Follow Up: Where the World Humanitarian Summit Shined and Where it Came Up Short

The World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) that took place over the weekend of May 23 in Istanbul, Turkey. This marked the first time the United Nations convened world leaders and delegates to discuss the unmitigated level of human suffering that is occurring around the globe, how the collective humanitarian aid ecosystem has basically dropped the ball on alleviating that suffering at scale, and what needs to be done about it.

International humanitarian aid from public and private donors is increasing. Big funders in this space include the likes of the UPS, Conrad Hilton, Ikea, and Open Society foundations all of which have either raised their humanitarian funding commitments or remain strongholds in this funding space. Which is good news.

The bad news: The U.N. is still looking down the barrel of its largest funding shortfall to date and those billions of dollars pledged at the London Conference are slow to being realized. In fact, by mid-April, 94 percent of those pledges remained just that—pledges.

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

No one’s arguing that the massive machine that is the humanitarian aid ecosystem is not without its problems. But the WHS, even with its criticisms, seemed a step in the right direction, at least in terms of identifying the most pressing challenges and discussing possible solutions.

The Biggest Loser: Conflict

The humanitarian aid ecosystem is winning when it comes to responding to natural disasters. Money, people, and equipment are deployed quickly to areas devastated by earthquakes or typhoons. Unfortunately, response and funding loses in the face of conflict. Former U.N. Humanitarian Chief Valerie Amos stated “Over 80 percent of those we intend to help are in countries mired in conflict where brutality and violence have had a devastating impact on their lives.” 

Related: More Dollars for Disaster From the UPS Foundation

I don’t have to say again how funders have dropped the ball here, as very few major donors have lifted a finger to aid the world’s refugees. As the global refugee crisis grows, many major funders remain MIA, save a few:

  • UPS Foundation. This corporate funder has been growing its presence in the humanitarian aid field for the past few years. UPS dedicates around $5 million to $7 million to humanitarian relief each year. Last summer, the foundation announced that it would commit an additional $10 million to humanitarian relief, recovery and preparedness efforts around the globe.
  • Ikea Foundation. This corporate funder has been ramping up its giving significantly over the past few years, heavily prioritizing refugees. A few of the more sizable grants over the past few years include $95 million to help refugee children and their families in Ethiopia, Sudan and Bangladesh, around $70 million to help the UNHCR assist 120,000 Somali refugees who had recently arrived at the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, and a $42 million grant to support the UNHCR’s refugee work in Burkina Faso and Ethiopia.
  • Conrad Hilton Foundation. Hilton has always been dialed in to alleviating human suffering, and the refugee crisis is no exception here. Last year, the foundation’s donations toward the burgeoning Syrian Refugee crisis topped over $1 million. Steve Hilton, chairman of the foundation’s board penned an article about the refugee crisis writing that the global refugee crisis should not only be the burden of border countries and it is one that “...should be shared by us all—not only out of humanitarian compassion, but in the interest of global security.”

Related: Ikea Foundation Remains Front and Center in the Global Refugee Crisis

There are other major players in this field, including the Open Society and Western Union foundations. Unfortunately, no matter how much money donors dedicate to helping refugees, there is little they can do to get at the root problem of the crisis in the first place: conflict.

There is no doubt that the humanitarian aid sector must discover ways to better respond to conflict—which was highlighted at the summit. But while delegations attended, there was a palpable absence of world leaders at the summit.

Which poses the question: How effective is a high-level roundtable event discussing how political leaders can come together and commit to end and prevent conflict if few of those very leaders are even there? The whole thing rings pretty hollow.

Regardless, some powerful people had a seat at that exclusive table, so at the very least, a few important talking points were addressed at the meeting.

It’s not all bad news, here. Participants made a good deal of progress on other pressing humanitarian challenges.

The Biggest Winner: The Grand Bargain

In broad strokes, the Grand Bargain is a multi-point funding plan negotiated by 15 of the world’s largest government donors of humanitarian aid and 15 major aid organizations. The plan calls for, among other things, bolstering cash aid (as opposed to in-kind and material donations); greater transparency, increased support for local organizations, increased collaboration amount aid agencies, reducing earmarks, and reducing cost redundancies.

To those ends, a few highlights: 

  • World Vision and the International Rescue Committee pledged to up their cash programming by 50 percent and 25 percent, respectively, by 2020.
  • Canada has pledged $1.8 billion to Syria and its surrounding region over the next three years.
  • Donors agreed to direct 25 percent of funding to local agencies.
  • The ceiling was raised for the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) from $500 million to $1 billion.
  • Donors and governments made $90 billion in contributions to the Education Cannot Wait fund, an education crisis fund aimed at educating children and young people affected by crisis. 

Of course, if we’ve learned anything from the London Conference, donors seem to be good at making promises, but not so much when it's time to follow through. So we’ll be keeping a close eye on how those Grand Bargain pledges shake out over the coming months.


So was the WHS a success? Yes and no. It certainly had its shortcomings and plenty of critics. Christina Bennet of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) calls the Grand Bargain “not broadly representative” and describes the summit overall as “kicking the can down the road.”

However, it does fan the flames for increased global dialogue, highlighting where the humanitarian aid system is broken as well as what works. Perhaps one of the biggest takeaways here is that the summit did shine a bright spotlight on the importance of collaboration to effectively tackle some of the world’s most pressing challenges and that operating in silos can no longer be the status quo.