The World Humanitarian Summit: where are the results?

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The ‘People at the Centre’ session: No one at the centre!

I wrote this on the way home from the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul last week. Disclosure: I was involved in the summit’s preparations, particularly working on reforms to improve community engagement in humanitarian response.

I enjoyed a lot at the summit, from iris-scanning for cash delivery (amazing! dignified, cheap, effective: a vision of the future) to the Tzu Chi Foundation’s mission of inspiring love among givers and receivers (also wonderful).

But the headline commitments did not add up to much, at least in my area. We have a lot to think about how to do better. It was a great trade fair, but it fell far short as a summit.

Here’s how the process played out in relation to communmity engagement. Warning: this gets a little technical. It feels worth putting on the record. If you want to skip to the end, I have some reflections about what we can learn from it all.

The vast consultation

Between May 2014 and July 2015, an estimated 23,000 people invested their time contributing to a vast global consultation process. One of the major themes that emerged was that aid agencies need to listen and respond better to the people they help. This was summed up in the overall report, Restoring Humanity:

“People affected by crises should be enabled to exercise greater voice and choice in humanitarian action, including through … concrete measures to increase accountability to affected people.” (p. ix)

In October 2015, the consultation process concluded in a ‘Global Consultation’ event in Geneva. This included a break-out session on “Transforming how humanitarian agencies engage with affected people”. The summary of the session records a short analysis of the issues and the following recommendations:

  • “Develop & adopt concrete commitments to radically enhance transparency …
  • Adopt the Core Humanitarian Standard ….
  • Ensure consistent leadership and resources for community engagement in all humanitarian programmes …
  • Ensure regular review and revision of all strategic and project plans …”

These recommendations built on a powerful analysis that was taking shape of why previous aspirations for reform had not succeeded. They were shared publically and informed civil society’s propositions for strengthening the Grand Bargain (a high profile deal between big donors and agencies to improve efficiency).

For example, ICVA proposed that the ‘Participation Revolution’ section of the Grand Bargain should include:

  • “Ensure that the overall management team in every significant response includes a senior position wholly focused on community engagement …
  • Understand the affected society’s existing mechanisms for public communication, representation and accountability … and work with them … (NB much more significant than new technology in improving practice.)
  • Ensure that all strategic and operational plans are regularly reviewed and adjusted …
  • Support all of these commitments with appropriate resources, staffing and operational / funding policies.”

What happened in the Grand Bargain

The final text of the Grand Bargain has a section on achieving a ‘Participation Revolution’. But it only includes much more general reforms – which are likely to be much less effective. They are:

  • “Improve leadership and governance mechanisms at the level of the humanitarian country team … to ensure engagement with and accountability to people and communities …
  • Develop common standards and a coordinated approach for community engagement and participation …
  • Strengthen local dialogue and harness technologies to [improve] feedback.
  • Build systematic links between feedback and corrective action to adjust programming.

Donors commit to:

  • Fund flexibly to facilitate programme adaptation in response to community feedback.
  • Invest time and resources to fund these activities.

Aid organisations commit to:

  • Ensure that, by the end of 2017, all humanitarian response plans … demonstrate analysis and consideration of inputs from affected communities.”

There is potential here. But nothing certain. The language leaves a lot of wriggle room for anything from real change to token progress. Given the momentum around the Grand Bargain, it looks well worth continuing to engage to try to define concrete, measurable actions that could make a real difference.

What happened in Istanbul

On Tuesday 24th May, the second day of the summit in Istanbul, there was a special session on ‘People At The Centre’. The programme stated: “this session will invite commitments from stakeholders which ensure that affected people know what they can expect from aid providers and are able to express their views and concerns.”

The commitments made during the session were desultory. The speakers included the Kenyan Deputy President, the Swedish Deputy Prime Minister and the Executive Director of UNICEF. They talked in general terms about a range of topics loosely related to ‘people at the centre’. They touched on aspirations for more listening, for a mindshift, for responding better to what affected people say; and general descriptions of their assistance. Details here – scroll to the bottom.

The Executive Director of Oxfam International made a firm commitment to the Core Humanitarian Standard, which was welcome, as was my friend Manu Gupta’s emphasis on supporting local leadership. Tony Lake from UNICEF mentioned that the UN has agreed to a new Common Services Platform, which also has potential. But none of these are transformatory.

Perhaps others made more commitments on this central issue somewhere else. I look forward to hearing about them, if they did. There was no escaping the sense of deflation in the room.

The whole process around the summit didn’t lend itself to creating tough commitments. But so far, what we have is very general and not much different from many previous aspirations to be more participatory and more accountable to affected people. It’s hard to see how it will be more effective.

What can we learn?

All of which raises some searching questions for those of us involved, like:

  1. How can we harness what has been done to drive positive change? The best bet may be in following up the Grand Bargain.
  2. How else can we use the huge amount of work & analysis developed for the summit? The inputs to the consultation are mostly publically available and are a researchers’ treasure trove. A huge amount of time & money were spent on them.
  3. What does this mean about our collective efforts to improve community engagement? How could we achieve more in the future? A lot of us have spent a lot of time and money on this process. It feels like it’s time for us to think carefully about that.

Here are my initial responses to question 3:

Across the humanitarian sector, many different agencies work independently with fragmented leadership. Politics at all levels often blows collaborative action off course. The Grand Bargain seems to represent the limits of internal reform among the big players in the sector.

Community engagement is only one of many priorities that compete for leadership attention, when it comes to reform. The summit proves that it’s not a very high priority. We don’t have a clear narrative that joins the major priorities up as the basis for collective action. This really undermines effective change. Going further, will there ever be enough leadership bandwidth to get to grips with community engagement?

Community engagement still feels too complicated. It has to be done in context specific ways. It is often described in conceptual terms. All the different overlapping concepts cause confusion, for instance: ‘accountability to affected people’, ‘communicating with communities’, participation and others. In reality, community engagement often conflicts with serious operational pressures, and it remains a voluntary activity. All of this also undermines practical reforms that could improve how agencies work.

Looking ahead, progress will depend on setting a small number of highly effective, specific management actions, and promoting them consistently. This is a challenge for all of us involved in reform. There’s a lot to build on that already has traction. But clearly there is a lot more work to do, involving hard headed analysis and co-operative compromise in equal measure. We desperately need all the initiatives in this space to come together around a common and urgent agenda, if we’re going to make progress.

2 Responses

  1. Dear Alex, I do share the sense of disappointment you express here in relation to the lack of concrete commitments coming out of the Summit. Even the Grand Bargain is not so specific and binding if you look at it in details. In my humble perspective, the problem of our sector is cultural (and maybe it’s not specific to us, just a matter of the human race…) and cuts across all stakeholders, from donors to the UN to NGOs. We approach commitments as Facebook users approach the “like” button. So many charters have been designed and promoted in the sector, none of which you can disagree with, but none of which comes together with a system allowing to check whether your commitment has any more value than a “like” on Facebook. If we want to improve, we need fewer commitments and put more work and accountability into making them a reality. In that sense, the CHS and its verification framework is one of the very few approaches presented at the Summit that offers a credible way to come up with a baseline and measure progress in an objective way. Looking forward to getting the first results this year, and kudos to all our members who have already started the process (and that includes PLAN International)!

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