Lead up to Istanbul: Five ways we can better respond to crises

The first World Humanitarian Summit is bringing NGOs, government, the private sector and many others together in May. Here’s what participants — and the sector at large — should keep in mind.

By: , /
February 23, 2016
A compound housing Syrian refugees in Sidon, southern Lebanon (Feb. 3, 2016). The massive number of refugees has challenged the already delicate and inter-communal balance in the country. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

The first-ever World Humanitarian Summit (WHS), an initiative by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon put forward to propose solutions to the 21st century’s most pressing humanitarian issues, will take place on May 23 and 24 in Turkey.

In the lead up, participating countries are preparing positions and actions to be hammered out at the summit in Istanbul. Thousands of individuals from non-governmental organizations, the private sector, academia and affected communities will be taking part in an unprecedented collective effort to redefine how to reach the world’s most vulnerable. Canada’s participation, as a major player in humanitarian aid, will be informed by Global Affairs Canada’s ongoing consultations with Canadian stakeholders and international organizations geared towards a framework to guide Canada’s assistance decisions.

Preparations for the World Humanitarian Summit have already involved a year of regional consultations of thousands of actors in the humanitarian field. The UN Secretary-General has released a report in advance of the summit, entitled One Humanity: Shared Responsibility. The report has five calls for action, and builds on the global consensus achieved at the UN Sustainable Development Agenda in September 2015 – “leave no one behind and focus on those furthest behind first.” It has some bold ideas and tackles in a new way an old policy agenda that began in the 1980s, transcending the humanitarian and development divide.

In light of the May conference, and building on Ban Ki-moon’s report, here are five specific ways humanitarian and development agencies can work together when responding to crises, to better support the world’s most vulnerable and help them become more self-reliant.

1. Engage more with individuals and communities that act as first responders.

People are at the centre of both Agenda 2030 and the framework for the WHS. In Liberia, for example, local authorities and community residents were at the core of the Ebola response. With a little support from the UN and the international community, they were able to roll back Ebola and are now focusing on recovery. In Nepal, families affected by the earthquake led the first debris management efforts. In Lebanon, the first waves of refugees fleeing from the war in Syria were aided by neighbouring families and host communities.

But how can organizations better support first responders and garner more participation from individuals and communities? Can those who have been regarded as passive recipients of aid become meaningfully integrated into the global process of humanitarian and development action? A process of continuous learning based on reflection on actions systematically collected and shared between humanitarian and development systems would be one step forward in finding ways to enable people to be primary agents of their own response.

It is important to extend participation to citizens beyond the borders of an affected country during a crisis. How can those outside with links to the country help people affected by crisis or disaster beyond giving donations? Canada’s initiative of matching funds during the Haiti earthquake and the Pakistan floods, and now the Syrian refugee fund as well, show how governments can garner people’s desire to assist.

Syrian youth fleeing the war are able to continue studying side-by-side with Lebanese students, through assistance provided by Lebanese expatriates to schools in Lebanese towns on the Syrian border. Live Lebanon was established by the United Nation Development Programme (UNDP) to connect the diaspora with development activities designed and implemented by local communities.

2. Combine development and humanitarian information to tackle recurring crises.

Collaboration in data collection and analyses can identify linkages between the problems that affect vulnerable groups and the capacities needed to address chronic humanitarian crisis. Using the information gathered by humanitarian organizations, development programs can be more easily targeted to the most vulnerable.

In Lebanon, for example, long-standing socio-economic challenges have become enmeshed with a protracted humanitarian crisis, each adversely impacting the other. Consequently, development and humanitarian partners have jointly analyzed the protection needs of both refugees from Syria and the Lebanese poor. They have examined gaps in essential services and assessed the fragility of national systems that are obligated to address the rights of both populations. They mapped out localities with the most refugees and the highest poverty incidents, which then became the basis for developing the Government-UN Lebanon Crisis Response Plan in 2014. Joint assessments were discussed between the World Bank and the UNHCR to try different ways of targeting the refugee population and vulnerable Lebanese for social protection by sharing data and expertise.

In Nepal, a Post Disaster Needs Assessment was led and conducted by development agencies, building on humanitarian information and data collected soon after the earthquake to provide input for the recovery and reconstruction phase planning. This same kind of analysis could be conducted during the emergency and the transition to recovery, allowing development agencies to build on information from the humanitarian clusters for planning long-term programs.

3. Tailor partnerships to existing capacities.

Humanitarian organizations have recognized the need to work with development partners at the outset of an emergency response mobilization. Yet many of the partnerships in the critical transition from crisis to recovery and reconstruction are not the partners seen at the global Inter-Agency Standing Committee which governs the humanitarian system. 

New partners are needed; groups at the global level, such as the Solutions Alliance, have brought together the UNHCR, UNDP, OCHA and World Bank to find durable solutions to protracted displacement. More of this collaboration in global platforms would support flexible country level actions, such as in Liberia during the Ebola crisis.

