Politics of Poverty

WANTED: Radical shifts on protection & power at the World Humanitarian Summit

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Khalil, 7, displays a tile he has painted for his family in Zataari Refugee Camp. (Photo: Sam Tarling / Oxfam America)

The world is at a crossroads, and the World Humanitarian Summit is an important opportunity to set us on the right path.

As Secretary General Ban Ki Moon says in his report for the World Humanitarian Summit, “in too many places, peace, stability and sustainable economic growth remain elusive.”

He goes on to identify the problems in the world today: brutal and seemingly intractable conflicts; more countries slipping into fragility; violent extremism, terrorism and transnational crime; growing economic inequality widening gap between the rich and  poor; climate change-induced disasters with greater frequency and intensity; and millions of people leaving their homes in search of safety or opportunity while the capacity and willingness of countries to absorb them is being seriously challenged.

The World Humanitarian Summit is the first of its kind.  And while it is clear that one Summit is not going to resolve all of the momentous problems outlined in the Secretary General’s report, it is an opportunity to bring Heads of State and governments, representatives of affected communities, national and international aid organizations, global opinion leaders, private sector leaders and others together to agree that we can and must do better to end conflict and alleviate suffering.

The Summit must bring strong and real commitments to uphold the norms that safeguard humanity in war. 

In Yemen, a Saudi-led coalition, supported by the US, is engaged in an armed conflict featuring a shocking disregard for civilian life and infrastructure.  In response, the Saudis have said “this is warfare” and the White House expressed “deep concern” while continuing to provide logistical and intelligence support to military operations. In Syria, Russian airstrikes have directly hit and damaged civilian infrastructure with reports of thousands of civilian casualties, yet Moscow continues its bombing campaigns and denies any civilian casualties whatsoever. The bombing of a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan by US forces last October was properly publicized and condemned, but it is just the tip of the iceberg. On a daily basis, the parties to conflicts around the world destroy schools, target health facilities, bombard electrical plants, and eliminate other objects with little to no military value.

International humanitarian law is not just a set of guidelines. It is a body of binding rules agreed by states to ensure that a little humanity remains in the world’s most dangerous places. World leaders must insist that these rules be respected – because we simply cannot afford a world of war without limits.

The Summit must deliver a pathway to put more decision-making power and resources where they should be: in the hands of people affected by crisis.

From 2007-2013, only 1.87 percent of all United Nations humanitarian funding went directly to local actors like governments and local NGOs. While indirect funding does eventually find its way to local actors (often in the form of a sub-grant from an international NGO), it’s not reported or tracked so the quality and quantity is unknown, essentially creating a black box.

Local actors are essential to any humanitarian response. They are always the first responders, they have the local knowledge and relationships to be effective, and they are the ones who will stay behind long after the cameras are gone. What they need is more consistent and reliable resources so they’re able to take the lead in preparing for and responding to disasters in their own communities.

Good first steps are initiatives like the Charter 4 Change for localization of humanitarian responses, through which organizations like Oxfam have committed to dedicate at least 20 percent of their humanitarian resources to local actors. Oxfam has committed to dedicate 30 percent by 2018.

But local leadership is not just about resources, it’s about power.

In Istanbul, Oxfam will be calling for more balanced partnerships to ensure local partners and communities have a voice and decision-making power at all stages of humanitarian response. Too often local actors are regulated to the role of subcontractors rather than equal partners, denying them the ability to make decisions that impact their communities.  For example, evaluations from the Haiti earthquake in 2010 found that responders had limited understanding of the local context, frequently bypassed local authorities and civil society organizations, and insufficiently communicated with affected populations. The Summit provides a real opportunity to make a power shift towards supporting local organizations’ space to lead in humanitarian crises and to strengthen their technical and organizational capacity to do so.

For Oxfam, the heart of our humanitarian ethos is the power of people.

Oxfam was founded in 1942 as a campaign for food supplies to be sent through an allied naval blockade to starving women and children in occupied Greece during the Second World War.

This ethos will be with us at the Summit as we call for governments to uphold international humanitarian law and human rights.  And it will push us to move decision-making and power to local actors and affected communities.

Faith in governments’ and world leaders’ ability to address the fundamental problems facing the humanitarian system is alarmingly low.  If we want to change that, and want to help people affected by crises, we need to first uphold our global commitments to protect them and start trusting them more with their own future.

We don’t have time to waste.

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