18 May 2019

The World Humanitarian Summit: A (Failed) Drama in Three Acts

During two days in May 2016, Istanbul hosted the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS). Convened by Ban Ki-moon, the then United Nations Secretary-General, the WHS had been presented as the moment to generate commitments to reduce suffering and deliver better for people around the globe’ (United Nations 2016b). The two-day gathering in Istanbul — that around 9,000 delegates from governments, humanitarian agencies, civil society organisations, private sector and journalists across the world attended — was going to be the culmination of a process that started in 2012.

The WHS was scrutinised from multiples angles, which to a certain extent was to be expected given how successful the UN was at publicising the Summit — making it an inevitable topic of conversation for those working in or around humanitarian issues — and at sending mixed signals about the desire for and chances of meaningful change of the current humanitarian architecture. It did not help that the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs said that the UN did not have to change (Aly 2015); or that the head of the WHS Secretariat stepped down months before the Summit; or that the WHS was not convened in response to a resolution of the UN General Assembly or the Economic and Social Council, limiting its political and legal status with member states.

Certainly, there was also a considerable level of expectation around the WHS. The consensus in the humanitarian community was — and still is — that the current aid architecture needed at least an upgrading to be fit for purpose; the consultation process ahead of the Istanbul summit was a gigantic effort to which thousands of people across the world contributed ideas and proposals to improve humanitarian action; Ban Ki-moon invested considerable political capital in the WHS and that could help create the necessary traction among key players in the humanitarian system, including governments.

In this article I review the two most relevant reports of the WHS: One Humanity: Shared Responsibility”, that explains the process towards and priorities for the Summit; and Outcome of the World Humanitarian Summit”, in which Ban Ki-moon analyses the discussions and commitments announced in Istanbul and recommends steps to advance the priorities agreed.

I will also explain how the WHS was conceived and designed, and why it eventually failed to achieve its main objective — a new humanitarian agenda — looking at this initiative as a drama in three acts. The relevance of this analogy lies in the similarities between the way both the aims and process of the WHS were presented by the UN — especially in the two reports reviewed here — and the structure of classic dramas: a single driving chronological story line, with a comforting beginning-middle-end’ (Smith 1999, 88).

The three-act structure

The three-act structure

The three-act structure is the oldest, most widely used and also simplest dramatic structure. The first act, also called the setup, is where the characters of the story, their context and the conflict are presented. The first act ends with a plot point or inciting incident that takes the story and their characters to the second act. The second act, or confrontation, is where the story moves forward, the action rises, and the main characters face all sorts of obstacles and, sometimes, a foe or antagonist character. Usually, in the second act nothing works for the main characters as expected. There are frustrations, crises and when everything seems to be lost, a second plot point takes the story into the third and final act. The third act, also known as resolution, is where the story reaches its climax. The hero might fail or, as it usually happens, overcome all the obstacles. In the aftermath, the story unknots and everything makes sense again, especially if there is a happy ending. The circle eventually closes.

The World Humanitarian Summit in three acts

First act: Setup

Cover to the first edition libretto for the 1881 revision of Giuseppe Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra Cover to the first edition libretto for the 1881 revision of Giuseppe Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra.

Published in February 2016, One humanity: shared responsibility” is not chronologically placed in the first act, although it contains the elements of the setup of the WHS story. Ban Ki-moon first mentioned the WHS in the five-year plan of his second tenure as UN Secretary-General in 2012. Initially described as a platform to help share knowledge and establish common best practices among the wide spectrum of organizations involved in humanitarian action’ (United Nations 2012, 8), the WHS was hardly among the most exciting initiatives of the five-year plan. A mere bullet point inside the subsection Build a more global, accountable and robust humanitarian system” — under the third generational imperative and opportunity Building a safer and more secure world by innovating and building on our core business” — the future world humanitarian summit paled in comparison to priorities such as meeting the Millennium Development Goals, reaching a climate change agreement or forging consensus around a post-2015 sustainable development framework. However, the humble beginnings of the WHS would soon give way to a much more ambitious vision. One that was coherent with what Ban Ki-moon thought were times of unprecedented stress for the global system and the foundations of our world. Indeed, the idea that the world was living through exceptional times that required a not less exceptional response from the international community would be a constant in the narrative of the WHS. This understanding of the exceptionality of the situation was needed to create the dramatic situation that would justify the main character’s call to adventure.

