The World Humanitarian Summit: priorities for reform Contents

2Reducing Humanitarian Needs

Upholding international humanitarian law

6.The need for humanitarian assistance comes, in part, from violations of international humanitarian law (IHL). As DFID states in its written evidence:

“Failure by warring parties to abide by international rules not only causes unforgiveable suffering, it generates vast movements of people and drives grievance, fuelling the next generation of violence. The summit needs to deliver a fundamental shift in global political culture so it is no longer acceptable for warring parties to violate the rules of war, and for women and girls in particular to be at such risk of violence and exploitation.”7

In Syria it has been argued that the protection of civilians appears to be an ‘empty concept’,8 and in our Yemen inquiry we heard that “all parties to the conflict have consistently failed to protect civilians”.9

7.The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) agrees that the WHS needs to lay down a marker for change on IHL compliance. In written evidence, the ICRC stated that if the WHS fails to take any significant steps, armed conflicts will continue as “business as usual”.10 Such a failure would mean that the consequences of conflict will continue to devastate affected populations. 92 per cent of people killed or injured by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas are civilians.11 In 2014, 80 per cent of recorded landmine and explosive remnant of war casualties were civilian, with an incidence rate of 10 casualties per day.12 Humanitarian access is also a key feature of IHL that is not being upheld. In February 2016, the UN was only able to get its humanitarian support to a small proportion of those in hard-to-reach locations (mostly Da’esh controlled) in Syria due to denial of access (see table 1). These sorts of commonplace violations help to explain the estimated 60 million people around the world that had been forced from their homes due to conflict or persecution by the end of 2014, an increase of 40% relative to 2011 levels.13

Table 1: UN deliveries to the 4.6 million people in hard-to-reach areas in Syria, February 2016

Sector (UN delivery only)

Number of people reached (as percentage of 4.6 million)

Food security

359 000 (7.9)


294 000 (6.4)

Non-food items

160 000 (3.5)

Water, sanitation and hygiene

65 882 (1.4)

Source: Implementation of Security Council resolutions 2139 (2014), 2165 (2014), 2191 (2014) and 2258 (2015)—Report of the Secretary-General.

8.It is not the absence of binding laws that has failed to eliminate IHL violations, but rather the persistent failure of certain parties to comply with these laws and the failure of others to enforce them.14 Despite the existence of mechanisms to enforce compliance—including penal measures against guilty parties, military legal counsel and sanctions for parties to conflict and courts and tribunals such as the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for states to pursue grievances—violations continue to occur. A wide range of contributors to this inquiry made a strong case that a successful WHS would involve concrete commitments to strengthen IHL compliance. These include CAFOD, Christian Aid, ICRC, Handicap International, Overseas Development Institute (ODI), Protection Approaches, Save the Children, Dr Rosa Freedman of the University of Birmingham and World Vision. DFID too acknowledges that: “This will be a challenging area to make immediate progress, but we cannot afford to stand by while violations of International Humanitarian Law continue.”15

9.A number of ideas have been suggested to ensure that violations of IHL no longer occur with impunity. In his report for the WHS, “One humanity: shared responsibility”, UN Secretary-General (UNSG) Ban Ki-Moon proposes several options for strengthening IHL compliance, including establishing a dedicated “watchdog” to track, collect data and report on trends of violations and an effort to encourage permanent members of the Security Council to withhold veto power on measures aimed at preventing or ending mass atrocities.16 While recent efforts to launch an international IHL compliance mechanism have failed due to a lack of political agreement,17 evidence to our inquiry called for a reinvigoration of this process.18

10.In addition to action at the global level, some witnesses advocated strengthening national mechanisms to monitor and prosecute violations of IHL. The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) asserted that there is a need to: “Improve national institutions to monitor and enforce IHL compliance, through technical assistance that improves their ability to analyse information on violations of IHL and to carry out investigations and prosecutions of allegations of violations of IHL and by enhancing judicial cooperation and assistance between states to share good practice.”19

11.The UK Government should seize the opportunity of the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) to start a process that will bolster compliance with International Humanitarian Law (IHL). This can be done in a number of ways:

Such initiatives should feed into negotiations leading up to and at the Summit, particularly at the High-Level Leaders’ Roundtable which will consider how to “Uphold the norms that safeguard humanity”.

