World leaders, politicians and aid officials have gathered in Turkey for the first World Humanitarian Summit in an unprecedented effort to shake up global responses to wars and disasters.

The conference in Istanbul, which takes place on 23-24 May and was conceived by outgoing UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon in 2012, aims to change the way aid is provided and tackle the root causes of the “vast scale of humanitarian need”, according to the UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator, Stephen O’Brien, whose office is running the summit.

The United Nations estimates that 130 million people are in need of humanitarian aid around the world. Yet there is a $15 billion shortfall in funding due to aid money being pledged but not delivered.

The summit comes as the world is experiencing a record number of people forcibly displaced (60 million in 2015), including 20 million refugees driven from their homes by Syria’s five-year conflict and tens of millions uprooted by natural disasters due to extreme weather.

The number of displaced people has reached a record high
Image: Statista

Over half of the people who are forcibly displaced from their homes are children, according to Anthony Lake, UNICEF executive director, who argues that leaders in Istanbul now have a chance to “change this bleak equation”.

“This is not only a challenge for governments, or international organizations and NGOs working in humanitarian and development contexts,” he writes. “The private sector also has a stake in stability and predictability in markets. Investing in preparedness – within operations themselves and in the communities where they operate – helps in urgent crises and in the long term, and is good both for business and for society.”

Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank, warns that the goal of ending extreme poverty is being threatened by the growing number of displaced people, and describes how the private sector will have to play a central role in finding solutions to crises.

As part of a series of articles linked to the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, he writes: "Instead of the old way of relying mostly on donor grants ... the focus now is expanding financing, which will include several sources: donors’ assistance, increasing domestic resource mobilization from developing countries, stopping illicit financing flows and leveraging private sector investment."

What does the summit aim to achieve?

In his opening speech, Ban Ki-moon set out the key commitments that he hopes leaders will sign up to in order to improve the global humanitarian system. “I proposed this summit four years ago out of concern for rising humanitarian needs and declining political will. Today, the urgency has only grown,” he said.

The commitments are centred around five core responsibilities:

As Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) explains, the aim is to make the humanitarian system “fit-for-purpose in a world where crises hit with increasing frequency, intensity and complexity, and where wars seem endless and limitless”.

One of the challenges of the summit will be to work out how to bridge the gap between short-term emergency relief and longer-term development work.

For this to happen, we must rethink what aid actually means, says Jonathan T.M. Reckford, CEO of Habitat for Humanity International. "Before we can begin to address long-term recovery issues and bridging the gap between relief and development, we, as a global society, must first recommit to the principles of humanitarian action: humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence," he writes.

Who is going?

Representatives of 175 countries, including around 65 heads of states, are attending; although German Chancellor Angela Merkel is the only G7 leader present.

Around 6,000 participants from governments, aid organizations, the private sector and other groups registered for the two-day conference and are taking part in debates and panels.

But medical aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières pulled out, arguing the event would not do enough to make states that violate humanitarian law accountable.

Mark Goldring, Oxfam GB’s chief executive, urged those attending the summit to ensure it is “more than an expensive talking shop by tackling the repeated failure of governments to resolve conflicts and end the culture of impunity in which civilians are killed without consequence".

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