Orchestrating the movement – a personal reflection on the World Humanitarian Summit

Mark Goldring Aid, Conflict, Disasters, Emergencies, Humanitarian


Last week governments, NGOs, UN agencies and civil society representatives met in Istanbul for the World Humanitarian Summit. With 125 million people currently affected by conflicts and disasters  the need for unified humanitarian action is clear. Here Mark Goldring, Chief Executive of Oxfam GB, reflects on what the summit achieved.

Just a few of the 7000 attendees at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul attended the concert put on in the evening by Daniel Barenboim’s famous West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. If they had, they would have heard an orchestra playing exquisite music with passion and flair, listening carefully to their conductor and to each other, playing their distinctive parts, responding instinctively, but most of all following their leader, and playing in unison with each other. The conductor may have bawled at them in rehearsal, but when the time came they worked as one. That’s certainly
not what it felt like during the day, and is even further from the way the overstretched, over-complicated and under-led humanitarian system works across the world.

Among a healthy mix of governments, UN, international and national agencies, and activists there was some genuinely valuable discussion. Amidst endless turgid platitudes and dull formal speeches, there are some very clear areas where there really is momentum: 

  • There was a real commitment, backed by money, to prioritise the provision of education to displaced children.
  • There was new finance for most affected countries from some of the European countries who have been reallocating their aid budgets to domestic needs, including refugee arrivals.
  • There was more consideration of gender dimensions in needs analysis, protection and responses.
  • Building on strong preparation there was support for a Grand Bargain that promotes better financing, transparency, shared needs assessments and a commitment to more meaningful involvement of local governments and organisations.

As we all ran between the dozen sessions running at any time, there was more talking than listening and few very specific outcomes. But given that we certainly don’t have an orchestra, let alone a high performing one, I left with a sense that change is underway among the individual musicians,  and that the preparation and summit itself contributed to this momentum.

Oxfam at the World Humanitarian Summit

The Oxfam team certainly played a valuable and professional role. Winnie Byanyima, CEO of Oxfam International; Nigel Timmins, Humanitarian Director; and myself, along with other colleagues from right across the confederation brought Oxfam’s perspective to a range of discussions. These ranged from women’s rights to the Arms Trade Treaty, better involving affected communities to cash partnerships, migration to how to strengthen the links between humanitarianism and development.

We brought partners from many countries: Syria, Burma, Lebanon, Philippines, among others, and supported them to get access to platforms and leaders Winnie was able and adept at cornering leaders and telling them their fortune! We brought partners from many countries: Syria, Burma, Lebanon, Philippines, among others, and supported them to get access to platforms and leaders. Before the meeting our advocates, especially in New York and Geneva, had helped shape agendas, sessions and fought to get civil society voices at the high tables.

And while it is important for Oxfam to challenge others, we are also challenging ourselves. Our work at its best is amazing, and we got much respect for both the advocacy and delivery. But we also have room for improvement – whether on women’s rights, involvement of local partners and communities, speed and coordination – we have made commitments to improve. The conference provided valuable space to learn and to explore these areas with others. On Wednesday, after the main meeting, I was able to build on this with the leaders of the other biggest international NGOs in the sector
and explore what we can do better together. We have to lead the response as well as the challenge.

Reluctance of world leaders

Who was at the WHS was important. But who wasn’t was even more so. Only the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, of the G7 leaders turned up, reflecting the reluctance of world leaders to really get stuck into the question that underpins the fact that, while humanitarian aid has increased tenfold in the last 20 years, it feels even more inadequate than ever. While climate change is certainly a factor, it is conflict that is causing the suffering, destruction and prolonged displacement, and the only thing that will change that is peace.

How can world leaders promote peace and sanction those who destroy it? The question is therefore what to do to increase accountability and the consequences for ignoring humanitarian law? How can world leaders promote peace and sanction those who destroy it? It is not the thousands of humanitarians at the summit or the millions of local people who suffer the burden and provide the bulk of every response who can answer that. Even if the humanitarian system worked like the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, it could not cope. In this
respect it became increasingly obvious that the summit would not succeed , or even really try and, in this respect it certainly didn’t surprise us!

Hitting the right notes

But let’s not ignore the successes. I can’t claim that civilians in Syria or South Sudan will be better supported  immediately, any more than our staff and partners in Yemen will feel safer: the humanitarian system is a long way from resembling a great orchestra, but if the individual musicians improve, that is step one.

The improvements agreed this week can make a difference if applied with rigour and, alongside seeking to make sure we apply them ourselves, our immediate task is to hold those with the big money and power to account for turning the progress agreed into plans, and then action. And then we can all carry on trying to build an orchestra.

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Photo: Oxfam staff at the World Humanitarian Summit with photos from the Forgotten Crises exhibition.
40 years, 40 faces – are a series of portraits of 40 Sahrawis from age 1 to 40 illustrate the generations born stateless into this ongoing humanitarian response, people caught between two sides since the start of hostilities linked to the decolonization of the Western Sahara. The first Sahrawi families began to flee their homes and coastal villages near the south-west of Algeria in October 1975 . Credit: Oxfam 

Author: Mark Goldring
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.