World Humanitarian Summit: Between opportunities and challenges

This coming May 23rd and 24th, over 5,000 participants are expected to attend the first World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, Turkey. Heads of state, government leaders, as well representatives from the private sector, multi-lateral organizations, youth, civil society, and the NGO community, including Caritas Internationalis, of which Development and Peace is a member, will take part in this meeting. 

The summit is designed to put forward five fundamental obligations that the entire international community must fulfill:

  1. Global leadership to prevent and end conflict;
  2. Uphold the norms that safeguard humanity;
  3. Leave no one behind;
  4. Change people’s lives – from delivering aid to ending need; and
  5. Invest in humanity.

Stephen O’Brien, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, points out that 60 million people are currently displaced by armed conflicts or natural disasters and that a total of 125 million people require assistance and support, i.e. the equivalent of more than three times the population of Canada. 

For purposes of educating and raising awareness amongst Canadians ahead of the Summit, the Canadian Council for International Cooperation (CCIC) and eight Canadian humanitarian aid and international development organizations contributed to a series of articles on various themes that will be addressed. Every two or three days between now and the opening of the Summit, a new article will be published on the website of the Huffington Post presenting a challenge that the international community will have to face. Here is the contribution of Guy Des Aulniers, Humanitarian Assistance Coordinator at Development and Peace.


Upholding the norms that safeguard humanity

The core humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence underpin the day-to-day operations of humanitarian organizations. Those providing humanitarian assistance today do so in a highly complex environment that is often characterized by widespread abuses of human rights and violent conflicts. The failure of state and non-state armed actors to observe the basic rules of war and humanitarian law such as protection of civilians and aid workers have confounded efforts to provide assistance to those who require it most. In many of the world’s most complex humanitarian crises, the subjugation of humanitarian priorities to foreign policy objectives and the conflation of military, political and humanitarian objectives constitute a significant threat to the delivery of impartial humanitarian assistance. 

Adherence to humanitarian principles is essential for establishing and maintaining access to affected populations, whether in the context of a natural disaster, an armed conflict or in complex emergency settings. Whilst humanitarian principles are sometimes perceived as lofty theoretical undertakings, they constitute in fact an essential framework for building trust and acceptance. Although adherence to principles alone may not be sufficient, in politicized and insecure environments, establishing trust is crucial. When governments, militaries or donor agencies seek to co-opt or undermine these principles, the trust between those providing and those receiving assistance can be damaged or destroyed, and it can become too dangerous to assist those who need our help the most. 

The way of delivering humanitarian aid has evolved over the years. Initially, aid was often dominated by organizations that have a technical perspective of the intervention. Today, more and more organizations are doing both humanitarian and development work. This holistic approach leads to an understanding, and therefore a wider intervention. The humanitarian objective goes well beyond simply technical service as it infers a much deeper engagement with the populations. It is a form of solidarity and a supportive presence that also allows one to testify if officials fail to fulfill their obligations. For many of us, humanitarian assistance only makes sense when it is understood as both an imperative to protect and a long-term commitment to fight the structural causes of a crisis, alongside affected communities.

The role of faith-based organizations 

Development and Peace – Caritas Canada is a member of Caritas Internationalis, a confederation of 165 Catholic humanitarian, health, social service and development organizations, with the moral imperative to respond to humanitarian needs without discrimination. Caritas plays a pivotal role in responding to humanitarian emergencies and promoting social development. As part of the Catholic Church, Caritas, which is present in nearly 200 countries and territories around the world, has adopted people-centered initiatives in order bring about change in the lives of the most affected and at-risk communities. 

To strengthen aid effectiveness and solidarity, we have to recognize, value, and support local organizations in a humanitarian response. Local organizations are the first responders in emergencies, and religious institutions are often the first place of refuge during a crisis. With a significant capacity to mobilize people, this response is driven by solidarity, compassion and a deep understanding of local context. At the same time, these first responders may also be directly affected and very often experience significant financial limitations as well as direct trauma and suffering. 

Even if our respect and credibility may be compromised when conflicts are fueled by religious conflict, we believe that faith-based organizations offer an essential contribution in serving the needs of people in conflict. By joining together across faiths, traditions and structures, religious leaders can impact safety and security and bring international attention and understanding to issues fueling conflicts. The potential of religious leaders to provide protection and mitigate conflict is often overlooked by the international humanitarian community. 

We hope that the next World Humanitarian Summit will reaffirm this role. We also hope for more coherence and complementarity between humanitarian and development aid interventions to meet development, security and peace objectives, and in linking emergency relief to other forms of interventions in order to shed new light on our reading of humanitarian values. 


Guy Des Aulniers 
Humanitarian Assistance Coordinator at Development and Peace. 

This piece was prepared in collaboration with CAFOD, Trócaire and Caritas Internationalis.


Development and Peace currently has humanitarian aid programs in the following countries and regions: Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ecuador, Eritrea, Gaza, Iraq, Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, Mali, Mauritania, Nepal, Niger, Philippines, Sudan/Darfur, South Sudan, Syria, Tanzania, Chad and Turkey.