Will a World Summit Strike the Match that Lights the Humanitarian Funding Fire?

In the run-up to the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit, a U.K.-based nonprofit that works on poverty and humanitarian crises released its annual Global Humanitarian Assistance Report2016. In that report, by Development Initiatives, there was some good news and bad news.

But before we get to that, let’s back up for a second—did I say "first-ever World Humanitarian Summit?" Yes. This year marks the first time in the United Nations’ 70-year history that it has convened world leaders and delegates from some 175 countries to gather on this issue. The meeting has been taking place this week in Istanbul, Turkey. 

President Obama has sent a delegation that includes Gayle Smith, Administrator of USAID; John Bass, Ambassador to the Republic of Turkey; Sarah Sewall, the Department of State’s Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights; and Anne C. Richard, Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration, at the Department of State.

German Chancellor Angel Merkel will also be there, although predictably, Vladimir Putin will not attend, nor is the Russian government sending a delegation. 

Private donors also figure in the mix, which I'll get to a moment. 

So why, for the first time in the UN’s history, has Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued a call to humanitarian arms?

Because the world is bearing witness to the “highest level of human suffering since the Second World War," that's why. And because, according the U.N. Secretary General, "The human and economic costs of disasters are escalating. Climate change, inequality, conflict and poverty are putting more people at risk and threaten to overwhelm the global humanitarian system."

Meanwhile, in related news, the collective humanitarian aid system is failing. And it’s failing in a massive way—even as donors do more. 

According to the Global Humanitarian Assistance Report, international humanitarian aid reached a record $28 billion in 2015. This is a $2.9 billion increase from 2014 and marks the third consecutive year in which funding has been on the uptick. Some $21.8 billion came from governments. The remaining $6.2 billion was composed of private donations, which marks an increase of around 13 percent from 2014.

This is good news, right? Private donors are paying increased attention and major governments like the US and the UK, which provided 89 percent of the regional North and Central America total, and 27 percent of the European total, respectively, are writing bigger checks.

But let’s put this into perspective. A less than $3 billion increase in total humanitarian aid is nominal at best, given the scale of today's worldwide humanitarian crises. And while private donors, who collectively put in for an additional $700 million in 2015 should be applauded for the increase, a less than $1 billion increase is certainly no cause for congratulatory back-slapping.

To be fair, a handful of private donors are working hard to close the ever-widening humanitarian aid funding gap, and some will be attending the World Humanitarian Summit. Last year, the UPS Foundation, which is becoming well-known for its full package of disaster and crisis assistance, pledged an additional $10 million in planned support to humanitarian relief, recovery, and preparedness efforts around the globe. As well, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation allocated $1.2 million so far for Syrian refugee related work and Hamdi Ulukaya, the Turkish-born founder of Chobani yogurt pledged $2 million to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) and International Rescue Committee (IRC) to aid Syrian refugees.

The Open Society Foundations and the Ikea Foundations are constants here too, donating millions to agencies such as the UNHCR and like-minded organizations around the world. The Western Union Foundation is also a big player in the humanitarian aid space as is the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, which recently gave €1,750,000 in emergency relief grants to various NGOs responding to the European refugee crisis. The Gates Foundation has been another major player helping out. 

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So good intentions are clearly there. But there's even more anger about how badly the ball has been dropped, as millions of people have been forced out of their homes in recent years. There's a fair of amount of cynicism, too, about the World Humanitarian Summit. Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF), an organization that has never shied away from criticizing big actors in the humanitarian aid world, calls the meeting a “fig leaf of good intentions.” MSF posits that the summit won’t put pressure on countries that violate humanitarian laws and no real change or significant commitments will result from the global meeting.

What’s more, Loretta Minghella, the CEO of Christian Aid, stated, "Words are not enough to solve the escalating needs of people whose lives are blighted by crisis,” and the success of the summit depends on how “we collectively deliver against the promises that we are all launching.”

Harsh. But those criticisms are not unwarranted.

A study conducted by the nonprofit Concern Worldwide regarding the ongoing crisis in Syria, took a deep dive into the progress that has been made since the 2016 London Conference. The conference, which took place in February of this year, raised over $12 billion in commitments of which $5.8 billion was earmarked for 2016 with the remaining funds allocated to planning efforts from 2017 to 2020. Granted, not that much time has passed since those pledges were made. However, of the around $6 billion pledged for this year—which is nearly half over—only $1.16 billion has been committed. And, according to the report, as of mid-April, 94 percent of London Conference donors have not made good on their pledges.

To add insult to injury, last year, the U.N. experienced a 45 percent funding shortfall. Its biggest funding shortage to date.

The scale and scope of human suffering in today’s world is so unfathomable. Even so, most top US foundations and corporate philanthropies haven't lifted a finger to address the worst humanitarian crises of recent decades. 

Criticisms aside, the World Humanitarian Summit, which is described by this BBC article as aiming to mobilize "more funds for humanitarian aid, improve their distribution, and consider transferring money from larger national NGOs to smaller aid agencies operating on the ground” through non-binding commitments from attendees, is surely a step in the right direction.

Regardless of what results from the summit, perhaps it will light a fire under the ass of world leaders, private donors sitting on the sidelines, and humanity in general. Because that match should have been struck a long time ago.