World Humanitarian Summit’s Grand Bargain

The World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, May 23 - 24, 2016, was convened amidst an atmosphere described by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as outrage, frustration and deep concern about the state of our humanity.

Vast numbers of people across the globe are suffering from endemic poverty, conflicts, and natural disasters. Unprecedented levels of trauma and devastation are affecting the future of entire generations. We are in the midst of one of the greatest humanitarian crises of our lifetime – on a scale comparable with the human devastation of the Second World War that lead to the Marshall Plan, the founding of the United Nations, and the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

After three years of consultations with 23,000 people in over 150 countries, the Summit called on governments and large international Aid organizations to respond to the series of inter-locking crises with a common Agenda for Humanity and a heart-felt commitment to cooperative action.

Nine thousand participants were present in Istanbul for the Summit. They came from 173 countries and included 55 Heads of State along with representatives from 700 NGOs and 250 major international NGOs. There was controversy – Doctors Without Borders pulled out because of concerns that nothing would be done to protect their hospitals and medical centers from being attacked by actors in conflict zones (militias, government forces and police). Owing to disagreements among governments and aid agencies about how to improve global response to humanitarian crises, there was concern – would the Summit be able to achieve anything?

The very fact that a gathering of this size, with this degree of high-level involvement from key actors took place is itself significant. Cooperation between different players can only happen as people and organizations with differing perspectives engage with each other, meet and discuss visions and issues (like how to get more solid data in order to better assess the effectiveness of humanitarian aid).  The humanitarian community has been likened to a vast eco-system, and this is the first major time that that group, as a whole, has attempted to come together to review problems and plan for future cooperation. Perhaps even more importantly, concern amongst people of goodwill around the world needs to be educated, informed and mobilized to respond appropriately to the immensity of the crisis – and a Summit like this provides an opportunity for major reporting of background stories.

Thanks to the Summit a defined field of concern, goodwill and creative intelligence became focused and concentrated for a moment in time. It is as if the heart of humanity was, for this time, held in the light. Participants in World Goodwill’s Cycle of Conference Initiative worked with this thought to imagine a flow of dynamic will energy pouring into and through all of the deliberations and negotiations in Istanbul. Other groups working in prayer, visualization and contemplation will surely have held similar Vigils.

This was not an event like the UN’s Paris Climate Change Conference in December or the Sustainable Development Goals Summit in September last year. Those gatherings required negotiation followed by an up or down vote on specific agreements designed to lead to waves of follow-up action. They marked the culmination of decades of intense debate and activity. Each attracted the presence and active participation of Heads of State and government leaders at the highest level.

The Humanitarian Summit did not attract anything like the same sort of high-level government engagement (Angela Merkel was the only G7 leader present). In a sense this reflects the complexity of the issues currently in the spotlight and the absence of any commonly agreed framework forward – Syria, the Islamic State, and the massive waves of refugees and displaced families symbolize the chaotic and often lawless nature of the humanitarian crises.

Not much progress was made on the intractable political issues like fostering Respect for the Rules of War (modern conflicts have been characterized by the targeting of civilian populations, and places of refuge such as hospitals, churches and mosques). But beyond this unexpected levels of progress did take place in the organizing and coordinating of humanitarian aid. The Summit revealed that the heart of humanity is sound and is ready to move forward in responding to the desperate needs of people in distress.

The Guardian reported that most members of the humanitarian aid community admitted to being pleasantly surprised by  The Grand Bargain – A Shared Commitment to Better Serve People in Need, the major agreement reached between governments and aid agencies:

A deal which will see disaster victims being given cash instead of vouchers or food, and which requires aid agencies to be more transparent and efficient in the way they spend money, is generally seen as the most significant step forward at the UN’s first ever aid summit this week.

Signatories agreed to 51 commitments to improve the quality and effectiveness of emergency aid finance.  These need further definition and targets to ensure implementation, but they do reflect a willingness to reduce bureaucracy in the passage of aid from donors to those in need, an increasing reliance on work with local partners and a willingness to distribute aid to the victims of crises in the form of cash rather than goods or services. Right now less than 2% of all humanitarian aid goes directly to local NGOs – by 2020 signatories have agreed to increase this to 25%.  Other complex issues in coordination between agencies were also addressed.

Perhaps the most significant principle agreed to in the Grand Bargain is that the people affected by humanitarian crises will in future be included in decision making processes:

We need to include the people affected by humanitarian crises and their communities in our decisions to be certain that the humanitarian response is relevant, timely, effective and efficient. We need to provide accessible information, ensure that an effective process for participation and feedback is in place and that design and management decisions are responsive to the views of affected communities and people.   

The Guardian’s review of the Summit concluded that many in the humanitarian aid community:

felt that just bringing the whole sector together like this was worthwhile. “I don’t think we’ve ever all met up like this,” said Sean Lowrie, head of the Start Network. “I’m so used to going to meetings and seeing the same faces over and over again. It’s been invigorating, refreshing to see how big and wide the humanitarian sector is. For that, if for nothing else, it’s been worthwhile.”


Further Reading