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Is the World Humanitarian Summit missing the point?

Istanbul hosts the United Nations’ first ever World Humanitarian Summit on the 23rd and 24th of this month. The Summit is the culmination of several years of global consultations and will bring together humanitarians from across the globe to make important commitments to humanity in very uncertain times. But does the problem reside more in who isn’t there than who is there? And more in the topics that are not discussed than in the themes of the official debates?

I recall Jemilah Mahmoud, the original Summit Chief, telling me the Summit would be the “world cup of humanitarians” and replying that maybe she could also consider making it a “humanitarian world cup for non-humanitarians” if the goal was to produce the changes most needed to the system.

Indeed, over the past several years I’ve had the opportunity to advise a number of leading humanitarian organisations and come to question a number of fundamental assumptions on which much humanitarian action rests.

If you are unlikely enough to be caught in a crisis but lucky enough to survive, it is far more likely that you will be pulled from the rubble by your neighbour than by an aid worker because your neighbour is already there. At key moments during a crisis, the key factor determining whether they survive and support others around them or are killed depends on actions they undertake themselves. And these actions are too seldom understood or influenced by a humanitarian sector that is overly concerned with what it can supply rather than what affected people need. This problem is becoming particularly acute because the crisis landscape is escalating rapidly.

Crises can occur anywhere. They are becoming more frequent, more spread out and more complex. Today’s emergencies and their consequences can be a threat to all of us. And the existing approach to humanitarian action cannot keep up with the rising scale of the need. The gap between the funding required by the world’s crises and the amount of funding provided widens each year that passes.

The humanitarian system can’t get to crises quick enough, stay there long enough or deliver enough support to solve the most pressing crisis-related problems. More fundamentally, it is not geared up to understand the demands of the kinds of risk we are increasingly likely to face, including sequential disasters, simultaneous crises and synchronous failures. We can be threatened by the malign use of technologies that few in the humanitarian sector even understand.

Could the only way to deliver a proportionate response be to do substantially more to make a humanitarian of everyone?

The world’s 200,000 humanitarians cannot solve the world’s crises. Approximately 1 in 35,000 people is a humanitarian. They can’t do it all and they can’t look after everyone. Complex emergencies and disasters are a problem for the whole of society and require whole of society solutions.

Engaging a whole of society response will require new sources of incentive, opportunity, support, accountability, business models, scale and expertise.

This will mean reaching way beyond conventional approaches to humanitarian response that are based on a business model, and a set of priorities and principles, such as independence and neutrality that are valuable but self-evidently cannot be shared by everyone.

Pursuing this analysis to its logical conclusion would mean defining a new role for the humanitarian sector in catalysing, enabling and influencing the participation of other sectors. It would usher in a new approach to humanitarian action that is inclusive, collective, self-motivated and reaches parts of society that conventional approaches don’t. One that can appeal to all of us because it is in all our interests.

And there are valid self-interests to pursue. We can seek to not just withstand crises but find innovative ways to actually grow stronger in a world of complex risks.

This will involve humanitarian action in going beyond humanitarian altruism as it is in our own interest to help ourselves and others; beyond risk reduction and response, because whereas the world may face “advanced persistent threats”, human ingenuity can also find advanced persistent opportunities. That is after all how the insurance sector was born. It’s also about going beyond resilience. This is not just about coping with shocks, it’s about actively increasing our success in an unpredictable environment. And beyond business continuity in that this should not just be about continuing our lives and livelihoods, but about actively enhancing them.

Am I suggesting a bleak future for the incumbent humanitarian organisations and the infrastructure of the international humanitarian system? Not necessarily. Humanitarian organisations can make themselves the platform for enabling society to better contend with risk and better adapt to the needs of people exposed to it.

This can involve working across society to identify positive ways to address risk; building an agenda of relevance to others; innovation to create useful opportunities for external participation; engagement by building the right environment for collaboration; co-creation by working with the few to reach the many; and scale, by partnering up to achieve more.

If organisations in the sector sieze these kinds of opportunities, they have the potential not just to make the limited difference they can deliver themselves, but to leverage the far greater potential that comes from deeper societal transformation.

Most battles are ultimately battles of ideas. In this case winning that battle may mean changing the way we collectively perceive suffering, risk and responsibility.

Perhaps we’ll know that we’ve succeeded in engaging society in better adapting to a more disaster prone world and engaged a broader level of consciousness when the most popular video games involve putting cities back together rather than blowing them up?

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