Translate with Google Translate

Commitment gridlock at the WHS: a three lane highway for delivering change

John Mitchell

By John Mitchell on 8 June 2016.

View existing comments or leave a new one!

At the first face-to-face meeting of the WHS thematic teams in 2014, a thematic team member posed the following questions: ‘Who was this Summit for? What was the change it was trying to achieve?’ The answers from the WHS Secretariat were: ‘Everyone’ and ‘Everything we possibly can.’ In the absence of an inter-governmental process, this Summit process opted for inclusiveness and participation over formal negotiations and binding agreements. As a result, several hundred commitments have been produced, but the security of a formal framework - like Sendai – has not.

A friend remarked to me on the way back from Istanbul that the Summit has unwittingly created an unmanageable load. He said it would have been better to have three big things to work on, all of which can bring about optimum change and improvement. Instead, he lamented, we have over-produced and created commitment gridlock.

So, how do we make sure we get the traffic flowing and harness all the good ideas and intentions to establish something really worth having? Looking at what we already have on the table, at first glance it seems as though there are three types of issues, all with different levels of potential to bring about positive change.

The first type of issues, which have a strong potential to bring about improvements, are in the fast lane for change. For example, cash and localisation were considered the top ‘winners’ of the Summit, but had already been gaining momentum prior to, and outside of, the Summit process. Significant changes around cash-based programming and greater powers for local/frontline organisations have been laid out, and there is a high level of expectation that both of these will bring about significant changes in humanitarian action.



The second type of issues have been around for a long time, but have been re-generated by the Summit and consequently put more firmly into the consciousness of humanitarian leaders and practitioners. Urbanisation, youth movements, disabilities and gender were all largely ignored by the initial WHS consultations, reflecting their broader marginalisation within the sector. Yet they ended up with top billing at the Summit due to effective and focused advocacy efforts. These issues tend to be linked to broader social movements, rely on a diversity of actors and other social processes, and have potential bring about gradual change in the medium to long term. They are in the middle lane for change.

The third type of issues are those which are often referred to as intractable, deeply-rooted in the system, and political in nature, e.g. compliance with IHL, refugee rights, humanitarian financing mechanisms, and UN mandate inefficiencies. These are exactly the kind of issues that need an inter-governmental Summit, as they require invested leadership from the UN and a facilitated negotiation process in order to achieve real change. Not surprisingly therefore this is where the Summit was seen to offer the greatest disappointments. As it lacked formal negotiations and binding agreements, the Summit is unlikely to achieve the changes desired. Moreover, the changes required for these deeply-rooted issues are essentially political and outside the control of the humanitarian community. They represent one of the central dilemmas of humanitarian action; namely that there are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems. In this sense these issues are at best in the slow lane for change, and some of them may already have broken down on the hard shoulder.

"The changes required for these deeply-rooted issues are essentially political and outside the control of the humanitarian community."

Disaggregating the issues and commitments is only the first part of getting the traffic flowing. We also need to understand the different theories of change that underpin the different issues and commitments. Only then can we begin to set realistic expectations about what is achievable, and work out sensible and realistic ways of monitoring and supporting the changes we want to see. This is part of the subject matter for the next ALNAP Annual Meeting in Stockholm in February 2017 and we are excited to be working on such an important and timely topic.

We will keep you up to date with the 2017 Annual Meeting though our bulletin.

  • Share this page:
  • Email
  • Print


Loy Rego

Loy Rego (Asian Disaster Preparedness Center (ADPC)) 13 June 2016, 11:27

Thanks John for this deeply insightful analysis of content of the WHS and its three tracks for change, perhaps more easily categorized in hindsight.

On the third track slow lane for change, let's also reflect on the limitations of intergovernmental negotiations and outcome documents, like Sendai and even the SDGs. These are non-binding and voluntary, but help us all nudge national and regional processes due to relatively consensual process and its lowest denominator normative content to guide framing on national policy, legislation and programs.

Humanitarian problems - if this is an acceptable term - have political solutions, which have to be achieved through political processes and action, nation by nation, region by region, and often re-negotiated in the same country from time to time. Therefore, how to use the outcomes reached from these processes, while being aware of their limitations, is an important lesson for all us practitioners to realise.

Hope your Stockholm meeting will address some of this.

John Mitchell

John Mitchell (ALNAP) 14 June 2016, 11:40

Thank you Loy, for your appreciation and kind words. We will certainly be looking at the political solutions as one potential avenue for change in the 2017 Annual Meeting in Stockholm. I hope we will be able to shed light on how the solutions themselves are influenced by humanitarian actors; and how political processes have contributed to better humanitarian action in the past and how they may in the future.

Leave a comment

Anyone can leave a comment, but you need a Full or Observer member account first.

If you already have an account, please sign in.

If you don't have an account, you can create an account now.

Before you download this file, please answer two questions to help us monitor usage

1) What do you think you'll use this document for?

  • Other:

1) What is your email address?

2) What is the name of your organisation?

Please answer both questions above Submit

Starting your download...

Pilot version: You are downloading the pilot version of this guide; we welcome any feedback you have. Please email

Close this overlay