Four takeaways from the Humanitarian Policy Forum

Dec 20, 2018

United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed opens the 2018 Global Humanitarian Policy Forum. Credit: Matteo Minasi/UNOCHA

In December, OCHA held it seventh annual Global Humanitarian Policy Forum, which brought together experts from across the humanitarian and development sectors to explore solutions to help us reach those furthest behind in crises.

Here are four takeaways from the forum.

Inclusive development is a must — the tricky part is how

“The fire-fighting approach is not sustainable…. We need political solutions and we need to invest in sustainable development to resolve and prevent crises of all kinds,” said UN Deputy-Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed in her opening address. Many reiterated the game-changing nature of the goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, in that they include the poorest and most marginalized in economic growth plans.

Excluding certain groups legitimizes divides and results in “dehumanization,” said Catarina de Albuquerque, head of the Sanitation and Water for All network. But exactly how to make current systems more inclusive is still not clear. For starters, we need better data on the most vulnerable — “In a world of big data, this is a big black hole,” said de Albuquerque. Conflict resolution is a must, stressed panellists, but we also need to showcase peace dividends, said Najat Rochdi, Humanitarian Coordinator in the Central African Republic. The Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Mark Lowcock, called for strong development, political and peacebuilding efforts to address the causes of conflict, which include: “failure of political systems, failure of development and poverty … the impact of climate change and demographic change [which exacerbates] pressures on resources.”

Participants watch a film at the Humanitarian Policy Forum at UN headquarters in New York. Credit: Matteo Minasi/UNOCHA

Humanitarian financing is making progress — now let’s scale-up

We have seen exciting developments and innovations in financing in crises over the past year, said participants. For instance, the World Bank has increased its development support in crises, doubling its international development assistance (IDA) commitments from US$7 billion to $14 billion under the current cycle. Swifter and pre-emptive funding is also on the rise. However, three years after the 2030 Agenda commitments, millions of people are still being left behind.

When polled about why this is the case, leadership was cited as the biggest reason. Participants also pointed to the need to scale up financial innovations, such as social impact bonds and other approaches. Many stressed a need to align existing financing tools with the achievement of collective outcomes. One example given was climate financing — it is still a challenge to tap into it during crises, despite the strong linkages between climate change, disaster and vulnerability.

Humanitarian-development nexus — stronger leadership needed

The New Way of Working to bridge the humanitarian-development nexus is now widely accepted and making progress, said Hansjoerg Strohmeyer, Director of Policy at OCHA. While “it is too early to see an impact on vulnerability and need, we are seeing progress on collaboration, coordination and planning,” reiterated Michelle Gyles-McDonnough from the UN Secretary-General’s office, who emphasized that joined-up working is a priority for the UN.

Over the next six months, the Joint Steering Committee, which Secretary-General Antonio Guterres set up to advance humanitarian and development collaboration, will examine progress made in seven countries: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Ethiopia, Niger, Nigeria and Somalia, and identify lessons in joint analysis and establishing collective outcomes, which can be applied to other contexts.

Participants shared practical examples from Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan of working on collective outcomes. Early lessons show the importance of strong leadership by Resident Coordinators and Humanitarian Coordinators and governments.

International humanitarian law — building on what works

Humanitarian access is a fundamental prerequisite for humanitarian action, but in many armed conflicts across the world, access is increasingly unsafe, delayed and impeded. However, as the UN Secretary-General has previously emphasized, “there are glimmers of hope.” States have cut red tape, non-State armed groups have structures in place to facilitate humanitarian activities, humanitarian organizations regularly negotiate arrangements with warring parties to ensure safe passage, and third States are stepping in to boost compliance to international humanitarian law (IHL).

Several good practices were shared. First, back to basics: it’s important for humanitarians to engage with armed groups — that engagement can change behaviour, said NGO Geneva Call, and it shouldn’t be criminalized when it’s for humanitarian purposes. Moreover, local communities can play an important part in convincing armed groups to facilitate access. Aid groups also have a role to play in helping warring parties to meet their IHL obligations, such as by clearly identifying humanitarian personnel, assets and movements so they are not harmed during military operations, or by negotiating pauses, corridors and days of tranquility to allow assistance to reach civilians in need.

The Netherlands, Canada and other country representatives focused on the role that third States play in ensuring respect for IHL. They spoke of the importance of States working together to ensure that counter-terrorism legislation does not undermine principled humanitarian aid or medical care, which IHL safeguards explicitly. Others pointed to the positive steps that States can take to influence parties in conflict. For instance, the European Union (EU) guidelines on promoting compliance with IHL lay out a series of actions the EU can take, ranging from political dialogue to IHL criteria for granting arms export licenses.