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World Humanitarian Summit – A personal reflection

Blog post   •   May 27, 2016 14:04 CEST

Daniel Zetterlund (Photo: Håkan Björk)

— 24 May 2016, 11,000 meters above sea level, somewhere between Istanbul and Cairo —

As I write these words the closing ceremony of the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) has just commenced. The culmination of a two year consultative process. A springboard. An interruption. The beginning of something new? Or the continuation of something that was? Or an exhaustive attempt to bring life into a fragile world and a broken system?

About an hour ago I boarded Egypt Air, flight MS736, bound for Cairo and then Juba. Surrounded by a ten centimeter metal shell I now gaze at the horizon. Yesterday pieces from another shell were washed up on the beaches of Alexandria. A shattered shell. The man who welcomed me on board had an empty look in his eyes. Perhaps it was one of his friends that passed away last Wednesday when Egypt Air lost sight of one its planes crossing the Mediterranean? An aura of stillness rests within the aircraft.

WHS was in many ways both a striking and well-orchestrated event. A grand finale for Ban Ki-Moon’s tenure of service as the Secretary-General. Mr. Moon was surrounded by Heads of States, celebrities, other important people and the rest of us small people. A total estimated number of 6 000 people were allegedly enjoying the spaces of WHS for the two days. The opening ceremony, one of the more impressive I have witnessed, saw great speeches and awe-inspiring performances. Ashley Judd (my all-time favorite actress in my earlier years) expressed: ‘How the world is responding to the current global crisis is a crisis in itself. We have to rethink and improve’. Mr. Bond, James Bond aka Daniel Craig, was next in line to enter the stage. Fitting to the occasion he left his firearms at home and was both ’shaken and stirred’.

Centered around the main heading of One Humanity – Shared Responsibility and with several core humanitarian themes and responsibilities, as well as hashtags such as #ReShapeAid and #Sharehumanity, people talked and tweeted away. These are big words. With big words come great expectations. Many had probably expected WHS to generate a small revolution for humanitarian action. I am afraid their expectations were not met. It is more complex than that. Many had also been overall highly skeptical of WHS as a whole. That it would be paying lip service and that their voices would not be heard. That is true. Not all voices have been heard. Nor can they realistically be.

But there were voices. Voices that spoke up on behalf of those who couldn’t. A few rows ahead of me sits a bright young lady. She is deaf and comes from South Sudan. She coordinates a network of women who fight for the rights of those with disabilities. She spoke in Istanbul, both on behalf of herself but also on behalf of others. One of the results of her and others’ fight is the Charter on Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Humanitarian Action. It got traction. It got signatures. Even from Member States. A bold step forward. How we treat the most vulnerable provides a temperature gauge of our society.

The role of faith and its relevance in humanitarian action was also for the first time brought to a global level. We work in contexts of faith where people believe. Faith, not the absence of it, is the norm for most people. Faith moves us into action. Pushes us forward. Faith can move mountains. There was no consensus reached around the role of faith, but it is now on the agenda. Something which we need to take into consideration. A good initiative in this regard is the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities. Its research and evidence papers around the role of faith in humanitarian action are important and worth reading.

Financing was another theme discussed at the WHS. The Grand Bargain is one of the suggested solutions. The idea is that donors will commit to more flexible, multi-year funding, with less burdensome reporting requirements, in exchange for major agencies committing to greater transparency and collaboration and reduced management costs. Today we assist more people in need than ever before. Yet, this is not enough, there are still proportionally even more people in need than previously. There simply isn’t enough cash in the system. We have to both spend it right and expand the circle of donors. This also touches on the nexus on what separates humanitarian from longer term development aid. From a practitioners perspective this is more or less irrelevant and the line is blurred. Surely there are different normative frameworks that guard the two systems, but the person at the center receiving assistance couldn’t care less if the assistance received is to be categorized as humanitarian or development aid. In light of this it was refreshing to hear at least some donors committing to allocate multi-year funding for humanitarian action, something we and the NGO community have long advocated for.

Many of the solutions proposed during the WHS are not new. They’ve been around for some time and should, to some degree, also be viewed as certainties, such as putting people at the center. Nevertheless, and something which was my personal expectation, it can hopefully provide a reference point for further dialogue. A dialogue aimed at identifying constructive commitments and decisions by Member States, UN, NGOs, corporates and individuals. There will be a need to exhort enormous political will clothed in great humility if we shall get this underway.

We have a choice. A famous and successful Swedish football coach once said: ’I choose to coach the good (jag väljer att coacha det goda)’. There’s way too much cynicism in this world. Especially and ironically among us aid folks. Too much rivalry and competition. It makes me sick. In the spirit of greater professionalism within the humanitarian sector; let us not lose sight of its historical core values and drives, such as heart, passion and true altruism. We need to change. Be transformed. The sector needs to change. This we know. We are not naive. It would be easier to surrender. Pull out. Not engage when things do not work according to one’s plans. But we all have a choice. I choose to make an active choice of continuing to stay positive. To focus on the good.

The mission is huge. Overwhelming. Suffocating. It can cause us to get paralyzed. But that’s when we need to breathe deeply. Stretch further. We have to allow ourselves to be moved. Through our own vulnerability and our own inadequacy go to the source. Renew our strength, look up and never give up the good fight.

Thank you dear committed and wonderful colleagues at IAS for taking part in this fight. Tomorrow we at IAS will formally start to address and define our commitments in regards to the outcome of WHS. But today I allow myself to reflect and pray for a broken and fragile world. To accept the things I cannot change and to receive courage, strength and assurance for the things I can.

// Daniel Zetterlund, CEO, International Aid Services

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