Cooperation between established development institutions to support the humanitarian response can enhance impact. In Liberia, the World Bank and the African Development Bank worked closely with the UNDP and the national government to pay the salaries of the health workers that were at the frontline of the Ebola response. In Liberia, the fight against Ebola was won largely through partnerships with local authorities and community volunteers. Without their brave and valiant efforts, the impact of Ebola would be much worse. The same local mechanisms are now in place to prevent the recurrence of Ebola or any other disease.

Now, more than ever, humanitarian organizations are able to reach out and connect directly to people affected by crises. Social media has become an important arena for fighting Ebola. As American business magazine Fast Company writes: “On Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, #KickEbolaOut is now a rallying cry. West Africans living in the U.S. and in their home countries have created Facebook groups or transformed existing ones into tools for public awareness and advocacy, posting infographics on Ebola prevention and sharing information about local rallies and fundraisers.” UN agencies including WHO began to work with these volunteer groups to increase information about Ebola.

In crisis situations, relief efforts coordinated in a way that builds on current capacity are most successful. In Liberia, the Ebola response was coordinated by the establishment of UN and international inter-agency structures led by government technical staff. This “incident management system (IMS)” structure ensured government leadership over the Ebola response, cut through bureaucratic red tape and prevented expensive parallel structures. The IMS became the hub for joint efforts by the UN, international financial institutions, the U.S. military, bilateral government agencies and the NGO community to defeat Ebola. 

4. Foster social cohesion in communities hosting refugees and IDPs.

Humanitarian emergencies often are linked to conflicts and can increase social tensions. In Lebanon, the arrival of a massive number of refugees has challenged the already delicate and inter-communal balance in the country. Overcrowding, saturated demand for basic public services and competition for jobs are among the root causes of the deterioration of the social relations between the host and refugee communities. Growing instances of violence caused by perceived preferential treatment of refugees threaten social cohesion. Perceptions can be as important (and dangerous) as objective realities, especially considering that refugees come on top of an already difficult history and legacy of conflict in the region.

Maintaining and promoting greater social cohesion is key to reducing the negative social and economic impacts of a recurring humanitarian crisis. In the aftermath of the Lebanese army engagement with ISIS in the village of Aarsal, local communities were extremely suspicious of humanitarian aid to those displaced by the battles between the two parties. Some aid workers were stoned by villagers who believed that humanitarian aid was being channeled by the refugees to ISIS militants that had killed Lebanese soldiers. The humanitarian response required actions that also built confidence between the two communities, and empowered local authorities to take the lead in supporting refugee and Lebanese populations affected by the conflict. 

The UNDP supports projects that develop local peace strategies in conflict-prone areas. In Lebanon, these projects create “safe spaces” for Lebanese and Syrians to discuss their concerns openly and enhance mutual understanding. The projects also help traditional and alternative media to promote diversity and decrease biased reporting, while integrating peace building in formal schooling system and non-formal educational channels.

Addressing social cohesion at home is also vital. With larger global migration underway, rising social tensions is a reality in many countries hosting increasing numbers of refugees. How do governments help build social cohesion and manage these natural tensions? Community-based projects aimed at promoting social cohesion have proven to be one strategy.

5. Consider new financing options.

As part of the preparations for the WHS, the UN High Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing issued recommendations in December to address financing for protracted crises. These include support for social protection during a crisis to help governments facing additional pressures. In Lebanon, UNHCR, the World Bank and WFP collaborated on a social protection program that targeted the most vulnerable Lebanese through an electronic card for purchasing food in local shops.

In Lebanon, the IMF studied the impact of the refugee influx on the Lebanese government budget and found that little assistance had gone directly to the government despite pressure on social sectors. The Summit may address the need for special financing arrangements from all the international financial institutions to assist governments with budgetary support during humanitarian crises, not only during post-disaster reconstruction. The Panel recommendations include widening the IDA Crisis Response Window for governments facing humanitarian crises.

An example of where the scaling-up of government cost-sharing can be an option is in Iraq, where the Kurdistan Regional Government has established a trust fund for its own resources. Based on the Kurdistan Vision 2020 Development Plan of the Government of Iraq, the fund is supported by resources coming from the Kurdistan Regional Government investment budget, with UN counterpart contributions.

Bringing in private sector support for recovery is another financing method to consider. In Liberia, businesses stepped up support to the UNDP’s Ebola response, donating equipment and delivering that which will benefit communities immediately and serve them long after the epidemic has ended. For instance, a South African company called Mediclave decontaminates medical equipment used in treating Ebola, which can then be used in treating other diseases. Solar lanterns donated by Panasonic will allow health workers in Monrovia to work at night; they will also support Ebola survivors, many of whom have limited access to electricity in the first place.

So will the Istanbul Summit be just another opportunity for the global system to affirm its ideals or will it agree on new and innovative ways of collaborating to reach the poorest and most vulnerable? Humanitarian and development agencies have a renewed opportunity to redefine “business as usual” and to rise to the challenge of “leaving no one behind.” With humanitarian crises, refugees and displaced populations around the world on the rise, there is no time to waste.