The Road Ahead from the World Humanitarian Summit

Last week, Ross and I traveled to Istanbul to take part in the World Humanitarian Summit. We set up our both in exhibition hall to showcase our work in Turkey and Syria to build the capacity of local NGOs in Syria and promote our new mobile-first product, PMD Pro Starter. Our friends and partners from Orange and Syan also joined us to discuss their local capabilities in the region—and Ross seemed to know everyone already!

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I had the chance to run upstairs to several of the side events and to network with other INGO and capacity building leaders. We also had many opportunities to deepen our conversations with others who share our passion for building capacity for humanitarians: CHS Alliance, Humanitarian Leadership Academy, PHAP, Mango, Institut Bioforce and Genome Consulting to name a few.

 

There was much discussion about whether the WHS was a watershed moment for the humanitarian sector or a failed attempt at much needed reform. I will largely leave that argument to others, except to make the following observations from someone new to this sector:

 

  1. Wow! 8000 people came to Istanbul for three days to, at least attempt, to create a new Agenda for Humanity. In our age of cynicism, political retreats to nationalism, and hyper-capitalism, this is, itself, remarkable–and we should celebrate it.
  2. Rome was not built in a day and we did not get to the (still imperfect) Paris climate accord in one try. For real reform, it will take more than one World Humanitarian Summit to get to the real change that so many at the Summit wanted to see. Maybe the bar was set too high. Let’s consolidate our small victories and look ahead with solidarity.
  3. We talk about “reforming the sector” or how, as a sector, “we can become more innovative.” These are perhaps the wrong questions. The “sector” can’t innovate—it is simply a compilation of our collective individual and organizational actions. It is up to each of us to drive our own innovation. Waiting for others (donors, governments, northern INGOs, southern INGOs, local NGOs—it’s all based on your perspective) to create the right environment, is a recipe for the same-as-usual results. Innovation does not happen by committee and certainly not by a UN forum; it happens because brave leaders drive it and nurture it—and then—others in the sector will follow, imitate, adapt, etc. (Stay tuned! We are working on curating some learning in the innovation space to help your organizations take the lead.)

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From a learning and capacity building perspective, this biggest news from the Summit, was the Grand Bargain which included a (non-binding) commitment to have local and national NGOs receive 25% of humanitarian funding by 2020. That’s an ambitious goal which represents an 800% increase over the current ratios in four years. Nonetheless, it means we need to get “real” about why our current capacity building efforts by and with local NGOs may not yet be as effective as they could be. For our part, we’ve drafted our own commitments as part of the WHS agenda and have focused them on local capacity building while supporting northern INGOs as they adapt as well. I’d love to get your feedback, critiques, and hopefully ideas and commitments of support!

 

So, maybe I left Istanbul more optimistic than other Summit participants. And my optimism was bolstered by my five days in Delhi that followed. The national and local NGOs that I met are doing really innovative work, embracing digital technologies, strengthening their networks and peer-to-peer approaches, and raising most of their money locally in India. To be fair, these were development, not humanitarian, organizations—yet, maybe we just need to look with our eyes wide open to see the change we want to see.
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