No.41-August 2016

by Peter J Hoffman

Humanitarianism in Treatment: Analyzing the World Humanitarian Summit    


In the wake of the May 2016 World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) in Istanbul and at the approach of the September 2016 UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants in New York, this briefing examines how humanitarianism has arrived at its current crisis and what it signifies for personnel, aid agencies, and world politics. It concludes with a set of six recommendations for humanitarian organizations.

According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA), in 2016 there are some 97 million people in need of humanitarian assistance spread across 40 countries. About 65 million people (or one in every 113 people worldwide) are displaced, and of these many are in “protracted refugee situations”—meaning displaced for over five years; some situations have already lasted over thirty years. With violence escalating within and across states, and climate change and other environmental disasters impending, an increase in victims and requirements is certain.

Moreover, the sense that humanitarianism, aid to the vulnerable and needy, has been manipulated into complicity through selective application and transformed into a grotesque caricature is dispiriting for humanitarians. While different views as to the nature of the challenges fires debates about neutrality and impartiality, a deeper despair is found in recognizing dysfunction within the humanitarian sector when organizations and operations work at cross-purposes. The perennial realization from the 1990s that “there are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems” has taken yet another depressing turn.  The ambition to right wrongs with mercy remains, but it is overshadowed by a brooding mourning within the humanitarian sector that can be distilled into a pensive question: how has the solution become the problem?

The context of mushrooming humanitarian crises coupled with a snowballing crisis in humanitarianism has generated calls for reimagining and re-engineering. For the most bereft and conflict-prone countries, the professed “world we want,” the mantra of the campaign to reform development practices, would certainly require basic humanitarian assistance and better governance, and yet this does not register in the halls of power. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Agenda 2030 of September 2015 represented a global demand to formulate new methods for addressing inequality and underdevelopment, but none of the 17 goals or 169 targets addressed humanitarian issues. Alas, although the SDGs showcase progress in development thinking, the tragic irony of how the philosophy of “no one left behind” was actually articulated is that the displaced were displaced from these objectives.

Hopes were for the WHS to take stock of the responsibilities of the international humanitarian system and proffer new commitments to help. Yet, despite the packaging of “One Humanity, Shared Responsibility” and the proposal for an Agenda for Humanity, the outcome can be more accurately characterized as “One Excuse, Absolved of Responsibility” given the collective shrug, facile vows, and prioritizing of other issues by donors, as well as tunnel-vision deference by participating humanitarian organizations. With the WHS debacle as prologue, in September humanitarianism is poised to revisit its place in the world with a high-level meeting on the eve of the 71st General Assembly.

Humanitarian Aspirations
The contemporary obsessions of humanitarian aspirations can be traced to confronting the challenges associated with fragile states and climate change. Although conflicts in the Middle East and Africa are usually connected to terrorism and counter-terrorism, these areas are afflicted by structural political-economic problems of livelihoods, governance, and violent extremism. The result has often been hundreds of thousands dead with millions displaced and in need of humanitarian assistance. Environmental degradation and disasters have also contributed to strife and uprooted populations. Whereas 58 million were displaced due to political and military turmoil in 2013, at the same time 107.3 million were displaced due to ecological hazards.

The lightning rod for humanitarian crises has been the European refugee crisis, which peaked in 2015; those fleeing wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, and Afghanistan have braved the Mediterranean or walked through southeast Europe to safety. The perception of this crisis is overblown relative to previous post-war refugee flows—after WWI there were about 10 million displaced out of a total population of 480 million; after WWII nearly 55 million out of 540 million.5 In the last two years, in contrast, perhaps as many as 1.8 million refugees have arrived in Europe, which presently has a population of over 742 million—while others host far more; Turkey, for example, with a population of 74 million, harbors over 2.5 million refugees. This crisis prompted aid agencies, governments, and publics to re-examine humanitarian aspirations, and the WHS was a largely unsuccessful attempt to do just that.

Humanitarian Angst
The WHS illustrated that humanitarianism is at a forlorn crossroads. Aid workers are anguished and confounded; they lament what has been lost and express hopeless abandonment. The promises of protecting rights, bringing relief, providing rescue, and bestowing refuge have been dissolved by the acidic politics of fatiguing wars, circumspect pocketbooks, and nativist ideologies. The WHS brought together around 9,000 participants from 173 countries to articulate the duties of the international humanitarian system. After outlining core responsibilities, seven sweeping commitments emerged, but the WHS did little to alleviate humanitarian angst —in fact, it has heightened the intense feelings of foreboding that relate to one’s position in the world, often invoking factors beyond the control of the individual. In other words, beyond the day-to-day perturbations of preventing or halting atrocities and gaining access to vulnerable populations, there are larger and looming existential questions.

