World Humanitarian Summit: A Humanitarian Contribution to Peace Is the Missing Piece of the Puzzle

23/05/2016 12:01 | Updated 23 May 2016


What do you have as your screensaver? While some companies allow staff to revel in their favourite sunset snap or their kids pulling hideous faces, others provide the screensavers to focus minds on the top priorities.

At the UK's Department for International Development, the staff's screensavers were all changed last year. No longer do staff start the day reminded of their commitment to tackling poverty; now, they are also committed to building peace in fragile and conflict-affected states. It reflects the new focus of British aid - seeking both to end poverty and to build our common, global security. Indeed, last year the Government announced that half of all British aid will be spent in countries affected by conflict.

The UK Aid Department is far from alone. In fact, many donors, from Sweden to the World Bank, are re-ordering priorities, committing to focus on countries in conflict, or at risk of slipping back into conflict.

The new focus has good cause. Conflict is back on the rise after being in decline for many years, and is forcing millions to flee their homes. And last year, the rich nations' think-tank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) said that we would not achieve the Global Sustainable Goals' 2030 agenda and end extreme poverty without dealing with conflict.

Conflict has changed too - think less men in uniforms marching to their national anthem, think more about smaller groups of fighters or criminal networks - magnified by demographic pressures, climate change and growing global inequality.

The changing face of conflict has also significantly changed the scope and scale of humanitarian assistance. Global humanitarian appeals have increased by an impossible 600% over the last 10 years. Today, 86% of humanitarian aid is going to crises caused by conflict - and the conflicts are dragging on for longer than ever before.

This is why it is no surprise that the UN Secretary General's report 'One humanity: shared responsibility' released in advance of the first ever World Humanitarian Summit, being held in Istanbul this week, begins with a call for political leadership to prevent and end conflict as the only means to reduce humanitarian need.

This call to action has translated into five proposed commitments under the Summit's High Level Roundtable on political action to prevent violent conflict. These include a commitment to act early, improve prevention capacity, commit for the long term to avoid relapse, deal with root causes of conflict and understand what works.

These core commitments could, however, miss an opportunity at the Summit to consider the contribution that humanitarians themselves can make to peace, and the need for a fundamental reform for the humanitarian system to deal with today's crises.

The focus must be on concrete actions. And on how humanitarians who do such outstanding work saving lives in crises can join forces with peacebuilders, as well as political leaders and development workers to better serve people's today - in such a way that also builds a platform for a better future.

We need to ensure that no aid, including in response to humanitarian emergencies, is exacerbating conflict - a principle surely essential to the humanitarian principle of impartiality. Nothing makes a humanitarian agency look biased more quickly than if they are unwittingly feeding local conflicts - for example by only hiring staff or buying goods from one particular group.

For instance, in response to the earthquake in Nepal a year ago, huge sums of aid flowed into the country. But many felt it was distributed unfairly, reinforcing the caste system that played an important role in the conflict that had simmered on.

There are also many stories of aid reinforcing the wealth and influence of powerful warlords or government militaries in countries such as Somalia, Afghanistan, and Democratic Republic of Congo. We can all learn from these sad lessons and ensure emergency aid for today is building peace for tomorrow.

In Lebanon, the arrival of over one million Syrian refugees has added a huge strain. Not surprisingly, friction can run high between Syrians and Lebanese. Take healthcare, for example. The Lebanese felt unfairly treated as they watched international aid go to help Syrian refugees. But Syrians in turn felt discriminated against as many health workers were fast-tracking Lebanese patients - or giving them separate sitting rooms. International Alert trained health workers on how to deal with the pressures in ways that promoted more peaceful relations.

Some such changes are not so difficult to make and many such as World Vision, CARE and Mercy Corps are leading the way. In Nigeria, International Alert has advised humanitarian organisations on very practical, day to day things that can mean the difference between delivering on their goals and making a conflict worse - changing their procurement practices so that they don't favour the interests of power brokers , or bridging divides through recruiting staff in way that is seen as fair.

Last month the world's biggest donors met in Sweden to endorse the International Dialogue Stockholm Declaration. Under this banner they committed, in the lead up to the Humanitarian Summit, to apply a conflict-sensitive approach to development and humanitarian assistance, as well as focusing on prevention by addressing the drivers of conflict

Here again, the key is turning this political commitment into action.

That's why The Peace promise has been agreed by 25 UN agencies, humanitarian, development and peacebuilding NGOs, ranging from World Food Programme, UN Development Programme and UNICEF, through to the World Bank and the UN Peacebuilding Support Office. It lays out a set of commitments which offer practical ways forward to support peace on the ground, now.

In Istanbul, I will be strongly urging member states, as well as other national and international NGOs and international bodies, to endorse these commitments, and to start working on the practical measures that can contribute to peace - even in the very midst of conflict.

Photo: A healthcentre waiting room in Lebanon, where International Alert runs its 'conflict sensitivity' programme in the wake of the influx of Syrian refugees (Nadim Kamel/ International Alert)