When the UN Secretary-General officially convened the WHS in 2013 he made it clear that it would not be just another intergovernmental process, but something much broader. Ban Ki-moon also stated that the WHS would be more than an event, it will be a multi-year process, starting next year with regional consultations that will ask all actors to discuss how humanitarian work is conducted, how we can improve delivery for those in need’ (2013). The long and complex consultation process — the main characters’ journey — and the summit itself would require a considerable logistical effort that Ban Ki-moon asked the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) to take forward. The WHS Secretariat — an ad-hoc bureaucracy — was set up to manage the series of national, regional, face-to-face and online consultations that would eventually involve over 23,000 people across the world. In addition, the announcement that Turkey would host the summit was a surprise that reinforced the positioning of the WHS as the type of innovative initiative that the world required according to the UN narrative:

To ensure that our generation and future generations benefit from the opportunities presented by this changing reality and are able to mitigate increased risks, the global community will need to work together in unprecedented ways (2012, 1).

The first act of the WHS story has all the elements of a classic drama: the main character accepts things must change, and calls others to join him in the adventure. In this case, the destination is Istanbul and the global consultation process will be the journey.

Second act: Confrontation

Cabinet card of Edouard de Max in the role of Marc-Antoine from Jules Cesar (1906) by the photographer Paul Berger Cabinet card of Edouard de Max in the role of Marc-Antoine from Jules Cesar (1906) by the photographer Paul Berger.

The second act of the WHS story focuses on the consultation process that took place between May 2014 and July 2015 involving more than 23,000 people in eight regional consultations, thematic and stakeholder consultations, and online dialogues. The WHS Secretariat produced a synthesis of the consultations Restoring Humanity: Synthesis of the Consultation Process for the World Humanitarian Summit” (2015), an impressive 189-page long document with proposals on five areas: dignity, safety, resilience, partnerships and finance.

In addition to synthesising the consultations, Restoring Humanity” developed even further the ambition for the WHS:

A vision for a world whose fundamental humanity is restored, where people affected by crises are at the heart of humanitarian action, and no one confronted by crisis dies who can be saved, goes hungry, or is victimized by conflict because there is not enough political will or resources to help them (2015, 10).

So, when Ban Ki-moon presented One humanity: shared responsibility” to the UN Assembly General in February 2016 the narrative around the WHS had evolved into a quasi-mystical territory. One humanity: shared responsibility” opens with a very personal story of the UN Secretary-General during the Korean War when, as a child, he had to flee his house and a newly born UN offered him hope and protection. For Ban Ki-moon a story that happened almost 70 years ago is relevant for today’s world, because the UNs blue flag still remains a banner of hope for all humanity’ (United Nations 2016a, 2) in times when:

Terror and the deliberate brutalization of women and children, aerial bombardments and indiscriminate shelling of residential neighbourhoods, with thousands of people trapped and starved in besieged areas, tens of thousands escaping war and destruction on dangerously overcrowded boats and millions on the move in search of a better life have all acquired a harrowing familiarity (2016a, 2).

Against this bleak background, Ban Ki-moon notes that the international aid system has not been able to scale up their work, partly because of funding constraints, but also inefficiencies. Therefore, the gap between humanitarian needs and the international capacity to respond to them continues to widen. The outrage about the increasing scale of needs across the world and the frustration with the limitations of the international aid structure had to be channelled and turned into a positive force for change. A tragic past and an alarming present met creating the inciting incident that lead Ban Ki-moon to call for the World Humanitarian Summit in 2012.

Drawing mainly from the proposal from the consultations, the UN Secretary-General outlined five core responsibilities that would guide the discussions in Istanbul: political leadership to prevent and end conflicts; uphold the norms that safeguard humanity; leave no one behind; and change people’s lives — from delivering aid to ending need; and invest in humanity. Ban Ki-moon closed his report making a call to action:

Let us make the Summit in Istanbul the turning point that the world sorely needs and the beginning of the change that the most vulnerable require for a life lived in safety, dignity and with the opportunity to thrive (United Nations 2016a, 47).