Build a better understanding of resilience

12.The need to build resilience in crisis-prone communities has emerged as a key component of pre-Summit discourse. In his report, the UNSG states that: “Resilience and self-reliance should underpin the delivery of assistance and risk management processes.”20 The High-Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing, appointed by the Secretary-General and tasked with finding solutions to the widening funding gap, also warns that without investing in fragility (through building resilience), the humanitarian bill will continue to rise.21

What is resilience?

13.Building resilience is recognised by DFID as a key priority in humanitarian action, as is demonstrated by its explicit mention in the title of the document “Saving lives, preventing suffering and building resilience: The UK Government’s Humanitarian Policy”. Yet in order to make communities more resilient to crises, it is first necessary to understand what resilience means and how it can be acquired. In its “Defining Disaster Resilience” approach paper, DFID states that resilience is: “the ability of countries, communities and households to manage change, by maintaining or transforming living standards in the face of shocks or stresses—such as earthquakes, drought or violent conflict—without compromising their long-term prospects.”22 Such a definition is broadly consistent with thinking on resilience across the global system. Ann Foley, Head of Disaster Risk Management, Plan UK, told us: “It is all about whether you can help populations and Governments to understand the risks they face, to prepare for disasters and to be ready so that, if there is a disaster, the impact of it does not hit them so strongly and it allows them to continue with their human development.”23

14.However, we are concerned about the lack of clarity in translating this into practice. As we heard from Christina Bennett, Research Fellow with the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute:

“One problem I see with resilience is that it is still very poorly understood. While the UK has been at the forefront of defining what resilience is and what it means, humanitarian organisations have a hard time implementing it in terms of what programmes look like. They stick it in these funding proposals in order to get money from DFID, but then they are not giving the staff and the resources to be able to implement resilience programmes, which are longer-term programmes effectively.”24

Such concerns are reinforced by a recent independent evaluation of the DFID Syria humanitarian programme, carried out by Agulhas Applied Knowledge on behalf of DFID, which stated that:

“Several implementing partners mentioned that more clarification about DFID’s approach to resilience building and future intentions was needed. They also requested clarity about the funding available for resilience.”25

15.We commend DFID’s efforts on resilience-building, particularly with regards to its “Defining Disaster Resilience” approach paper and the explicit mention of building resilience in the cross-Government humanitarian policy. However, we believe that the gap between conceptualising and implementing resilience could be reduced in order to build more crisis-resistant communities.

16.DFID should work closely with implementing partners to clarify expectations on how resilience should be built into programming interventions and how best practice can be more broadly shared. Launching such an initiative at the WHS would help develop universal best practices on resilience building that can strengthen crisis-prone communities and reduce humanitarian need.

Resilience in conflict

17.As previously mentioned, a push towards universal compliance with IHL is a necessary part of reducing levels of humanitarian need, much of which arises from violations of IHL. DFID makes explicit reference to violent conflicts in its definition of resilience, and evidence to this inquiry suggested that in interpreting definitions of resilience we should be wary of the blurring of lines between what people should and should not be made resilient to. In written evidence, the ICRC stated that:

“Resilience is more fitting as a general strategy for natural disasters than armed conflicts. It is simply wrong to try to make people resilient to indiscriminate military attacks, rape, inadequate detention practices and other violations of international humanitarian law.”26

18.We recognise the value of incorporating resilience into programming in conflict-prone states—particularly with regard to food security, infrastructure and livelihoods—and commend DFID’s work in this respect. However, we urge the Government to assert that the obligations of all actors across the global system lie first and foremost with the upholding of IHL. Under no circumstances should resilience-building be used as a strategy to mitigate IHL violations.

