In Defence of Sean Penn? Mixed Reviews from the World Humanitarian Summit…

10 june 2016




In this blog post Dominic MacSorley, CEO of Concern Worldwide, gives his view on the World Humanitarian Summit - the successes and disappointments...





“For too long, empty pledges and fine words have died in our mouths – now is the time to turn promises into action for this generation.”- President Michael D. Higgins, speaking prior to the World Humanitarian Summit. 

The World Humanitarian Summit, which took place in Istanbul recently, was the beginning of a long, over-due and critically needed global conversation on the state of the humanitarian world, its structure, systems and the political contexts within which it operates. The opening ceremony cast a harsh and human spotlight on the scale of the multiple crisis that have left 125 million people struggling to survive on an insufficiently funded and resourced humanitarian life line. The Summit was never expected to deliver on all fronts but it did produce some substantive commitments and landed a number of verbal blows to the political systems that fail to address the root causes of crisis and conflict.

Responding to the unprecedented and expanding level of humanitarian need, the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon convened the Summit around 5 key responsibilities spanning a wide range of the political and practical issues that are at the heart of reducing need and improving aid delivery.

As Turkey has been pitched into the centre of current global migration and security crises, the location of Istanbul, decided a number of years ago, became ever more poignant and provided a sharper dose of relevance than New York or Geneva could ever have.

Every nation was invited...but not everyone showed up.

Neither Obama nor Putin were there - nor were any of the heads of state of the permanent 5 members of the Security Council; however 8,000 people from more than 173 nations, and 55 heads of state were there. Many of them were representing the countries that are carrying the responsibility for hosting and supporting the millions of people in need. They had a lot to say and had a right to be heard.

A number of high profile celebrities were there as ambassadors for various causes; Daniel Craig on land mines, Ashely Judd on gender based violence. Their presence was as much to attract a rather jaded media who seemed less convinced of the need to cover another UN conference, despite the compelling nature of the subject. Sean Penn’s aid-themed movie ‘The Last Face’ premiered at the Summit but was derided by critics and dismissed as opportunism. And yet the man himself spoke passionately and intelligently about his continued commitment to building the resilience of 60,000 survivors of Haiti’s earthquake that he had worked and lived with in the heart of Port au Prince. Sean Penn, the aid worker, at least showed up.



There has been much scepticism on what, if anything, the Summit would achieve. Few expected that there would be any definitive political developments around the more politically sensitive areas of preventing and ending conflict or holding nation states accountable to international humanitarian law. Discussion yes, decisions no. And while not unexpected, it was none the less disappointing not to see more robust outcomes in this area. Realistically the all-encompassing nature of the Summit was never going to lend itself to such conclusiveness. What was important however was that the usual diplomacy speak was abandoned by a number of leaders of large nations like Angela Merkel but also leaders of smaller nations, like our own. President Higgins spoke about the urgent need to reform the Security Council, abandon the Veto and tackle at the highest political levels the conditions that generate and perpetuate human suffering. His clear and unambiguous statements may be the first step towards fixing the underutilised and largely ineffective system of international diplomacy.

More concrete and tangible developments were made in the area of actual aid delivery -  both financial and programmatic that have the potential to translate into real change for those on the ground. The launch of the Education Cannot Wait fund was a crucial recognition of the importance of education funding in humanitarian response, particularly as protracted conflicts continue and the number of children living in refugee camps without access to education has soared in recent years. The UK, USA, Norway, and Dubai committed over $90 million to the fund which aims to secure $3.8 billion over the coming years.

The endorsement of a new charter on Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Humanitarian Action, signed by over 100 donors and agencies is also an extremely welcome development that highlights a willingness to engage in responsible humanitarian action that goes beyond rudimentary provision of the bare necessities.

The formation of a new partnership to better prepare for shocks, from the finance ministers of 20 of the most vulnerable countries to climate change, is an innovative new contribution towards increasing resilience across developing nations.

Perhaps the most notable development of the Summit was the signing of the ‘Grand Bargain’, a package of reforms to humanitarian financing that includes 51 commitments aimed at making emergency aid finance more efficient and effective. The main thrust of it commits donors to more flexible, multi-year funding, with less onerous overly bureaucratic reporting requirements. In exchange NGOS need to agree to greater transparency, collaboration and reduced management costs. Additionally, there was a commitment to dramatically increase the use of cash transfers in programming and to facilitate greater localisation of humanitarian action by agreeing to channel a minimum of 25 percent of funding in emergencies through national and local agencies.

All good and important advances and from a Concern perspective we welcome these developments but would also like to sound a note of caution.

Cash transfers are a very effective means of deliveryhowever they do not necessarily replace the need for community aid workers on the ground doing assessments, following up, witnessing. You can’t take the human out of humanitarian, otherwise we become transaction organisations.

Greater local ownership of response is key to greater effectiveness but localisation is not a replacement strategy. The scale of need that exists right now is beyond the capacity of the humanitarian system and responding to current and future needs requires a complimentary approach, one that recognises the contributions made by international NGOs and local NGOs alike and that harnesses their complimentary skillsets in both prevention and response and recovery contexts.

Channelling 25% of funding towards national NGOs is absolutely the right ambition but we should avoid the tyranny of targets if it comes at the expense of effective programming. As the location of greatest humanitarian need increasingly moves into zones of conflict, the ability to engage with capable or sometimes even existent national NGOs becomes limited.  We must bear that reality in mind as we seek to ‘reach the furthest behind first’ while striving towards greater localisation of aid delivery.

In Summary...

Overall, the Summit was an important and significant few days bringing together all sections of humanitarian action - from large donor nations, to smaller NGOs, to those who have experienced the system first hand on the ground.

As the conference closed, the multiple commitments that were announced by donors, NGOs and heads of state were counted and collated. Over 1,500 in total were announced and will be published in a ‘Commitments to Action’ report to be drawn up by OCHA in the coming weeks. It will provide essential guidance for those involved at all levels of humanitarian response, and will put forward a method to hold signatories accountable to the commitments they have made.

The challenge now is to build on these commitments and develop a binding agreement for nation states to sign up to that makes the obligations of states in humanitarian response explicitly clear. Such an agreement, along the lines of the Paris Climate change agreement, is now urgently needed, particularly as international humanitarian law is flouted at an increasing rate.  We knew going into Istanbul that the Summit was ill-equipped to consolidate this but if it is the first step on the road to such an agreement, I believe history will view the Summit favourably.

For more analysis of the World Humanitarian Summit see this Dóchas snapshot of NGO reactions