World Humanitarian Summit and Turkey

The summit will take both Turkey and the humanitarian aid system to a new level.

Syrian refugee camp in Turkey
Syrian refugees at Harran refugee camp in Sanliurfa, southeast of Turkey. [EPA]

There are two important reasons for convening the first ever World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul on May 23 and 24. The first is the need to revise and improve the structure of humanitarian aid within the framework of the United Nations.

Put simply, the transition of the UN structure from emergency aid to humanitarian aid falls short when it comes to creating solutions for the increasing number of humanitarian crises.

The second reason for holding the summit in Istanbul is “rhythmic diplomacy”, one of the founding principles of Turkish foreign policy in the post-2002 era, Turkey’s approach to humanitarian diplomacy adopted in recent years, and the fact that it is home to 2.7 million Syrian refugees.

Rhythmic and humanitarian diplomacy

The overlap between humanitarian diplomacy and rhythmic diplomacy is mobilising international organisations and structures in connection with humanitarian crises – while elevating Turkey’s profile as much as possible. The cooperative vision of the UN and Turkey is what brought the summit to Istanbul.

The lasting impact of rhythmic diplomacy in foreign policy can be seen by looking at the summits scheduled for the near future.

Actually, the Least Developed Countries (LDC) summit held in Istanbul in 2011 had similar characteristics.

What makes the World Humanitarian Summit different is that the LDC summit included regions in which Turkey was attempting to expand its influence, while this gathering in Istanbul is focused on problems next door and even inside of Turkey.

Turkey is directly involved in the refugee issue, which is at the top of the list of problems the World Humanitarian Summit hopes to resolve.

This summit aims to relieve suffering and to solve problems with interventions in regions where the crises and dramas are unfolding – in other words, the objective is to create a “humanitarian space”.

Today, we are talking about humanitarian crises that have dislocated 60 million people, about allegedly safe regions being under constant threat and attack, inaccessible to aid and about a situation that requires $20bn worth of funds annually.

As crises and disasters increase, and the humanitarian space consequently needs to expand proportionately or even more rapidly, we are seeing shrinking humanitarian space and deadlock regarding solutions to these problems.

Humanitarian sector

This is the setting of the summit, with the purpose of restructuring the humanitarian system, which needs to shape the current problematic structure.

The chairman and chief executive of the International Rescue Committee, David Miliband, outlined the problem that forms the backdrop to the summit in a speech he gave a month ago at Georgetown University, where he used the phrase “humanitarian sector” instead of “humanitarian system”.

This system is directed by the UN, the International Red Cross – and Red Crescent – and large international NGOs. The hegemonic structure maintained by the most powerful actors of the system is rigid, and there is a noticeable leadership problem.


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framework. One of the most important dilemmas in the field of humanitarian aid is the general sense of dissatisfaction in regions that receive aid.”]

The obstacle that the World Humanitarian Summit must overcome right from the start is to define the UN position, and to outline the principles and boundaries of humanitarian aid coordination. Every new actor that enters the system or sector may encounter doubts even if it is just a summit.

This demonstrates the limits of structural transformation. The primary reason for convening the summit and opening the sector up to debate is a visible failure in the field.

A view widely held by individuals and organisations is that there is a need for a proper transition from international organisations and large NGOs to local and national structures.

However, it does not seem like this will be an easy transition. There is a mental barrier and a structural element that is difficult to overcome.

For example, only 0.2 percent of total humanitarian assistance was made available for use by local and national NGOs in 2014.

An example of meaningful work on this issue is the fact that the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) announced that it will use 20 percent of its funds in 2020 through local NGOs – and the Charter4Change coalition, consisting of 27 international NGOs, will do the same in 2018.

Although a gradual change is projected, it looks like it will be difficult to achieve a transition towards local actors in the short term.

Young Syrians rolling gauze to be packaged and distributed for use after being manufactured at a small local factory run by the Union of Free Syrian Doctors, in rebel -held Douma, on the outskirts of Damascus, December 2015. [EPA]
Young Syrians rolling gauze to be packaged and distributed for use after being manufactured at a small local factory run by the Union of Free Syrian Doctors, in rebel -held Douma, on the outskirts of Damascus, December 2015. [EPA]

One of the important goals of the summit is to gain systemic acceptance for a “no-one-left-behind” approach. We can predict that this will be a difficult objective to achieve for a structure that provides no place for local actors to render assistance.

Donors naturally want to control the money they offer. It seems unlikely that they will relinquish this control. They want to control the channelling of funds into the system through channels they trust and are familiar with.

The most significant problem, however, is the fact that the expectations of those who receive the aid cannot be met within this framework. One of the most important dilemmas in the field of humanitarian aid is the general sense of dissatisfaction in regions that receive aid.

The Turkish factor

Turkey has an international humanitarian aid and development policy that it implements through state and civilian capacities – within a framework of humanitarian diplomacy. This is an approach that can be seen more clearly in its Africa opening and its Somali policy.

By hosting first the LDC and then the the World Humanitarian Summit, it has become a candidate for playing a decisive role within a framework that will be restructured in what is – in one sense – a global system. In the meantime, a follow-up meeting of LDC will be held in Antalya at the end of May.

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With regard to its policies, Turkey takes an approach that can be described widely as peacebuilding with a broad framework that relies on integrating the tools of diplomacy, humanitarian aid and development.

This approach allows NGOs to reach the masses while organisations such as the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency, the Department of Religious Affairs, and the Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities do work ranging from development and education to infrastructure, while its diplomacy and mediation efforts aim to resolve disputes.

The importance of Turkey is that it is positioned somewhere between the traditional Western donors and groups of emerging actors such as Brazil, India and China.

Turkey recognises the role of the NGOs in a humanitarian system that is different from China and India, but also extensively cooperates with local organisations in a way that Western actors cannot.

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However, even though remarkable progress has been made, it is still too early to say that this model is now a success story – as it is still being formulated.

In this sense, the World Humanitarian Summit is an opportunity for Turkey to better understand its aid system, its shortcomings and the process of restructuring.

This summit will also allow Turkey to express its point of view and contribute to the evolution of the humanitarian aid system and sector.

However, the summit has not received the attention it deserves due to factors such as domestic political developments, consecutive elections and the fact that it is taking place immediately after the Justice and Development Party congress.

In addition, dynamic structures such as the Civil Society Forum and the Intellectuals Forum that took place around the LDC summit in 2011, unfortunately, could not be formed for the the World Humanitarian Summit.

These types of dynamic events allowed individuals such as Richard Falk, Ali Mazrui and Fantu Cheru to introduce new ideas critical of the UN system in 2011.


The substitutes are the Academic Forum of Ministry of Foreign Affairs and side events of state and civilian organisations.

In conclusion, it would be wrong to expect the World Humanitarian Summit to assume the mission of solving every problem. But all the concerned actors are in the belief that significant progress will be made.

If Turkey’s claims to humanitarian diplomacy are to go beyond hosting summits, it must contribute to the discussions that will take place there.

As the global aid system is being restructured, in the meantime Turkey is attempting to consolidate its own approach, which makes interaction inevitable.

In this regard, it is possible to say that the summit will take both Turkey and the humanitarian aid system to a new level.

But we will have to wait to see what the results of the summit are in order to discuss what the new era will look like.

Bulent Aras is the Conflict Resolution and Mediation Stream Coordinator at the Istanbul Policy Center and professor of International Relations at Sabanci University, Istanbul.

Fuat Keyman is Director of Istanbul Policy Center and Professor of International Relations at Sabanci University, Istanbul.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.