Can two days in Istanbul fix the global humanitarian system?

ISTANBUL: Today, I arrived in Istanbul. Along with more than 5,000 others, including some sixty Heads of State and government, I'm here for the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS). Will the whole thing amount to more than just another expensive talk-shop? I believe so. Certainly, it represents the best chance we have to drive meaningful change on one of the most pressing issues facing our world today.

To be sure, the route to Istanbul has been rocky. Three weeks ago, after taking part in months of preparatory discussions, Médecins Sans Frontières announced they wouldn't be attending, claiming the summit has lost its way and become 'a fig leaf of good intentions'. Others have expressed concerns that, without the legal clout of a long-term, integrated intergovernmental process, such as that which created the Sustainable Development Goals, or last year's climate change agreement, member states attending the Summit will have little reason to commit to anything new.

But, the WHS - the biggest intergovernmental Summit of the year and the first of its kind - comes at a time of extreme humanitarian need, shocking violations of international humanitarian law and a growing consensus that the current systems and financing of emergency relief are in need of major reform. Even though the world spends more than ever before on providing life-saving assistance - US$ 25 billion last year alone, 12 times more than fifteen years ago - our generosity has never been more insufficient. We are facing a widening funding gap for humanitarian action, estimated to be around US$ 15 billion.

Our meetings this week are a crucial opportunity to rethink the humanitarian financing system, a critical challenge with three interdependent aspects. First we must look to reduce humanitarian need, addressing its root causes wherever possible. Second, we must mobilise additional funds through established and innovative financing mechanisms. And third, we must seek to radically improve the efficiency of the humanitarian aid system.

In our pre-Summit report, Too Important to Fail, the High-Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing called for a new and sustainable model of humanitarian aid. Here in Istanbul, our hope is that the world's biggest donors and implementing agencies will adopt a 'Grand Bargain', setting out how they intend to change their

behaviours over the next few years. We need to reduce the complex donor requirements, damaging inter-agency competition, unnecessary duplication and high overheads that compromise the current system.

We also need a new approach towards building long-term capacity in local communities. It is staggering to see how little official international humanitarian aid currently goes direct to local actors - 0.2% at the last count. If we continue to allocate only one in every 500 dollars spent on humanitarian interventions directly to first responders, we have little chance of building long-term capacity close to the ground. Humanitarian relief need not be something that arrives on planes from faraway places.

If the WHS is an important opportunity to reform the way our humanitarian system functions, it must also be an opportunity to reform the way we think about the system; to re-define what we mean by humanitarian. Even the measures we use to track interventions - almost always focused on official aid flows from a few rich countries to the rest of the world - are outdated.

A new way of tracking the totality of humanitarian support - including increasingly important flows from middle income countries, domestic spending by countries all over the world, and private contributions from philanthropists and individuals - will help to build a more complete picture of our collective response to emergencies. It will also help us to usher in a new framework of universal shared responsibility, not of crude divisions between developed and developing countries, between state and non-state actors, and between humanitarian and development expenditure.

I believe our interactions this week will ask these real, and difficult, questions of the humanitarian system and its implementation. If there's a 'fig-leaf of good intentions', it isn't set to preserve many people's modesty, as far I can see. The build-up to this Summit made it increasingly clear that the status quo is simply no longer an option.

I want to see this week's events result in a new resolve, underpinned by concrete measures, to nurture local capacity as a means to more effective humanitarian interventions and as an end in itself. I want to see a full range of stakeholders come together to implement what has been the most ambitious effort of modern times to make short andlong term, fundamental reforms to our humanitarian system. Putting in place a system that can raise sufficient money, with sufficient reliability, to support those most acutely affected by disaster, disease or displacement is a basic responsibility and one that is well within our means.

To ensure that our fellow human beings no longer live or die without dignity for the lack of money - I think that must be worth a shot.