I am in Geneva. It is the last stop of the World Humanitarian Summit’s consultative process. As I walk to the conference hall, I pass by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. I imagine these offices busy and active, dealing with a global refugee crisis. Women and men fleeing from conflict had to come to the doorsteps of Europe to be noticed by politicians and policy-makers, who have failed to bring peace in Syria and many other wars raging worldwide. This takes me to the impressive view of the Palais des Nations, next to the conference venue. Built to serve as the headquarters of the League of Nations, it is the predecessor of the United Nations. It shares a common, and unfulfilled, mandate of maintaining world peace. We are in the world’s humanitarian capital
The distinguished speakers opening the three day meeting remind us of that. They also insist that affected people need to be placed at the heart of humanitarian action. This is a clear demand coming from consultations. The herculean and very inclusive consultation process, led by Jamilah Mahmood, has lasted over a year, reached more than 23,000 people, received 400 written submissions and produced a very good synthesis report.
As the meeting continues, I notice the photo of Dalia Khalifa, a young Palestinian girl who had been injured during the escalation of hostilities in Gaza last summer. Her picture stands on the stage, watching the immense venue. She looks directly in to my eyes and to other thousand participants from all over the world. Member States officials, donors, academics, youth organisation, members of the diaspora, international, national and local NGO and crisis affected people will be looking at which of the proposals from the consultations will make the humanitarian action of the future. The new humanitarian system will hopefully address not only symptoms but also the political and economic causes of Dalia’s suffering and despair and bring hope.
As ActionAid, we have come along to Geneva with the voice and enthusiasm of Rahima and Brenda. Women that have lead humanitarian responses to alleviate the effects of cyclones and the Ebola outbreak in Bangladesh and Liberia. Because we believe and have evidence that when women are in leadership and decision making positions during an emergency it means not only having more effective humanitarian outcomes but also much needed transformations in the gender power relations between men and women.
As we finalise the first day of the conference, we are optimistic. Rahima was delighted with her opportunity “The conference has provided me an opportunity to share my story and to hopefully add my voice to others on the need for a relook at how the humanitarian system works”
We are all moved by the great leadership from Southern NGO and their concrete recommendations to shift power of a Western dominated humanitarian system to local organisations and crisis affected communities. There has been also advanced interesting and realistic proposals to address the global refugee crisis, methods to be more accountable to communities and firsts steps to empower and ensure leadership of women and girls in conflict and disasters. There is willingness to change among humanitarian NGO colleagues and commitment to adapt to new times, new realities and new threats.
But as the days go by, I realise that the United Nations st is not ready for any transformation in the global humanitarian system. Difficult questions around the United Security Council mandate or why UN humanitarian agencies are getting more than half of the funding in a questionable way of working are not replied in the plenary sessions.
They hang over in the screens, with an eternal question mark, even though they are the questions most voted by participants. The conference itself is organised in a way that the spaces for people like Rahima and Brenda to speak, who are at the frontline of humanitarian action, are limited. They have to take the microphone and make their point during a breakout session on making humanitarian action work for women and girls.
Brenda disappointed at this missed opportunity tells me
“the consultation meeting came across more as a validation of recommendations previous presented rather than as an opportunity for humanitarian specialists and people from affected communities to give their opinions and recommendations.
I was both proud and sad. Proud to note that Action Aid was the only International NGO that actually brought local partners from affected communities to this consultative and have their voices heard, stories and experiences shared but also sad because this reemphasizes the point many are trying to make in regards to forging true partnerships and local empowerment.”
If we want to be serious about a transformation and change in the humanitarian system two things need have to happen in the way to Istanbul.
Firstly, Member States, who are the owners of the United Nations, need to have to put pressure in the UN agencies and its architecture in order to become a more efficient facilitator of relief and become a people centred system. Secondly, there is a need to not only put the photo or virtual reality of affected communities in the summit like in Geneva.
The voice of Dalia does not need to be imagined from a photo or from what a Minister is telling us on what is she feeling. Dalia must be heard in Istanbul. And for that, we need to ensure that the participatory and inclusive format in which this humanitarian reform process was created remains.
Notes: Rahima and Brenda
Brenda Brewer Moore (Kids Educational Engagement Project in Liberia) Rahima Sultana Kazal (Association of Voluntary Actions for Society, Bangladesh) attended the global consultation meeting for the World Humanitarian Summit in Geneva, Switzerland. They participated in the preparatory and plenary sessions, the breakout session on “Making Humanitarian Action Work for Women and Girls” and had several meetings with Members States and other civil society organisations attending the event.
The Kids Educational Engagement Project (KEEP) works closely with Action Aid Liberia implementing educational projects and with the Child Sponsorship program. During the Ebola crisis in Liberia, Brenda enabled KEEP to take the lead in ensuring that thousands of children of school going age were kept academically engaged by providing educative kits that contained worksheets and school supplies. They were able to go to several communities and with the support of many volunteers, and despite the risks, they made visits from home to home to tutor the children, so that they weren’t left behind in their lessons during the mandatory schools closure for over 5 months. Currently, to increase health and hygiene awareness and promote behavioural change, KEEP is conducting Water, Health & Sanitation (WASH) trainings in over 60 communities in Liberia as well as providing trainings to school children on knowing their rights.
Rahima is the founder and Executive Director of Association of Voluntary Actions for Society, AVAS, a Bangladeshi non-profit organization that focuses on working with adolescent girls, sex workers, slum dwellers and other vulnerable women and girls in the society. They work primarily in the southern region of Bangladesh. AVAS has developed a hands on practical approach because over time, the women have come to know how to engage both the local community leadership and national government on issues affecting them, thereby brining about sustained change in their lives. They are more cognizant of their rights as women and human beings. Partnership with ActionAid has enable AVAS to reach more women and girls. From trainings with the women, they have now formed support groups spanning various communities who look at disaster response and preparedness since their region is prone to floods and cyclones. The women themselves are their champions, with many taking on non-traditional roles in construction, negotiation and active procurement.