By the end of the second act, the WHS story has presented all the elements that are required for the resolution in Istanbul. At this point of the story, the WHS was not just an UN-led knowledge-sharing platform where humanitarian actors could agree best practices, but a global collective endeavour to restore humanity. In order to achieve that, participants in the WHS would commit to the new agenda for humanity outlined in the report of the UN Secretary-General. The stakes get higher and higher, but contrary to what usually happens in other stories, the main characters do not have doubts about what they should do and the second plot point does not introduce any new elements nor changes the direction of the story. If anything, the destination looks even more promising.

Third act: Resolution

Donizetti - Lucia di Lammermoor, act III - Raymond announcing the tragedy Donizetti - Lucia di Lammermoor, act III - Raymond announcing the tragedy.

Being a common endeavour of all humanity, the Istanbul Summit was not supposed to be a confrontation moment, as third acts usually are in dramas. Instead, the climax would be reached through the endorsement of the Agenda for Humanity and the commitment from all the stakeholders — global leaders, parties to conflicts, national and community leaders, international aid organisations, donors, and even young people — to take it forward. In the words of Ban Ki-moon the Summit in Istanbul was going to be the turning point that the world sorely needs and the beginning of the change that the most vulnerable require for a life lived in safety, dignity and with the opportunity to thrive’ (2016a, 47).

The UN Secretary-General tells us the end of the story in his Outcome of the World Humanitarian Summit” report (United Nations 2016c). For Ban Ki-moon, the WHS was successful in confirming the urgency and scale of the task ahead of us and in affirming that a new and coherent approach for reducing needs was required’ (2016c, 2), and described the Summit as a point of departure. According to the report, the main outcome of the WHS was that senior Government representatives and representatives of civil society and the private sector aligned themselves with 32 core commitments’ (2016c, 4). In addition to those 32 core commitments, hundreds of organisations presented almost 4,000 individual commitments.

After the climax of the Istanbul summit, the denouement of the story explains that the primary responsibility for championing, implementing and reporting on commitments is with those who have made them’ (2016c, 15). In order to support that task, the UN would build a website — the Platform for Action, Commitments and Transformation — , produce an annual synthesis report, and organise a high-level stocktaking meeting in the next three to five years.

Reading the Outcome of the World Humanitarian Summit” report there are few reasons to believe the WHS was successful in achieving its main goals. The language used in the report navigates between the ambition contained in One Humanity: Shared Responsibility” and a much more down-to-earth and uninspiring account of agreed priority areas and initiatives to advance the Agenda for Humanity. Indeed, Ban Ki-moon himself described the Summit as a point of departure’ (United Nations 2016c, 4), which is not exactly the happy ending of a three-year long story that envisioned:

A world whose fundamental humanity is restored, a world where no one confronted by crisis dies who can be saved, goes hungry, or is victimized by conflict because there is not enough political will or resources to help them’ (World Humanitarian Summit Secretariat 2015, vii).

Indeed, the UN Secretary-General admits in the conclusion of his report that the success of the WHS is a story to be written in the months and years after Istanbul.

What the WHS three-act story really tells us

The three-act structure may have been the most commonly used in fiction works for centuries, but that did not necessarily make it the appropriate one to build the story of the WHS. Indeed, the probably unconscious use of a logic linear structure by the UN is at the heart of some fundamental shortcomings of the WHS.

The WHS story starts with a problem needing resolution: The number of people in need of humanitarian assistance and the related funding requirements have hit record highs’ (United Nations 2016a, 3). When the WHS was first announced the proposed to solution to that problem was a platform to help share knowledge and establish common best practices among the wide spectrum of organizations involved in humanitarian action’ (United Nations 2012, 8). Before the start of the consultation process, the objective of the WHS was upgraded to a new agenda for humanitarian action’ (World Humanitarian Summit Secretariat 2014, 2). By the end of the second act, the WHS had become the moment when global leaders would agree a new era in international relations, one in which safeguarding humanity and promoting human progress drive our decision-making and collective actions’ (2016a, 3).

The increasing ambition for the WHS did not contradict the simplicity of the setup, making the first and second acts coherent. Indeed, the combination of a main character bigger than life — the UN, a banner of hope for all humanity’ (United Nations 2016a, 2) — and the collectivisation of the effort through a worldwide consultation process only reinforced the hero’s journey narrative.

During second acts — also known as the confrontation — the main characters usually find an adversary, overcome obstacles, and, as a result, experience fear and contradictions. Without confrontation, the story loses interest and even a raison d’être. However, the second act of the WHS story, the consultation process, and the presentation of the One Humanity: Shared Responsibility” report to the Assembly General, did not depict any apparent contradiction or tension, but there were many indeed.

