Making the most of a flawed opportunity – a response to MSF’s withdrawal from the World Humanitarian Summit and CARE’s stance

by 12th May 2016
Two refugees from Afghanistan pictured by a roadside near the Serbia-Croatia border in 2015 Two refugees from Afghanistan pictured by a roadside near the Serbia-Croatia border in 2015

A week ago, MSF announced that they are pulling out of the World Humanitarian Summit, slamming the process for its failure to tackle the major challenges facing efforts to protect and assist people in times of crisis. Indeed they went so far as to state that the Summit process was part of the problem – by its agenda blurring the lines between development, political and humanitarian action.

MSF argues that by subsuming humanitarian efforts within the contested politics of development or peacebuilding, the Summit risks eroding the ability of aid agencies to negotiate access to deliver assistance on a neutral, independent and impartial basis. This in turn risks undermining efforts to save lives in times of crisis.

Personally, I am glad that MSF have taken this stance and agree with much of their critique, but not all. Also the agency that I work for, CARE International, is adopting a different approach. How and why?

Failure to respect International Humanitarian Law

Having spent much of the last few years working in Jordan to support our programmes assisting refugees who have fled Syria and supporting local groups working inside the country, I have heard first-hand the stories of people subjected to violence that we cannot comprehend sat back in the comfort of an office or home in the UK.

More often than not, the rules of war as enshrined in the Geneva Conventions have been flouted by multiple armed groups inside Syria, including the Syrian regime. Through whatsapp and other social media, I get real-time updates from our partners on attacks against  civilians – education and medical facilities – day in, day out. There is not one of our Syrian staff and civil society partners who haven’t lost people dear to them.

Similarly, I’ve followed with horror the failure of the British government and the European Union to treat people that are fleeing to Europe with the humanity they deserve. Instead of giving people seeking safety and a better life a fair hearing, our governments have erected razor wire fences and struck deals to contain refugees in countries much poorer and less stable than our own. So yes, we should be challenging our governments on this.

An opportunity to address these failures

But the rub is that the Summit process actually has tabled these issues. The UN Secretary General has put forward proposals in his One Humanity: A Shared Responsibility report that do challenge states and others to respect International Humanitarian Law, and identifies options to hold those accountable who flout it.

The report then does introduce many other ideas about leveraging development funding and institutions to respond to today’s major, long-term crises. Some of these approaches do indeed pose potential challenges for independent, neutral and impartial aid delivery. In conflict contexts, it is obviously problematic to redirect funding to national governments implicated in the violence, and that might also restrict aid to people in areas under the control of opposed armed groups.

Yet MSF’s stance on linking development and humanitarian work is largely, I think, because they are a medical organisation. Most parts of the world have existing medical infrastructure which can be relatively easily supported – a ministry of health, existing buildings and staff, and a supply of basic drugs that can be easily bolstered. But when you begin to look at other sectors, it’s much harder to meet the same populations' needs in water, sanitation, shelter or food. Especially when we look at slow on-set natural disasters, then a purely reactive response is less effective than a combination of prevention and response. Likewise, for those caught up in long-term crises, like the refugees displaced from Syria for example, they want opportunities to earn a livelihood and live in dignity, not just survive off hand-outs, as important as these also are.

Setting out our own stall

Of course, it is not clear how many, if any, world leaders will actually show up to the Summit. The worry is that they will also fail to show up, delegate attendance to junior officials and make wishy-washy statements free of any substantive commitments.

So whilst MSF’s critical statement and withdrawal from the process is a welcome jolt in the process, CARE is taking a different approach. This week, we launch some clear, specific, time-bound and substantive commitments on how we will strengthen our own humanitarian programmes to address the major challenges identified in the Summit process.

We actually generated a long-list of over 100 different ways we are trying to tackle the major issues raised – including strengthening our own efficiency, our support to local community-led organisations, our accountability and so on. But we prioritised just a handful.

For example, we recognise that as CARE International, we also have a role to play in promoting respect of International Humanitarian Law, the Red Cross Code of Conduct and the principles underpinning humanitarian action in our own work. So we have committed to train at least 100 of our staff leading emergency response programmes on these, and to review our wider staff training and civil society partnership plans to strengthen how they address this. In this and other areas, I am sure we can do much more, but it’s a start.

Falling short – but at least moving forward

Yes the World Humanitarian Summit has been a messy, sprawling affair and will inevitably fall far short of what is required to address the vast and deeply political challenges facing humanitarian action. That MSF have rung an alarm bell about this is welcome. But we cannot avoid the fact that the governments, civil society groups and businesses invited are either already engaged on the ground or have an influence on today’s major crises.So let’s hope that some of them turn up in Istanbul with specific pledges to act on the challenges, gaps and weaknesses that MSF, but also Ban Ki Moon, have identified.

And if the Summit is a failure, then let’s be ready to call this out on May 24th.

Howard Mollett

I joined CARE in 2005, since then I’ve been lucky enough to work with our local teams and civil society partners in countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Sudan, DRC, Kosovo and most recently on the Syria regional response team. My current responsibilities include co-chairing our global network of policy specialists on gender in emergencies, with a colleague in Pakistan, and leading CARE’s advocacy in the UK on the Syrian conflict.

Over the years, I have also worked on innovative research and advocacy with country teams on conflict analysis, civil-military relations and humanitarian access. What has kept me with CARE is the organisation’s support to grassroots activists and its commitment to addressing gender in a serious way.

Prior to joining CARE, previous roles included research on human security and development at the Centre for Defence Studies; the facilitation of a network monitoring human rights implications of the ‘Global War on Terror’; support to European coordination of the Make Poverty History campaign; global coalition-building with the Our World Is Not For Sale coalition; research on trade policy; and support to a network of environmental and human rights CSOs in the Balkans.

One good thing I’ve read

Drown by Junot Diaz - short stories that offer a brilliant fictional lens on gender, class and migrant experiences in the USA.


Twitter @HowardMollett