at the Summit stood out because he chose to focus specifically on the many issues which were not up for discussion. These included the root causes of the growing humanitarian crisis globally, the need for reform of the international political system, and the urgency of a new ‘paradigm’ or economic order.

His message resonated at the Summit. For those unfamiliar with the constitutional role of the President in Irish politics, including the international media, it may have appeared that the Irish Government had suddenly undergone a major conversion. Ironically, the a-political President Higgins got closer to addressing the politics of the situation than any other leader at the Summit.

By Lorna Gold