By joining up action – and funding - on climate change, conflict and poverty, the world’s biggest crises could get easier to manage
Last year was one of alarming crisis. The Syrian conflict and refugee crisis, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and ongoing violence in Ukraine, South Sudan and the Central African Republic pushed governments and the international community to the limit of their abilities to cope.
Sadly, the picture isn’t looking any better for 2016, with 125 million people currently requiring humanitarian assistance and 60 million being displaced – the highest number since World War Two. Moreover, conflicts are becoming more protracted, with the average conflict now lasting 37 years, compared to 19 years in 1990.
Against this backdrop, the United Nations are convening the first World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) on 23-24 May in Istanbul. For the first time they bring together humanitarians and world leaders with the ambitious goal to make the humanitarian system ‘fit for purpose’ in a rapidly changing world.
The stakes could not be higher. Not only are humanitarian crises and conflict on the rise, but also these crises are changing, largely due to natural disasters - droughts, floods, typhoons and earthquakes - driven by extreme changes in climate. Increasingly, climate change is converging with inequality, rapid urbanisation, and political instability, meaning that more countries are slipping into fragility and outright conflict.
For example, in Syria an unprecedented drought linked to climate change helped set the stage for conflict.
If climate change, disasters and conflict are interlinked, so too must be our responses. And yet, they are not. A study commissioned by the G7 last year found that current processes for dealing with conflict, disasters, climate change, and development run in parallel. What’s more, the explicit recognition of these linked risks is missing from key global agreements, such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This has inhibited joined-up policy and practice.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon acknowledged this stark reality in his report to the World Humanitarian Summit which does not shy away from acknowledging the weaknesses of the current system. In short, the current system is not fit for purpose and humanitarian organisations are struggling to cope with increasingly complex and long-term crises. Without appropriate responses, risks and crises will multiply putting even more pressure on the humanitarian community.
The World Humanitarian Summit is a once in a generation opportunity for a shift in how we approach humanitarian needs, from a system that focuses on responding after a crisis has occurred to one which puts more emphasis on the prevention of crises by addressing their underlying causes.
What this means in practice is to connect humanitarian assistance with peacebuilding, development, climate change adaptation and disaster risk management. We need to break down the silos around these sectors and build collaboration. But the controversial run up to the Summit – with the withdrawal of Médecins Sans Frontières - shows just how challenging this is.
The organisers and participants of the Summit should do their best to make sure that they don’t follow old habits. Co-operation has to be at the centre of the Summit.
One opportunity for this would be through joint commitments that link conflict prevention, sustainable development and humanitarian response. For example, the participants at the Summit could agree to work together in specific contexts to integrate conflict analysis into climate change and disaster risk reduction programming.
Of course, any theoretical change in approach requires institutional change to make it happen on the ground. To be effective, the UN and bilateral donors need to restructure to end disparate approaches to development, peacebuilding and humanitarian responses.
Organisations which work across these issues are already seeking to integrate peacebuilding approaches and should be encouraged to go further. This will not always be easy, but those at risk or actually affected by humanitarian disasters deserve nothing less.
Financing also needs to embrace response and prevention. Disaster prevention and peacebuilding are generally underfunded, initiated too late, not prioritized, or not sufficiently sustained. The international community not only has a responsibility to provide humanitarian assistance to those in need, but it must reduce those needs.
The short-termism of annual—and retrospective—fundraising is counterproductive. The focus on immediate threats prevents governments and organisations from addressing long-term risks such as climate change, economic development, and governance – the issues which underlie many humanitarian catastrophes. Only through adequate investment in medium and long-term sustainable peace and development can vulnerable people become self-reliant.
The ideal is a financial system which enables a seamless transition from support by humanitarian organisations with higher capacity to operate in volatile environments to development organisations with longer-term funding horizons and better capacity to support sustainable, cost-effective development and recovery activities which promote resilience.
If we truly aim to leave no one behind, we must redirect greater attention to fragile and conflict -affected states. Governments have made a commitment to end poverty, yet in conflict-prone places it is increasing.
The World Humanitarian Summit can trigger a shared commitment to address the causes of crisis and conflict. This means bridging the divides between the peacebuilding, development, disaster and humanitarian communities to focus on prevention of disasters and conflict, and consequently reducing humanitarian need.
If the WHS can drive collaboration, coordination and effective funding, we can start dealing with the underlying causes of vulnerability. It is only then we will have some hope of achieving the triple bottom line of building resilience to the big issues of our time: climate change, conflict and poverty.