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One humanity, many visions

Alice Obrecht

By Alice Obrecht on 11 February 2016.

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A couple of days ago, Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon released his Report for the World Humanitarian Summit, outlining five ‘Core Responsibilities’ to improve the situation of those affected by crisis. The SG’s Report motivates a call towards these core responsibilities through an eloquent and compelling account of the current ‘challenges to humanity’: suffering, displacement and death caused by conflict and natural disasters exacerbated by political inaction, perpetual poverty and vulnerability, and malfeasance.












In an initial reading of the SG’s Report, it is interesting to see how it has dealt with the tensions and opposing views that have come to the fore in the WHS consultation process. There are at least three underlying issues that have dogged this process from its beginning: one dealing with process, one with solutions, and one concerning different world views. These issues arise from conflicting visions of the future of humanitarian assistance, and they are reconciled with varying degrees of success in this report.

  1. Process

    The first issue, concerning process, is the question of who the Summit is for. The decision to use a multi-stakeholder consultation process instead of creating an inter-governmental negotiation process for humanitarian aid has led to mixed expectations about what the Summit will achieve. Is the Summit simply a large feedback mechanism through which people can voice their concerns for improving humanitarian assistance and its architecture? Or will the Summit go further by engaging deeply with the actors who need to implement recommendations and ensure they commit to these in a meaningful way?

    The SG’s Report marries these two views by speaking to those who have the power (Member States) while reminding them of the commitments they have already made to the powerless through other international frameworks, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It also makes a forceful case for the role that addressing extreme need and vulnerability can play in supporting these commitments. The first Core Responsibility, ‘Political leadership to prevent and end conflict’, and the fifth, ‘Invest in humanity’, are particularly forthright in their attempts to grapple with the responsibilities that need to be fulfilled in order to lessen the caseload of humanitarian need.
  2. Solutions

    A second contentious issue lies in the solutions put forward for reforming humanitarian aid, in particular those having to do with the structure of the humanitarian system. In recent months, the structure and governance of the system have been an increasingly visible topic, with a public debate emerging over what the Summit should do to address these issues, in particular with respect to the mandates and structures of UN bodies engaged in humanitarian assistance.

    The Report addresses this tension subtly. It acknowledges that it is time to “move beyond the comfort of traditional silos, [and] work across mandates, sectors and institutional boundaries” but stops short of proposing a radical restructuring of the UN system. Instead, it focuses on eight areas for improvement that, it suggests, could help mitigate the silo/mandate issue and make the system work more effectively, including better analysis of different contexts and a focus on achieving collective outcomes rather than coordinating inputs.

    While some may be disappointed that the changes described in the Report are not radical enough, if the humanitarian system and its agencies were to realise the changes called for by the SG’s Report, we would likely see a different UN operational approach and a very different humanitarian system.
  3. World views

    A third issue that has produced tensions throughout the World Humanitarian Summit process lies in the debate over humanitarian values and what humanitarian action means. While affirmation of the humanitarian principles has been reiterated repeatedly, this has sat in tension throughout the WHS consultation with the calls to tear down boundaries between humanitarian and development assistance.

    On this issue, the SG’s Report largely reproduces rather than resolves this tension. While it acknowledges that “the humanitarian principles – humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence – are central to obtaining access to populations in need,” it also calls for recognition of humanity as a shared value and the need for “international providers to set aside artificial institutional labels of ‘development’ or ‘humanitarian’, working together over multi-year horizons with the SDGs as our common overall results and accountability framework.”

    This seems to be a misreading of the different approaches of development and humanitarian assistance. While humanity may be our ‘shared value’, the problem is that development and humanitarian assistance represent two very different applications of this value, which arise out of distinct moral circumstances. Development assistance, as embodied in the 2030 Agenda, is a vision of humanity at its best: it depicts the ideal world to which we want our societies and governments to aspire. Humanitarian assistance, as embodied in International Humanitarian Law, is a vision of the ground floor for humanity: it provides the minimum threshold that we as a modern world are willing to accept in how human beings are treated. While shared humanity is at the core of both, they offer very different points of focus.

    In reality, we live in a world in which some days we can aspire to our ideals and on others we struggle to meet the minimum threshold. The future of our shared commitment to humanity lies in our ability to maintain that elusive mixture of both, depending on what the context allows. 

This is the problem with world views compared to processes or solutions: processes and solutions are more sensitive to facts and can eventually be worked out with some thought and attention to areas of compromise. World views are largely driven by our values, making them more difficult to reconcile. The SG’s Report aims to unite the world views of the aid system under one shared value of humanity. While it brings all the elements under the same tent, they are not in perfect harmony.

Linking development and humanitarian approaches remains a very distinct enterprise from upholding the humanitarian principles of neutrality and independence. While the responsibility may be shared, the visions for fulfilling it are very different. The best response to this may not be unification but more open reflection on these world views, where they are compatible, and where they come apart, all in service of one humanity.

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