In fact, Ban Ki-moon vaguely mentioned some of those areas of potential confrontation: a future process of renewal in the way the organisation [UN] works across mandates and responsibilities’ (2016a, 45); a call for political leaders to show the courage to look beyond short-term election cycles and political mandates (2016a, 46); and the perennial request to aid organisations to move beyond the comfort of traditional silos, mandates and institutional boundaries to operate with a greater diversity of partners and in support of local and national actors’ (2016a, 46–47). In addition, the UN Secretary-General acknowledged that the five core responsibilities — drawn from the findings of the consultation process — were not new, a testament to the failure to learn from the past and to embrace necessity and change more forcefully’ (2016a, 45).

If the UN wanted to avoid any fundamental confrontation in the WHS and the recommendations for the new humanitarian agenda were already part of the common knowledge of actors in the aid system — so there would not be any fundamental confrontation on that aspect — , then the resolution of the story had to be achieved through other means. For Ban Ki-moon the answer was to be found on the unity and cooperation needed to confront the challenges of our time effectively’ (2016a, 3). In other words, the confrontation had to happen elsewhere at the political level, where unity and cooperation, division and conflict, are negotiated and resolved.

The WHS was convened by the UN Secretary-General, but not in response to a resolution of the UN General Assembly or the Economic and Social Council. This was not a minor detail, as the outcomes of the WHS would not be binding for member states, beyond individual voluntary commitments. In fact, this put the WHS in a different political space than the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development or the Paris Agreement on climate change that Ban Ki-Moon mentioned as examples of what the international community can achieve when it acts together’ (2016a, 2).

Not less important and potentially confrontational was the role of civil society organisations and people affected by humanitarian crises in the WHS beyond their contribution to the consultation process. Indeed, some feared that a meaningful participation of states on the one hand, and civil society organisations and affected populations on the other hand could be mutually exclusive. Eventually, the format of the Istanbul summit made clear what the preferred option was:

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 states-people, 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 (Fiori et al. 2016, 15–16).

Yet, the format of the WHS did not seem to convince key states to send a top-level representation to Istanbul, as the ambition of the initiative would have required. Russia was especially vocal criticising the WHS process. For Moscow, member states were expected to commit to proposals without enough time for discussion (TASS 2016). This may come as a surprise, given the length of the consultation process, and that Russia — together with other member states — had been invited to participate in those preparatory meetings. However, Russia’s views on the legitimacy of the WHS to set a new agenda for humanity could be better understood looking at how multilateral negotiations usually work. The dynamic of conference diplomacy and multilateral negotiations

International multilateral negotiations often present the form of conferences or summits, usually convened by the UN. Indeed, conference diplomacy has always been a sign of identity of the UN in areas such as peace and security, human rights, environment, or development. Compared to the often-secretive negotiations between countries, UN conferences and summits create the opportunity for an increased public scrutiny of discussions and agreements, and also offer a political, legal, and even physical and logistical platform for the engagement of developing countries, civil society organisations and experts (Terpstra 2005). Although the role that conferences and summits play in the creation of international law and the institutional development of the UN is receding, they continue to serve as a basis of collective legitimisation and creation of soft law (Fomerand 1996). In addition, UN-led conferences around environmental and development issues have gained in relevance over the last decades (Schechter 2005). In that respect, an UN-led summit to agree a new humanitarian agenda was not in contradiction with the common international practice. In fact, Ban Ki-moon stated in his One Humanity: Shared Responsibility” report that the WHS would be part of a wider global agenda, together with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Paris Climate Agreement and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.

There are many parallels that can be drawn between the WHS and the process that resulted in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. However, there were some fundamental differences between the two processes. As much as the birth of the WHS made sense as another example of the UN taking the lead of a global initiative, the absence of a resolution from the General Assembly — including clear instructions as to how the consultation process and the negotiation of the outcome of the summit had to be run — reduced the chances that member states would engage in the process and own the outcome. This proved to be an insurmountable obstacle for an initiative intended to transform a sector in which governments are still in the driving seat. It is not a minor detail that governments contribute approximately 80% of total humanitarian funding every year (Development Initiatives 2016), and that according to resolution 46/182 of the UN General Assembly the affected State has the primary role in the initiation, organization, coordination, and implementation of humanitarian assistance within its territory’ (1991).

