The Humanitarian Effectiveness Project

On 23-24 May 2016, Istanbul, Turkey, will host the World Humanitarian Summit. Called by the UN Secretary-General in 2013, the WHS is the latest attempt to build common agreement on the reforms required to improve humanitarian performance. It has involved a lengthy and substantial consultation process – eight regional consultations, 151 country consultations, online consultation, thematic expert consultation, a global consultation, and numerous associated events – which, led and managed by the UN, with the participation of more than 23,000 people, has demonstrated the capacity of the humanitarian sector to mobilise resources to engage in focussed discussions while at the same time imposing limits for substantial change.

The WHS is an ambitious initiative insofar as it is intended to set a ‘new agenda for humanitarian action’, informed by ‘perspectives, priorities and recommendations of all stakeholders on what must be done to make humanitarian action fit for the future’. But the fact that it is not being convened in response to a resolution of the UN General Assembly or the Economic and Social Council is not a minor detail. Its outcomes will not be binding for member states. In the final months before the summit itself takes place, there has been a growing tension that is reflective of the humanitarian community’s relationship to politics: there has been recognition that member states will need to engage seriously, agreeing to, and taking certain ownership of, the summit outcomes if these are to be of consequence; yet there is fear that serious engagement by member states will push the discussions of civil society organisations (particularly smaller ones) to the margins, turning the summit into a forum for the pursuit of geopolitical objectives over the interests of crisis-affected populations, and inevitably resulting in a watered-down outcome document that balances the concerns of the most powerful states. Sure enough, as the format of the summit in Istanbul has been slowly defined, and as efforts have been made by the humanitarian community to ensure the attendance of influential statespeople, the disconnection between the participatory consultation process and the plan for the summit itself has become increasingly patent, not least on account of the clear division of the summit into separate tiers with limited opportunity for civil society representation in the ‘high-level’ meetings.

Such a large-scale initiative required the creation of an adhoc bureaucracy – the WHS Secretariat – to manage the various consultations and the Istanbul summit. The job description for the Chief of the WHS Secretariat stated that ‘the process leading up to the summit […] will be as important as the summit itself’, putting the emphasis on the management dimension of the position. Candidates for the post were required to have at least fifteen years of ‘managerial experience’ in relief coordination in emergency situations, but there was no mention of a need for experience of coordinating or facilitating international consultations and summits. For the UN, an experienced manager would be able to lead what, in the final instance, would be a process of political negotiation – a nod to the centrality of management to contemporary humanitarianism.

The need to come up with ‘the big idea’ has been repeatedly raised in discussions related to the WHS. The notion that the WHS should produce the silver bullet that can do away with the current shortcomings of humanitarian action sits in tension with the proposal that a wellmanaged process is as important as the summit itself; but it is reflective of the linear-rational thinking that is characteristic of ‘humanitarian neomanagerialism’ (an ideology and culture that, as will be explained in this paper, has shaped the humanitarian effectiveness agenda).

As humanitarian agencies search for solutions, or rather ‘the solution’, in a process without a firm political mandate, they inevitably turn inwards to consider the technocratic measures that they can themselves deliver: new mechanisms and tools, bureaucratic processes and structures, technologies and indicators. The understandable demand for tangible and actionable recommendations then serves to leave unchallenged fundamental questions about culture and politics in the humanitarian sector.

How did such a situation come about? The new geopolitics of the 1990s analysed in the introduction of The Echo Chamber provides an important point of departure for the story.


Photo credit: Aubrey Wade/Save the Children.