Istanbul / AFP
Global leaders and key NGOs gather in Istanbul on Monday for an unprecedented UN-backed summit aimed at transforming the world’s response to humanitarian crises, despite scepticism the talks will have little impact. With an estimated 60 million people displaced around the world and conflict and climate change posing a growing risk, there is widespread agreement among governments and aid groups that the current humanitarian system is in desperate need of an overhaul.
The two-day summit aims to establish a set of “concrete actions and commitments” that would help countries better prepare to fight crises, lay out a new global approach to manage forced displacement, and secure dependable financing to respond to such situations. But participants will need to overcome deep scepticism about the summit’s ability to realise its ambitious agenda, and not turn into yet another international talking shop with good intentions but zero outcome. Medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has pulled out of the event, fearing it could be a “fig leaf” for a lack of global action.
The choice of Istanbul is symbolic, with Turkey itself hosting at least 2.7 million of the estimated 4.84 million refugees who have fled the conflict in Syria.
If delegates step outside the metal security barriers separating the luxury venue from the outside world, they will see the desperate faces of Syrian refugees begging and selling low-value goods on many Istanbul street corners.
But with 60 world leaders due to attend including Turkish President RecepTayyipErdogan, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, participants hope the summit will at least start to make a difference.
“Expectations for the summit have gradually reduced. We still have the feeling there is a lot of good faith going into Istanbul. We also have a restricted view of what is possible to achieve,” said Rob Williams, chief executive of charity War Child, which supports and protects children around the world affected by conflict. “The number of people in the world who really understand how the world humanitarian system is failing is really small,” he said.
“If that number of people increases during the summit then that would have been worth it. But I think we are in the early days of the world being honest with itself.” He said the current humanitarian system was “failing children quite profoundly” and the summit had to come up with “concrete agreements” to punish war crimes, improve education of children and protect their welfare in camps. Turkey, which has spent some $10 billion in hosting the Syrian refugees and repeatedly complained of the West’s failure to shoulder the burden, is emphasising the importance of the summit and has set up Olympic Games-style countdown clocks around the city.
UN Secretary General Ban has described the event as a “singular opportunity” to show that “we will not accept the erosion of humanity which we see in the world today”.
“History will judge us by how we use this opportunity,” he said last month.
KeremKinik, the chairman of the Turkish Red Crescent, said the summit needed to be a “milestone” for updating the humanitarian relief system and setting development targets.
“We are expecting less bureaucracy from the humanitarian system. The system must empower the local actors—the small actors, in the local areas, who are facing directly the humanitarian crises.” “The structure must empower these small and medium-sized NGOs through localisation,” he added, calling for a more sustainable financial system with fewer overheads. The credibility of the event was dealt a blow by the decision to pull out by MSF, who lamented the summit’s agenda failed to reinforce the obligations of states to uphold humanitarian law and that any commitments made would be non-binding.
Sandrine Tiller, MSF’s programme advisor on humanitarian issues, said that the current global humanitarian system was “bureaucratic and risk-averse” and the summit risked making no difference to people suffering from conflicts in places like Syria and Yemen. “The current content and format of the summit make it difficult to see it as more than a gathering which will state good intentions but not make any real change.”