The final dread surrounds the meaning of humanitarianism. The essence of the phenomenon is a social relationship between providers and recipients that is intended to nurture both, but the treatment of those in distress—mostly disregarded until they threaten the privileged—demonstrates that far too often agencies have been used as tools for population management rather than conferring a shared humanity. The conflation of aid workers with Western political or military operations, and often consequent attacks upon them, reveals the recast meaning of humanitarianism. The WHS mouthed all the right things but made no binding commitments and requires no accountability. This weakness was further illustrated by the fact that few heads of state from G-8 countries attended (only Germany and Japan). The triumphant tones of the WHS are another indication that the well-founded jeremiads of victims remain unacknowledged; indeed, these bromides take the victimization to another level—despite failures, the international humanitarian system offers an insulting assertion of success.

Looking Beyond Istanbul and New York
The WHS was a hallmark of survival mentality and evinced that humanitarianism exists to be channeled within established constraints. Despite flaws and distorted outcomes, for true believers, faith in cardinal beliefs endure, but to champion the dysfunctional requires treatment. For humanitarian organizations struggling with the multitude of challenges, from access and atrocities in war zones to funding and manipulation in board rooms, they would do well to embrace a model for reinventing themselves.

Therefore, after the WHS and the September Summit, it is time for humanitarians of all stripes to join in common cause, to share their collective struggles, and to forge a new identity to ground future action at the system, organization, and individual levels. The twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous is instructive and can inform a program of critical introspective analysis. To build solidarity and start anew through self-reflection for this often silent but distraught community, there are six steps for those in treatment, for what might be “Humanitarians Anonymous”:

1. Admit a higher power: Ethics can be powerful but are no match for politics. Opportunities to act are context specific, but every effort should be made to follow a common standard with the hope of reconfiguring power.

2. Take an inventory: Agencies must know their capacities (resources and tools) and situate their comparative advantages. Aid organizations may seem weak relative to great powers but in comparison to recipients they have tremendous influence. Humanitarian power has an impact, for better as well as for worse.

3. Acknowledge mistakes: Agencies should call attention to their own poor performance not as a sign of weakness, but contrition is a confidence-building measure.

4. Make amends: Accountability has been minimal. When mistakes or malfeasance occurs, agencies should provide redress. Agencies cannot rectify past errors or damage, but intent and symbolism matters.

5. Develop sensitivities: The analytical capacities of agencies are woefully underdeveloped, not only for risk analysis but also for monitoring and evaluation. Greater investment is essential; humanitarians must understand the situation before they act on it.

6. Express values: With global communications, replete with Internet traffic and social media, the means of making (and remaking) the humanitarian narrative is readily at hand. The image and mantle of humanitarianism is the greatest asset of aid agencies, and they should not only practice what they preached, but preach what they practice.

Recovery is never easy. The first thing to do is to admit there is a problem, and humanitarians long ago crossed that threshold. But they have been far more focused on coping rather than solving problems. The SDGs were supposed to represent a refreshing and universal departure, but at best they will deal with symptoms of humanitarian distress not its causes, except to the extent that enhanced development forestalls certain kinds of violence. Moreover, there is no evidence in the Agenda 2030 of the urgent necessity to bring together the humanitarian and development components of the UN system. The Istanbul Summit did nothing to alleviate this shortcoming, nor does it appear will the September high level meeting in New York.

So it is up to humanitarians to kick-start this process. Acknowledging foibles and failures is the only way for humanitarians to once more begin the hard work of earning back trust. Being self-aware and candid is a prerequisite for respect. The goal of humanitarianism is to save people, yet before UN agencies and NGOs can effectively resume pursuing this vital and valiant objective, they must first save themselves by accepting that their staff are human and in the process rediscover their own humanity.

Download 'Humanitarianism in Treatment: Analyzing the World Humanitarian Summit' in pdf      

Peter J. Hoffman is Studley Faculty Fellow in the Graduate Program in International Affairs at The New School. He is the author, with Thomas G. Weiss, of Sword & Salve: Confronting New Wars and Humanitarian Crises (2006) and of Humanitarianism, War, and Politics: Solferino to Syria and Beyond (forthcoming 2017).

Photo on homepage: President Erdogan of Turkey and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the Closing Ceremony of the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul.

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