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Aid Reform not Reduction Needed Post-World Humanitarian Summit

10/06/2016 15:09 | Updated 10 June 2016

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The dust is just beginning to settle after the first ever World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) in Istanbul at the end of May.

The reaction to the Summit has been mixed - grandiose, did it achieve enough? How will the commitments made be held to account? Was it a valuable consultative process that reflected the views of the huge range of people involved in humanitarian aid (inclusive of the recipients of that aid) or was it an opportunity for the biggest players in the system - donor governments, UN agencies and International NGOs - to shore up the status quo?

The Summit had ambitious and laudable goals. It was not meant to just 'tweak' the system - to improve the workings of the UN system and its (usually northern) INGO partners. It was meant to be more radical than that. Many hoped that it would be able to turn that system on its head - make aid effective, accountable, locally-led; streamline the great unwieldy beast that is the UN/INGO system; cut swathes through the mountains of paper created every year in service of 'donor accountability' and instead become accountable to the people we're trying to help. On that basis it is probably fair to say that, post-Summit, we still have a very long way to go.

Yet, we have not come home empty-handed. World leaders at the Summit clearly acknowledged the need to address conflict as the primary driver of crisis. It is no longer acceptable for humanitarians to address the symptoms of crisis without also helping tackle the root causes, using peace-building, conflict mitigation and governance programming. They also committed to new and better ways of helping those in need - including through the increased use of cash in emergencies, which my organisation Mercy Corps' experience has shown can be faster, more effective and more sustainable than handing out goods in many cases.

But, let's not ever forget that the Summit itself was conceived and designed to respond to an urgent life-and-death problem - that the world is facing levels of suffering not seen since the second world war. A world where over 1.5 billion people struggle to survive in states of chronic conflict and fragility and 60 million people have been forced from their homes by war, violence and oppression. In these ever more complex, protracted and challenging environments the current 'humanitarian system' has proven to be broken and unable to cope. Regardless of the failures and criticisms of the Summit, we must move forward to build on what was achieved.

But post-summit, as we all returned to our day jobs, we once again face a challenge to international aid. An online petition driven by a British newspaper has forced MPs to revisit the UK's historic commitment to aid which is barely a year old.

On March 9th last year, I could not have been more proud to be British when we, the first G8 country, committed to spending 0.7% of our wealth on helping the poorest and most vulnerable around the world. A concrete and sustained commitment which secures our place at the forefront in ending poverty, violence and suffering around an increasingly interconnected world.

The UK's leadership is not limited to our financial contribution. Politicians, NGOs and people affected by crisis around the world consistently laud the reputation of the UK in terms of quality, innovation, efficiency and principled aid. We don't just give hand-outs and short-term fixes, we take on the problems of corruption, conflict, inequality and violence. It is not just NGOs and the Government that lead this work, we have some of the best think tanks and academic institutions in the world focusing on meeting these challenges, and some shining examples of the best contributions businesses can make to responding to crisis and disaster. Whether this is Coca-Cola, the Department for International Development and MasterCard working with us in Nigeria to provide girls with economic opportunities and a brighter future, or our partnership with Google providing information and options to refugees fleeing their war-torn countries for Europe.

Meeting urgent needs in complex and insecure environments is far from easy and, as I've previously written, we in the humanitarian sphere must do better in communicating the true costs and complexities of what we do, and we must keep getting better at what we do. We know the returns are worth it. As Ban Ki Moon highlighted at the World Humanitarian Summit, humanitarian aid globally costs the same as 1% of global military spend. We can afford our share; the returns are more than worth it. Over the last five years alone UK aid has helped over 13 million people with emergency food aid, and given nearly 63 million people access to water, sanitation and hygiene services. UK investment in immunisation and education saves a child's life every two minutes and ensures 11 million children go to school.

Ending the UK's commitment to spend just 7p out of every £10 of our national wealth on international aid is not the answer. This will send the wrong signal to both the countries we are asking to commit to the same spending, and importantly to the hundreds of millions of the world's poorest who we are supporting to lift out of poverty once and for all.

As highlighted at the World Humanitarian Summit, the case for reforming aid is clear. That means we must do better, not do less. Reducing aid now would be short-sighted, short-termist and ultimately diminish the UK's position in the world.

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