As with the WHS, the process that eventually gave birth to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was deliberately designed to be inclusive and participatory, given the criticism of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as the output of a top-down process agreed by a group of developed countries (Pollard et al. 2011). More than one million people and thousands of organisations, experts, policy-makers, and representatives of the private sector participated in the global and national thematic consultations for the post-2015 development agenda in what the UN defined as a consensus-building process” (2013, 7). Nevertheless, contrary to the WHS, the goals and targets that would replace the MDGs were negotiated in a series of intergovernmental negotiations in which governments engaged directly, following the process set by member states at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development held in Rio de Janeiro in 2012. Incidentally, the participation of non-governmental actors in the meetings of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals — between March 2013 and July 2014 — and the intergovernmental negotiation phase — from January to July 2015 –, where the content of the Sustainable Development Goals was discussed and agreed, was anecdotal.

It is difficult to know whether an alternative institutional and legal setup — one more similar to the post-2015 development agenda — would have been feasible for the WHS, or whether Ban Ki-moon used the option he had available. The WHS was not meant to be a multilateral negotiation, at least when the UN Secretary General first mentioned the initiative. However, the growing ambition around the WHS evidenced a contagion effect from the successful experiences of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development or the Paris Agreement creating expectations that could not possibly be met in Istanbul if it was not in a multilateral negotiation.

When the WHS shifted into the the turning point that the world sorely needs’ (United Nations 2016a, 47) it was too late to get the institutional and political back from the General Assembly. It was also late for the UN to create the space and rules for key actors to engage in a meaningful negotiation. If negotiations are processes whereby conflicting positions result in a common decision (Zartman and Berman 1982), multilateral negotiations add several layers of complexity that often mean that parties seek consensus even before the formal negotiation starts (Fagot Aviel 2005). A key challenge in multilateral international negotiations is to create the conditions that facilitate reaching an agreement and reduce the options for destructive coalitions (Fagot Aviel 2005). Parties, or the convenors of the negotiation, pay as much attention to the content of the negotiation as to the conditions under which it will take place, especially the details of voting process (Plantey 2007). These and other factors mean that multilateral negotiations combine a degree of predetermination and autonomy (Zartman 2002).

The WHS did not meet many of those pre-conditions nor it chose a consistent structure for the Istanbul summit if the objective was to agree a new humanitarian agenda. There are two basic categories of international conferences in two main categories based on the purpose and reach of the negotiation (Plantey 2007): high-level conferences in which delegates participate on behalf of their governments and, therefore, have authority to negotiate; and technical meetings with the purpose of informing governments’ positions on specific issues. The WHS fitted in both and, perhaps as a result of this, in none of these categories.

An alternative to the linear structure for the reform of the humanitarian system

It is impossible to know whether the WHS would have been successful had its story been written differently. However — as I explained in this review — by leaving many important elements, characters and plots outside the main story, the linear three-act structure used for the WHS reinforced the idea that no objective was too ambitious, and that the journey would inevitably end well. It simplified an incredibly complex and politicised reality without creating a space for different stakeholders to engage in a meaningful way. Humanitarian action is not an exclusive remit of formal humanitarian organisations, nor governments are the only gatekeepers for any substantial reform of the aid architecture. However, any reform of the humanitarian system will require that governments, UN agencies and international NGOs believe in and accept the rules and process of the negotiation. Similarly, it is not enough to call for the participation of civil society organisations and people affected by crises to then filter their contribution so it fits into the main narrative.

Modern stories do not have single driving story lines. They have multiple story threads, all of them with the same or similar relevance. The different characters may have different goals or see the same goal from different perspectives, all of them legitimate. The characters grow, learn, have antagonists, and might fail or abandon their journey. Modern stories contradict the Aristotelian tradition that dictates that:

The fable being an imitation of an action, should be an imitation of action that is one, and entire; the parts of it being so connected, that if any of them be either transposed or taken away, the whole will be destroyed or changed (Aristotle, n.d., 78–79)

The next story of the reform the humanitarian system will have to represent the reality, not the agenda of any individual organisation. It will have to prioritise systems not processes. It will have to challenge the incentives that conform the actions of humanitarian organisations and donor governments, connecting them to the interests of crisis-affected populations and the institutions that represent them (Fiori et al. 2016).


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