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Humanitarian Summit in Perspective: Disaster Prevention is Feasible

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Analysis by Jacques N. Couvas

ISTANBUL (IDN) – The gaping absence of a large number of world leaders, including those of most of the Group of 7 (G7) industrial nations, undoubtedly caused profound disappointment. But the first World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) in the 70-year existence of the United Nations will not go down in history as a shameful debacle for international diplomacy, nor will it be the last conference of its kind, according to experts.

While G7 leaders were conspicuous by their absence, with the exception of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, some 9,000 participants from 173 countries joined the event in Istanbul. They included some 60 heads of state and government, mostly from the developing world. (P 13) JAPANESE TEXT VERSION PDF | PORTUGUESE

All major media, business corporations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) also attended the dense schedule of daily plenary assemblies, 15 special sessions, and 132 committee meetings and side events, which aimed at involving all stakeholders interested in resolving humanitarian crises and their underlying causes: conflict, lack of economic and environmental sustainability, and exclusion.

Particularly noticeable was the active participation of interfaith groups, composed of representatives of the mainstream religions, but also including newer, but highly active in humanitarian work, religious movements.

Though UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon proposed the Summit as far back as 2012, it acquired added significance because of the recent massive outflow of migrants from the Middle East and Northern Africa (MENA), and the way it was handled by the 28-nation European Union.

The disregard for basic rules of protection of civilians by belligerents from all sides in the zones of combat – a novel aspect in international armed conflict – provided additional justification for several high level meetings. International humanitarian law, and the law of War, were often used by delegates as points of reference.

The central effort of the WHS was, however, focused on finding solutions for the alleviation of suffering of 130 million people around the world, whose existence is threatened by human-made as well as natural disasters. There was particular emphasis on preventing, rather than responding to such outcomes.

In fact, two of the truly tangible items for action of the Summit were disaster prevention and cost-reduction in humanitarian activities.

On the first day of the Summit on May 23, the head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), Robert Glasser, warned that risk reduction efforts would struggle to have impact if greenhouse gas emissions are not radically scaled down.

Focusing on prevention of, rather than response to disaster is in the interest of the member states, said Glasser, as it is a much more effective approach, both in terms of the number of victims and financial consequences. He expressed his optimism about the genuine collaboration towards this goal from a large majority of countries on all continents.

“I am convinced that all our efforts to reduce disaster risk will be overwhelmed if we do not make serious progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The consequences will be deadly, including impact on disease outbreaks, storm surges, and drought, which can contribute to conflict,” explained Glasser.

UNISDR’s plan contemplates full cooperation by member states in three action areas:

(a) establishing disaster loss databases, which can guide investments in resilient infrastructure;

(b) using data from the past, but systematically anticipating future risk. “Given underlying drivers of risk such as climate change, population growth and urbanization, the world needs realistic projections of disaster losses in the future,” emphasized Glasser; and

(c) planning of infrastructure by governments that should factor-in such past experience and decide rationally.

“That means things like not building a hospital in a flood zone”, said Glasser. “Disaster risk reduction must become a key part of economic planning,” he concluded.

The timeframe for achieving all this is 2030, a date consistent with the agency’s Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 , adopted at the Third UN World Conference in March 2015 in Japan.

But what are the probabilities that such an ambitious and complex plan can produce results by that deadline?

“One hundred percent!”, Robert Glasser told INPS-IDN. “We are shooting for total preventability over time. The question is how well UN’s member states will participate in, and implement the decisions made at the environmental conference in Paris [COP 21]”, he added.

But the overall success still depends on many factors and the willingness of stakeholders to commit to such effort. Pursuing this goal requires the enhancement of the implementation capacity and capability of developing countries, in particular the least developed ones, small island developing states, landlocked developing countries, and African nations as well as many middle income states, whose national priorities widely vary, delegates familiar with the details of the Sendai Framework told INPS-IDN

Costs associated with humanitarian activities are of great concern to all UN member states. It was, therefore, with relief that delegates received the announcement of the agreement concluded among 30 representatives of donors and aid agencies on a package of reforms to humanitarian funding, launched at the WHS.

The initiative aims at making emergency aid more efficient and economically effective. Its target is to reduce operational costs by one billion U.S. dollars annually in the next five years. This amount represents less than ten per cent of the total spent in humanitarian aid.

Labelled “The Grand Bargaining”, the package has been presented as a series of commitments among the more powerful donors and aid agencies to improve management methodologies for handling the vast amounts raised around the globe for humanitarian aid.

Measures include greater transparency and compliance with international standards in budgeting, on-going communication and cooperation among the signatories, and the implementation of a common process for data-inputting and of reporting forms and procedures.

Changing current practices in budgeting and allocating the funds to activities through subcontracted agencies is “much more complicated than many people think”, according to Lilianne Ploumen, the Dutch development minister, who was part of the high level team that shaped the deal.

Experts from the field were, in private conversations on the margin of the Summit, sceptical as to the feasibility of such a plan, considering the difficulty of the parties in coming to a consensus during the negotiations for the Grand Bargaining.

There is a propensity by aid agencies to give cash to populations in distress, a practice to which U.S. organizations are strongly opposed. Accountability for the use of funds is also a concern for most large donors.

So, what after this Summit? “This is not a one-off event, Robert Glasser, UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction told INPS-IDN. “This is just the beginning”, he maintained. [IDN-InDepthNews – 27 May 2016]

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

Photo: High-Level Leaders’ Roundtable on “Managing Risks and Crises Differently”. Source: WHS





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