Greater emphasis on preventing and resolving crises

Disaster risk reduction

19.Rising humanitarian needs and a widening gap between need and funding are partly explained by the increasing occurrence of disasters. Evidence from RESULTS UK highlighted that weather-related disasters were almost twice as common over the past 10 years as they were in the period 1985–9427 and the number of people exposed to droughts has been predicted to increase by 17% by 2030 and as much as 90% by 2080.28 These trends, and the inability of the humanitarian system to cope with their fallout, mean that there is an increased need to invest in proactively preventing and resolving crises, rather than just reacting to them. As Bruno Lemarquis, Deputy Director of the Crisis Response Unit at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) told us: “The best way to reduce need is to invest in and to work on prevention and prepare countries, communities and systems […] There should be a different balance struck between investment in avoiding crisis and responding to crisis.”29

20.In its report to the UNSG, the High-Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing stated that the need for humanitarian assistance would shrink considerably if disaster-prone countries funded risk reduction and preparedness activities, as well as building national capacities to respond to disasters. However, it went on to say that they cannot do this alone.30 A number of international commitments were recently made in the 2030 Agenda, the Sendai Framework, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda and the Paris Agreement to help vulnerable countries reduce disaster risks, adapt to the impacts of climate change and prevent humanitarian crises. These commitments must be kept to and reinforced with new ones to ensure adequate support is given to countries trying to adapt to and mitigate the risks of disasters. In his report, the UNSG suggested that the percentage of Official Development Assistance (ODA) allocated for disaster risk reduction (DRR) should be doubled to at least 1% by 2020.31

21.Focusing on adaptation and risk mitigation is not without its challenges. Christina Bennett of ODI pointed out:

“The incentives to avert a crisis are much lower than the incentives to respond to a crisis […] It is very hard to sell crisis prevention or preparedness to constituencies. You have to spend money now so that we never see these headlines. It is very hard to make that case.”32

While this is a difficult problem that is inherent to DRR, the WHS is an opportunity to promote crisis prevention and seek solutions to issues like the lack of incentives. One way this can be done is to encourage high quality research to inform humanitarian actors and policymakers, as was suggested in written evidence by Oxfam.33 If the benefits of proactive investment over reactive response can be quantified in financial terms, donors will be encouraged to rebalance their humanitarian efforts towards the former as it is cheaper.34 Crown Agents also highlighted the potential of a private sector role. It stated that preparing for/reducing the risk of predictable events, such as recurring floods and droughts, could be funded through the investment market. However, due to the limited research on which Disaster Risk Financing and Insurance (DRFI) instruments are the most cost-effective, there is a need to strengthen the evidence base on this.35

22.More research is needed on examples of where investment in DRR has paid off. Mike Noyes, Head of Humanitarian Response, ActionAid UK, referred to the countries around the Bay of Bengal, stating:

“We have made a huge achievement in that area. If we go back to the Orissa cyclone of 1999, compared with the one we had a couple of years ago the difference in terms of loss of life is a hundredfold.”36

Ann Foley, Head of Disaster Risk Management, Plan UK echoed this point, mentioning earthquake-resistant building technologies and other evidence-based strategies. She went on to say that: “If you invest in that, far less investment will be needed if a disaster occurs and you will save lots of lives.”37

23.The increased number of weather-related disasters has contributed to the increase in humanitarian needs over recent years, and this trend is likely to continue, linked to the effects of climate change. While conflicts and natural hazards cannot be avoided, there is a broad consensus on the need to invest in preventing the worst of their effects.

