Yet I can't help but feel 'wow' - we got one of the seven high level leaders roundtables to focus on women's empowerment in humanitarian action and on better addressing the gendered impacts of crises. Two years ago, we were told by one UN official that "gender is not summit worthy." Well we - CARE and its civil society partners, along with allies in international institutions - managed to prove that wrong.
No, a summit won't solve everything of course, but international norms do matter. Even just two years ago, the thought that women's leadership and participation in humanitarian action would get tabled for heads of state, heads of aid agencies and ministers would have seemed unlikely.
The main focus then was on women as victims only and an attempt to include attention to gender-based violence in emergency response, and even this was tentative. So it's great that the first WHS gender commitment is to empower women first responders and local women-led groups working on the ground to set up safe spaces, deliver aid, advocate on protection concerns and other things.
In the leaders roundtable the need to see women as agents in humanitarian work, not just beneficiaries, was raised by almost every speaker and CARE's own Secretary General shared his speaking slot with a woman activist from Syria, who challenged the leaders on the negative unintended consequences of donor funding bureaucracy and counter-terror restrictions which obstruct aid reaching their frontline work.
For CARE, systematic accountability for gender across all sectors and all funding is also key. It was great to hear references to this, including the UK highlighting its International Gender Act commitment to mainstream gender in spending, and the Dutch representative saying: "For every euro spent on humanitarian aid, we will make sure that spending addresses women and girls."
Specific commitments we heard at the high level roundtable included: Denmark endorsing the Call to Action on Protection from GBV in Emergencies; the US government pledged an additional 12.5 million dollars to this work; Sweden, Ireland, the UK, and others all endorsing all of the WHS Gender Core Commitments; the AU outlining steps on women’s empowerment and protection in its peace and security work. Some of these pledges were new and generous, some were restating things they were doing anyway.
On the downside, there were still not enough Southern states or local civil society activists given the floor. We had to step outside of protocol on the high level roundtable to get one local activist from Syria a space to speak. Another Southern female aid worker from central Africa shared her fear that having robustly raised criticisms of international agencies on their approach to partnering with CSOs or their record on protection might impact the funding her agency receives, which they have influence over.
Maria Alabdeh, director of Women Now Syria, told me: "Great that we have a 'grand bargain' to get funding to the frontline work, but this can't just remain statements in Istanbul and on paper. I fear as the last sessions were the same international institutions occupying all the space. The system still has the power."
I saw this and felt this too. But at least making emergency responses more inclusive and localised got more traction overall, whereas the Summit was unable to get states to come up with anything to suggest they will more seriously address the protection of civilians or aid workers from violence in war - issues that all the women activists we work with repeatedly raise.
One of the last sessions was on GBV and had over 12 speakers of which only two were Southern civil society activists! Numerous UN agencies spoke at length about all they do, whilst the local CSO representatives on the ground who actually implement the work didn't get a slot to speak. Can we flip that ratio when we meet to review progress on the WHS commitments a year from now?
And talking to staff from our partners who have lost colleagues, lost friends, lost family in the violence ravaging countries around the world, which is backed or even perpetrated by states present in Istanbul, it puts the normative and policy gains into sharp focus.