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World Humanitarian Summit one year on: Start Network puts words into action

A year after 3,000 commitments were made, change is still urgently needed

  • by Sean Lowrie
  • 23 May 17

Blog Post

A year ago, thousands of well-intentioned people descended on Istanbul for what most hoped would be a transformative moment in humanitarian history.

For the first time in the United Nations’ 70-year existence, the then Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, had convened a gathering involving governments, international institutions and civil society organisations with a single stated purpose: to change how the humanitarian system works.

I was privileged to be among those at the opening ceremony of the World Humanitarian Summit. As the crowd thronged through the corridors and doors leading to the vast auditorium, I felt a real sense of excitement. After 25 years working in the international humanitarian sector, I had become accustomed to being familiar with most faces in most meetings. Yet the auditorium was filled with thousands of people from around the world, of whom I recognised only a few. The lofty opening speeches were inspirational, and the art and music brought us together in an emotional way around a core idea of a single humanity.

Over the two days of the summit, I was proud to see Start Network staff and members speaking on panels about localisation and insurance; taking part in a market place for humanitarian innovation; and making a plenary statement about the need for new business models and financial instruments before real system change can occur.

Yet there was a strange paradox about the event. It was the world’s first ever gathering to consider the future of the international humanitarian aid system, but the system itself wasn’t on the table for debate.

Governments and the organisers did not open up discussion about the role and structure of the United Nations, for example, for fear that the summit would get lost in endless circular and competitive discussions about organisational mandates. The same applied to other aspects of the structure that was created 70 years ago, despite the general consensus that the system is broken because that world no longer exists – one of the very reasons for convening the summit.

Yet the WHS was filled with exciting announcements and new initiatives in all manner of areas, most of them involving multi-agency collaborations. I could see that a new system was beginning to emerge within the old.

Now, one year on, what has changed?

In short, a lot of meetings, but difficulty in making real change happen. I’ve had conversations with donors who have signed up to the Grand Bargain, with its commitment to getting money directly into the hands of local organisations, but who don’t want to change their existing funding relationships. In some of the largest donor agencies, the political climate seems to be moving away from the commitments to a more decentralised humanitarian aid system. The status quo is a powerful thing.

Yet there is some progress, and Start Network’s 42 member NGOs are at the forefront of delivering it.

Our portfolio of Disasters and Emergencies Preparedness Programme (DEPP) projects, for example, includes efforts to enable national and sub-national indigenous NGOs to participate more fully in the international humanitarian system, to control funding to be used for their own capacity development efforts, and to share surge resources at times of crisis.

The Start Fund has established national committees for allocating emergency response funding, and has created a first national Start Fund in Bangladesh. It now also has a specific window for anticipating crises, which allows member NGOs to make funding decisions based on probabilistic information, and to learn from the experience. The Start Fund’s new online portal puts a vast data set into the public domain in a radical exercise in transparency. We are in the process of establishing our first ever insurance-type financing facility for response to drought. Our first ever impact report puts our own network Theory of Change into the public domain, and provides evidence of changes in the humanitarian system that have occurred as a result of the Start Network’s efforts over the past 12 months.

Beyond these results, and the well-established practice of reporting against plans, is a recognition within the Start Network that we live in a rapidly changing world. The network has adopted an experimental approach which focuses the collective efforts of the 42 members on concrete, well-intended actions, and rapid learning cycles. Each Start Fund allocation is peer reviewed. The DEPP projects have all adapted as they have gained experience. And the Start Network itself is in constant evolution. This year we have launched a project which we are calling Start Evolves – a process of co-creating the future of the network so that it can bring about change in the humanitarian system on a far larger scale.

It may sometimes feel that we are still so far from fulfilling the dreams people brought with them to Istanbul that collectively we have barely covered even the first mile of the marathon we need to run. Can the system we have inherited change fast enough even to keep up with the rate of change we now face?

Only if we think and behave quite differently - as Start Network was set up to do, and as its results are showing. We are a constantly evolving and living network, experimenting and learning all the time. We have together found a way to be more adaptable and more responsive to the needs of our fast-changing world than any organisation ever could be by acting alone.

At times the World Humanitarian Summit seemed to descend into a competitive frenzy of good intentions, as more than 3,000 commitments tripped off the tongues of those attending and more were made in the weeks that followed. (On one recent count the total now stands at over 4,000). Everyone must account for the promises they made, as Start Network is doing today for the nine pledges we made, so that they all put their words into action. Yet a year later the summit can still inspire us to go further – to see that far-reaching, transformational change is possible, and that together we must keep working to deliver it.

That's Start Network’s pledge for the future: we are determined not just to dream of a better humanitarian system, but to build it.

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  • by Sean Lowrie