24.DFID should incentivise investment in preventing the worst effects of disasters by leading the way in adopting the UN Secretary General-endorsed target of allocating 1% of Official Development Assistance (ODA) to disaster risk reduction (DRR). DFID should seek reaffirmation of international commitments made in the 2030 Agenda, the Sendai Framework, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda and the Paris Agreement to help vulnerable countries reduce disaster risks, as well as financial commitments to the necessary actions to achieve these. DFID should invest in research to clarify the benefits of crisis prevention for all donors.

Conflict prevention and resolution

25.The number of political conflicts has also significantly increased in recent years, rising from 278 in 2006 to 424 in 2014 with those deemed “high-intensity” increasing from 35 to 46.38 A greater focus on preventing crises should sit within a long-term view of investing in fragile states, particularly those in a situation of protracted crisis. Several contributors to this inquiry highlighted the situation in the Central African Republic (CAR) as an example of where there has been an underinvestment in preventing conflict, despite the warning signs. As Bruno Lemarquis of UNDP told us: “not tackling issues such as social, political and economic exclusion from large fringes of the population, all led to the explosion of violence two or three years ago.”39 Indicators of the potential for violent conflict were not heeded and the result is a continuing humanitarian crisis.

26.The crisis in CAR escalated throughout 2013 but with little international media attention, and humanitarian organisations actually scaled down their activities even as humanitarian needs increased. From 2014 onwards, the trend reversed, but funding, staff capacity and the coverage of assistance were still far from sufficient.40 Plan International UK voiced concern that: “Humanitarian actors allowed themselves to be directed by donor governments’ under-prioritisation of CAR, which in turn was likely driven by CAR’s perceived lack of importance in their foreign policy agendas.”41 Humanitarian assistance should be entirely needs-based and there should be no neglected crises.

27.Early warning systems can play a key role in averting crises. Bruno Lemarquis of UNDP stressed the need for collective efforts towards developing joint early warning systems to indicate rising political tensions that may benefit from intervention. He told us that:

“There is a lot more to be done so that various perspectives, from the political actors, the security actors and humanitarian and development actors, come together so that everybody reads from the same sheet of music.”42

Yet it is not enough just to recognise the warning signs, they must be acted upon. As Mike Noyes of ActionAid said: “The greatest concern we have at the moment is when evidence is not acted upon.”43 This was echoed in written evidence by Christian Aid who stated that: “We believe there is an urgent need for the UN Security Council to act on early warning data quickly, and for the causes of conflict to be judiciously addressed.”44

28.Even with a renewed impetus on preventing conflicts, they will inevitably occur. Early warnings and work on prevention should therefore be paired with stronger political will to end conflicts when they do happen. In his report, the UNSG said that: “Preventing and ending conflicts and building peace are recognized in the Charter of the United Nations as our first and foremost responsibility to humanity. Yet, that effort is not where our political leadership or resources are presently focused.”45 Both preventing and resolving conflicts require robust and timely analysis to assess the risks in fragile states. George Graham of Save the Children offered South Sudan as an example of where this had not happened:

“It was fairly obvious that there was some serious tension in that Government and that those guys had a very bloody past and knew how to fight, yet there was this great will to make South Sudan work and to throw development financing at it. It did not seem to be anybody’s job to worry about or manage the very obvious political risks.”46

While we commend DFID’s commitment to supporting state-building in South Sudan since the outset of independence, it is important to recognise that the failings of collective monitoring and action to address the political risks were significant factors in the ultimate failure to prevent the outbreak of conflict.

