Reflections from the World Humanitarian Summit: The Optimist’s View

World Humanitarian Summit 2016

world humanitarian summit, Istanbul, Turkey 23 – 24 May 2016

Last week I had the good fortune of attending the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, the first convening of its kind. Beyond the lovely – and slightly extravagant – opening ceremony, there was real work to be done at the summit. With the mantra, “Leave No One Behind” and the hashtag, #ShareHumanity, the ‘powers that be’ attempted to shift the conversation – and the mindset – within the humanitarian aid community to community engagement and local empowerment. A few significant commitments were made, especially the Grand Bargain target of 25 percent of international funds going to local NGOs by 2020, and initiatives launched, such as the Network for Empowered Aid Response.

Yet session after session, I waited to hear the specific commitments from UN agencies and major NGOs. They were not forthcoming. There were declarations that individual voices matter, that partnerships with local actors are important, and that we just must do something about the migration crisis. These were sound bites, written and spoken without passion. But actual financial or program commitments on a broad scale were sadly lacking.

But does it even matter?

I left feeling relieved that I didn’t fall asleep in the special sessions, but energized by the activities and voices that I heard in other settings throughout the venue. The shift in funding to local and national NGOs and enterprises, coupled with exciting innovations and the involvement of for-profit socially minded companies, will necessarily change the focus to local solutions, with or without the international humanitarian leaders. Whether they survive the shift will be up to them. I was particularly excited by three trends that permeated the summit:

Small enterprises with big ideas.

Throughout the summit’s Innovation Marketplace and wandering the halls, were many entrepreneurs who are figuring out ways to either assist international agencies with the shift to local or simply bypass them; it is a shame that the diplomats and agency directors who walked through the Marketplace to get to the Facebook Live booth did not glance at the cool innovations as they passed. HumanSurge, for example, allows professionals in surge capacity to manage their own careers and their own deployments, opening many more opportunities for employment. The creators of MedBox focus on truly open health content that can be shared by anyone, anywhere, not unlike our local language Words of Relief Repository. Our fellow CDAC-Network member, Ground Truth Solutions, told the special session on People at the Centre that communicating with communities is not just about listening, but acting on what we hear – and listening again.

Bottom-up momentum.

While the leaders may be slow to commit to change, at the field level the shift is clear. In our advocacy for more local language content, we often hit roadblocks at country or international levels. There is a presumption that translation is not that important, or that bi-lingual staff can do it just fine. But field staff really understand the need and are committed to local language as a tool to communicate better with and listen to communities. Those who came by our booth at the summit were thrilled that this issue is getting more attention. Importantly, more and more, field staff in places like Kenya, Guinea and Greece are forcing changes higher up the chain. There are also promising pockets of change within headquarters staff, such as the exciting work being done by UNHCR Innovation’s Emergency Lab, and the ICRC’s team committed to communicating with communities. While commitments on an international level were sparse, individuals throughout the summit were committing to the paradigm shift, and that mindset will seep through the sector over time.

Sustainable funding models.

Probably the most exciting conversations I had at the World Humanitarian Summit were those with like-minded organizations focused on non-traditional funding models. It is critical that we look beyond grant cycles to fund important initiatives and innovations that improve overall response. Many members of the humanitarian-to-humanitarian (H2H) initiative launched by ACAPS, of which we are a member, are considering service funding models as a way to build infrastructure and hire staff that fit the needs of the organization, not just the latest grant proposal. It was encouraging to get many nods of support for our new service funding approach from a wide range of large non-profits and agencies. While institutional funding will continue to be important for organizations like ours, sustainable long-term funding modeled after tech start-ups (and encouraged by such innovative funders as the Humanitarian Innovation Fund), will increase innovations designed specifically to meet humanitarian needs, encourage competition to sort out the best ideas, and allow professionalization of small enterprises and non-profit organizations on the local, national and international level.

A momentum for change

Over three years of consultations leading up to the summit, there were many questions as to whether any of it would matter, whether the UN and the sector could actually change to improve humanitarian response. But as those questions were being asked, change was happening all around us. There is momentum for change on local and even international levels. How it will shake out, and who will be the major players in ten years, is unknown, but I’m optimistic that response will be improved, with or without today’s leaders.

Read more about the World Humanitarian Summit here.

Rebecca PetrasBy Rebecca Petras, Translators without Borders Deputy Director and Head of Innovation

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