Traffic is crawling, sirens wailing and police are hustling pedestrians around metal barricades. It's not another terrorist attack in Istanbul, but super-high security precautions for the first U.N. World Humanitarian Summit.
Dozens of government and NGO delegations converged on Istanbul's Congress Center, just down the street from central Taksim Square, posing for selfies and greeting old friends. The two-day summit is meant to lay the groundwork for a radical transformation of the way global humanitarian aid is delivered; participants say good progress on that has been made.
But it's also supposed to enlist the aid community in the U.N.'s longstanding goal of ending need. Critics say that's a terrible idea at a time when all attention should be focused on what the U.N. itself calls the world's worst humanitarian situation since World War II.
Rethinking Global Aid
The latest estimates suggest that 125 million people are in need of humanitarian aid. Some 60 million are displaced, either by natural disasters (including events brought on by climate change) or violence. Those here at the summit say the world has gotten better at dealing with the former but not the latter.
"I think we've actually made enormous progress in addressing natural disasters," says Nancy Lindborg, president of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), a congressionally-funded agency aimed at preventing, mitigating and resolving conflict. Helping victims of violence, she notes, is another matter.
"These are the hardest crises to respond to, and they're lasting longer — you have protracted crises with people who are displaced for an average now of 17 years," she says.
Lindborg says the change has been dramatic. Ten years ago, some 80 percent of humanitarian aid money and effort went to victims of natural disasters.
"A decade later that's flipped, and 80 percent of the funding and the effort goes to people who are victims of violent conflict," she says. "So it has increased the intensity and the urgency of making the most of our humanitarian action."
The Grand Bargain: Will It Work?
The summit yielded a so-called Grand Bargain, with countries, agencies and NGOs committing to provide more money and direct more resources to local governments and NGOs, and mounting an effort to end humanitarian need in the coming decades.
But not everyone has signed on. Some prominent players in the aid community decided to skip the summit, including the French medical aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders. MSF Executive Director Jason Cone told NPR via email that an expensive summit eliciting non-binding commitments from governments may not be the best use of resources at a time when long-accepted humanitarian norms are being violated. MSF says in 2016 alone there have been 14 bombings or attacks on health facilities in Syria and Yemen.
In a statement on its decision to pull out of the summit, MSF says the modern aid community can provide "an effective and timely response to natural disasters" but is "seriously lacking" when it comes to epidemics, refugee crises and conflicts."
USIP's Lindborg considers MSF's decision to pull out of the summit cynical — she says it's easy to dismiss larger gatherings like this but harder, yet ultimately more productive, to come and work for change. But she doesn't take issue with the notion that the ability to respond to violent conflicts is lagging far behind prowess in dealing with natural disasters. She's not sure this summit can fix that.
"I have greater concern about the political will needed to end the conflicts that are driving the humanitarian need," she says. "And we know that if we don't address conflict more effectively we will not get ahead of the spiraling unmet needs."
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