Turkey Hosts the International Community for World Humanitarian Summit: What You Need to Know

May 23, 2016

This Monday, Istanbul will welcome over 6,000 members of the international community as the UN holds the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) in Turkey. Many see the UN’s decision to hold the summit in Istanbul as an apt choice. In the last five years, Turkey has established itself as a rising and critical actor in the humanitarian aid community, ramping up engagement and coordination with the US and other major donors. According to Oxfam, Turkey has given more humanitarian aid than any country besides the US and UK, and “exemplifies the contribution of nations that have been traditionally excluded from the Western ‘club’ of humanitarian leaders.” 

On May 12th, President Erdoğan and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke over the phone to discuss the Summit, agreeing on the need for a more concerted effort over the transitional process in Syria. Both the US and Turkey will have a strong presence at the meeting as the head of USAID and key leaders in Turkey’s three largest humanitarian organizations plan to attend. 

In December 2012, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced the organization of a World Humanitarian Summit in his five-year action agenda in order to create a more cohesive global humanitarian system. The Secretary General’s Agenda for Humanity is the central document that all world leaders will be asked to commit to during the two-day round tables. According to the Secretary-General’s Report for WHS, this agenda puts forth five core responsibilities that each attendee will be asked to adopt, representing a new vision and international framework that will address the countless people who face conflicts, disasters, and displacement. For Turkey, core responsibility number 3, leaving no one behind, is of utmost importance, as it directly addresses refugees and migrants.

According to the European Commission, the Summit signifies a gradual shift taking place in the humanitarian aid community, with the long-term goal of a more inclusive and diverse system that has the ability to respond to issues through strategic partnerships and innovative solutions. The UN hopes to transcend the humanitarian-development divide by honoring and reinforcing national systems in place while looking for local solutions that more readily involve in-country NGOs. The Agenda also calls upon the aid community to move away from direct funding and towards more informed investment and flexible financing models. 

There have been several high-profile international panels, conferences, and consultations leading up to the Summit, including the Climate Change talks in Paris and the 32nd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in Geneva, both in December of 2015. The WHS Secretariat released a lengthy synthesis of the consultation process surrounding the Summit, chronicling the three years of strategic meetings and research that have gone into this international, groundbreaking event. Jessica Anderson of the Washington Post reported that “The three-year consultation process leading up to the summit included regional consultations with over 23,000 grassroots voices, and seeks to promote the resilience of crisis-affected people.”  

The Summit has not been without controversy. Many criticize the fact that WHS’s Agenda is non-binding and minimizes the responsibility of states, removing accountability from the system. Doctors Without Borders, one of the most vocal and active international humanitarian organizations, released a statement on May 5th pulling out of the summit, stating "we no longer have any hope that the (summit) will address the weaknesses in humanitarian action and emergency response, particularly in conflict areas or epidemic situations.” The organization believes that the Summit will “dissolve humanitarian assistance into wider development, peacebuilding and political agendas,” grossly ignoring the safety of humanitarian and aid workers. This statement came only a few days after Doctors Without Borders international president Joanne Liu criticized members of the Security Council for military attacks that killed 27 at one of the organization’s hospitals in Afghanistan last year.

According to the Guardian, about 125 of the 193 countries recognized by the UN have confirmed as of May 19th. Some prominent world leaders such as Russian President Vladamir Putin have openly declined the invitation and refuse to adopt the commitments, positing that certain UN states have been left out of instrumental talks while others received preferential treatment. Germany’s Angela Merkel, on the other hand, just announced that she will attend along with an expected 50 or more heads of state. 

Turkey’s Role

These controversies have not taken away from the fact that this is a huge moment for Turkey. In the last five years, Turkey has established itself as a rising and crucial actor in the humanitarian aid community, ramping up engagement and coordination with the US and other major donors. Indeed, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), both the US and Turkey lead in International aid statistics. According to OECD’s ranking of aid allocated, Turkey came in second with $2.42 billion following the U.S., but in terms of aid as a percentage of its gross national product (GDP) it came in first.
According to Andrea Binder of the Graduate Institute of Geneva, the UN’s decision to choose Istanbul over Geneva when selecting a host city was a “smart move” that shows “that the UN is taking new humanitarian actors seriously” and will allow the international community a unique chance to learn from the country who has bore the brunt of the logistical and financial burden associated with the Syrian refugee crisis. Ms. Binder notes that this is also an opportunity for Turkey to present it’s “humanitarian engagement in a holistic but differentiated way and to start engaging not only with the actors that make up its current humanitarian triangle, but also with those less visible actors outside of it.”

Turkey has been praised for the groundbreaking work that it’s largest NGOs have done in-country and abroad. According to UN figures, the Turkish state has welcomed in more Syrian refugees than any other country, amounting to over 2.7 million displaced Syrians in need of shelter, food, and services within Turkish border. Groups such as the Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency (TIKA), the Prime Ministry Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD), and the Turkish Red Crescent have been instrumental in the overseeing of refugee camps, aid initiatives, and resettlement programs in 140 countries and should be be duly recognized. Notably, AFAD single-handedly coordinates all services for Syrians taking shelter in Turkey, which according to current UNHCR data means that nearly 282,000 refugees are living  in AFAD camps.

Members of the Turkish Red Crescent see the Summit as a rare occasion to discuss innovative solutions with diverse humanitarian actors, and Red Crescent Director General Dr. Mehmet Güllüoğlu believes that with the violence and displacement in Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq, “the response to and recovery from [these crises] necessitates the intensive and collective efforts of the international community.” In a March 30th article to UN, Güllüoğlu wrote that the Summit’s emphasis on innovation will be key to future success, stating that “..the presentations and exchange of ideas on innovative tools such as electronic voucher system and mobile-technology based need assessment will enrich our mindset and imagination in the development of new methods and tools during the summit.” 

The Turkish Government and humanitarian groups have been carefully preparing for May 23rd. Only a month ago, Istanbul hosted a smaller gathering of NGOs and aid groups to address region-specific issues before they present to the larger international community. In a recent article in Canada’s Globe and Mail, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu issued a public call to action, asking world leaders to attend the Summit because “there are simply too many lives at stake and inaction is not an option.” 

For Turkey, the WHS represents an opportunity to establish itself as a central humanitarian actor on the global stage and present its’ experiences and analysis to government leaders, private sector companies, delegations, and NGOs. For the larger aid and disaster relief community, this is a time to step back and evaluate not only how we can more effectively address the most pressing international humanitarian crises, but also prepare for a future where long-term solutions lead to a more stable and peaceful world. No matter what happens this Monday and Tuesday, all eyes will be on Istanbul as the international community begins building a path towards a more effective humanitarian aid system.

Sarah Houston