29.The situation in Syria is an example of where poor understanding of political risks and the nature of a conflict has contributed to the failure by the international community to resolve it. As George Graham told us: “We cannot fix Syria, but there are things that can happen in other conflict contexts and perhaps could have happened in Syria in 2011 if there was a better quality of analysis right from the get-go.”47 The recent independent evaluation of the Syria Crisis Unit, carried out by Agulhas Applied Knowledge on behalf of DFID, also states that: “DFID initially assumed that the crisis would follow a particular trajectory (towards regime change in Syria) and did not fully incorporate alternative outcomes into its planning.”48 This approach was reflected across the UK Government, and while DFID reports that it undertook regular scenario planning, its strategic position assumed that the conflict would be limited, displacement of refugees would be temporary and regime change would occur.49

30.It is clear that this assumption was mistaken and the way the Syria conflict has unfolded highlights the need for comprehensive and collaborative analysis in informing both responses and efforts to resolve crises. The UNSG suggests that: “National Governments and regional and international organizations should increase their capacity to analyse risks and monitor deteriorating situations.”50 A plan on how to achieve this should be a key outcome of the WHS.

31.Under the UN Charter, Member States are obliged to make efforts to prevent and end conflicts and to build peace. As the number of political conflicts has steadily increased over recent years, it is clear that the international system is failing to deliver on this obligation.

32.The World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) should provide a platform for discussion on how to improve systems to monitor political risks and warn of heightened risks of conflict, and to initiate political action/intervention. The UK Government should play a key role in ensuring that monitoring systems become both more collaborative and timely. Governments should also agree in advance circumstances in which political intervention, through all available instruments, is initiated.

33.The UK Government should also invest in strengthening the capacities of international and regional organisations to monitor and mediate cases of rising political tensions through use of the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF). It should use the WHS to push for a commitment to a needs-based, as opposed to political, approach to humanitarian intervention to ensure that all severe crises are pre-empted and addressed and that none are neglected, as in the case of the Central African Republic (CAR).

34.Political commitment to humanitarian values is crucial in delivering a more effective humanitarian system. We commend the UK Government’s efforts in this respect, particularly in the hosting of the Syria conference earlier this year. A number of contributors to this inquiry have stressed that the Prime Minister’s attendance at the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) would be an important signal of the UK’s continued support.

35.As such a large donor, a signal of high-level UK support is vital to a strong Summit outcome and thus a more effective delivery of UK humanitarian assistance. We strongly recommend that the Prime Minister consider attending the WHS.

7 DFID (DAS0025) para 6

9 Save the Children (YEM0004) para 2.8

10 International Committee of the Red Cross (DAS0028) p2

11 UN Secretary-General, One humanity: shared responsibility, para 47

12 Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, Landmine Monitor 2015 (November 2015) p1

15 DFID (DAS0025) para 6

16 UN Secretary-General, One humanity: shared responsibility, p52–53

18 ODI (DAS0016) para 10

19 ODI (DAS0016) para 11

20 UN Secretary-General, One humanity: shared responsibility, para 117

21 High-Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing Report to the Secretary-General, Too important to fail—addressing the humanitarian financing gap (January 2016) p5

23 Q84

24 Q9

25 DFID Syria Crisis Unit, Humanitarian Programme Process Evaluation, para 3.8

26 International Committee of the Red Cross (DAS0028) p3

27 RESULTS UK (DAS0018) para 5

29 Q3

30 High-Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing Report to the Secretary-General, Too important to fail—addressing the humanitarian financing gap (January 2016) p6

31 UN Secretary-General, One humanity: shared responsibility, para 151 (c)

32 Q6

33 Oxfam (DAS0004) para 12

34 Q3

35 Crown Agents (DAS0020) para 4.3

36 Q92

37 Q91

38 UN OCHA World Humanitarian Data and Trends 2015 (December 2015) p60

39 Q8

40 ALNAP, The State of the Humanitarian System (October 2015) p68

41 Plan International UK (DAS0005) para 14

42 Q4

43 Q86

44 Christian Aid (DAS0019) para 5.5

45 UN Secretary-General, One humanity: shared responsibility, para 22

46 Q93

47 Q93

48 DFID Syria Crisis Unit, Humanitarian Programme Process Evaluation, para 3.8

49 DFID Syria Crisis Unit, Humanitarian Programme Process Evaluation, para 2.6

50 UN Secretary-General, One humanity: shared responsibility, para 33

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6 May 2016