THE BLOG
06/24/2016 01:44 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

World Humanitarian Summit: Turning Agreements into Action

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Last month, the UN held the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul. A huge array of commitments, totaling over 1,500 in number, were made by governments, the UN, and NGOs. Among the most important are the 51 commitments in the "Grand Bargain," a package of reforms tackling a variety of issues ranging from standardized reporting to supporting local and national NGOs. Many of these commitments lack hard targets and timelines to achieve them, instead providing general goals for the development community to achieve. But given the diverse interests and organizations present, the fact that all stakeholders could agree on these broad goals was a positive step forward.

I've written before about the importance of a recipient-centered approach to humanitarian responses, and putting beneficiaries first is at the heart of all of Global Communities' work. We've seen firsthand in Syria how implementing feedback mechanisms and improving accountability to recipients can help strengthen communities, and help them set the stage for assistance that will have a lasting impact. Though I had hoped for more robust commitments on putting beneficiaries at the center of humanitarian response, the summit instead opted for a reference to the "participation revolution" in the Grand Bargain. While this is an important first step, as a community we have to do more. Continuing to cling to old models of simply showing up at a community, providing short term assistance, and moving on, could undermine the positive steps the Summit has taken. It doesn't matter how efficient aid financing is if the program itself doesn't actually meet the community's needs.

Still, there is reason to be optimistic about many of the agreed-upon commitments. Among them is an agreement that the use of cash "helps deliver greater choice and empowerment to affected people and strengthens local markets, but remains underutilized," and that further studies should be done to best understand how to implement cash programs. Global Communities has undertaken research on the effectiveness of cash in Syria and found valuable insights into distributing cash-based assistance in a humanitarian context. There was no final decision made at the Summit as to how much aid should be cash vs. in-kind, instead describing cash as "the preferred and default method of support." This flexibility is important. There are many circumstances where in-kind aid is preferable to cash, but cash is a powerful tool. It is heartening that so many in the humanitarian community are realizing its potential.

Another important outcome of the summit was the official launch of The Global Alliance for Urban Crises, which seeks to dramatically revamp urban humanitarian responses. Global Communities signed on to this alliance, knowing firsthand from responses to Ebola and the Haitian earthquake just how different and important urban responses can be. Historically, disaster assistance has tended to overlook urban issues, placing refugees in isolated camps, or overlooking local institutions when working in an urban environment. At the same time, rapid urbanization has stretched cities' infrastructure to the breaking point, making them especially vulnerable to disasters. The alliance's first goal is to improve sustainability of urban centers by leveraging thousands of experts to help improve disaster prevention, as well as provide an on-call pool of experts to be activated during a disaster.

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This focus on prevention was not just limited urban areas however, and is another promising result to come out of the summit. The development world can and must help lessen the shocks of natural disasters, human conflict and other calamities by helping communities strengthen their infrastructures. This means building up education, health, economic systems and more, in an effort to make them less vulnerable to the ills visited upon them. This is particularly important in the fragile states where humanitarian need is most prevalent, where development efforts are most active. For example, following West Africa's Ebola crisis, Global Communities has been leading efforts in Liberia and Ghana to improve hygiene and sanitation practices. These efforts are already reaping major benefits by helping communities protect themselves from another health crisis, and they are helping individuals keep themselves and their families healthier by fending off other routine health problems that can quickly become life-threatening in underserved communities.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the long overdue recognition that humanitarian response can no longer be siloed from longer-term development efforts. Today's humanitarian crises are more protracted, and require a longer-term approach and multi-year funding to better integrate building more resilient communities even while they receive assistance to meet short-term needs.

Ultimately, while it is always tempting to make bold proclamations about an event like the World Humanitarian Summit's success or failure, it is too early to make a definitive judgment. Many of the commitments agreed upon are important steps to take. If we can focus on achieving these commitments, and remember that our mission is to partner with those in need, then perhaps the Summit will be deemed a success for those who matter most: the communities across the world struggling to survive in a world gripped by crisis.