World Humanitarian Summit: Philanthropy's Presence and Potential

This post originally appeared on the Alliance Magazine blog. 

At the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) in Istanbul, more than 6000 attendees discussed how the global community delivers aid for the world’s most vulnerable people, especially given commitments to leave no one behind within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The two-day event included a mix of government representatives, civil society organizations, and the private sector, including more than 350 corporate attendees and 79 foundations.

Alongside cautious optimism for this first ever global convening on the topic, there was significant public criticism of the summit – from concerns about lack of international leaders attending, to Medecins Sans Frontieres pulling out last week in protest. During 48 hours of meetings and side events, pledges for increased financing were announced and new initiatives launched, including the Education Can’t Wait initiative, Humanitarian Innovation Fund, the NEAR network, and the Connecting Business initiative. These and other new funds and collaboratives provide opportunities for philanthropic investment, which we saw in announcements from the Conrad Hilton, UPS, and Mo Ibrahim Foundations, among others.

WHS builds on a busy year of global frameworks, including the SDGs and COP21. Like in New York and Paris, WHS included a side meeting specifically discussing philanthropy. The side event launched a new report encouraging foundations to pivot in how they engage in humanitarian aid. The report showed that in 2013, $27.6B was mobilized towards humanitarian crisis globally, but the 1000 largest US foundations contributed less than $50M.

Over the last twenty years, the corporate sector has greatly increased their engagement with the UN system, which was extremely visible in Istanbul. This level of engagement is not yet reflected by the philanthropic community yet like with the SDGs, there remains significant opportunity for foundations to sit at the table with governments, multilateral organizations, and the private sector to ensure we leave no one behind in times of crises. Istanbul highlighted broad options for philanthropic engagement, including:

1) Encouraging foundations to become more than funding partners. A common request was for UN agencies and governments to pick the brain and not the pocket of private sector partners as they rethink models of humanitarian aid.

2) A key focus of the summit pushed for blending the current humanitarian/development divide, especially increasing attention towards root causes leading to crises. In many parts of the world, philanthropy already funds climate change mitigation and community resilience but may not see that work as part of the humanitarian aid system.

3) The flexibility of philanthropy to fund innovation – including taking calculated risks and working with non-traditional partners. Philanthropy can advocate for direct cash transfers, fund local capacity building, and invest in crises that aren’t getting mainstream media attention but could be significantly impacted by small-scale grantmaking and investment. Philanthropy can also take a longer-term view to support grassroots actors. There is also a need for better data, including building tools and local capacity to both collect and utilize data for improved disaster response in the future.

Istanbul was a rallying cry for reform to a system that isn’t working. Within the new grand bargain struck in Istanbul, there is a clear aim to increase efficiency and improve delivery of humanitarian aid. The door remains open for philanthropy to join this conversation, beyond our 0.013% of attendees in Istanbul. There are also clear opportunities for philanthropic infrastructure groups to lead discussions with funders, so it was great to consider WHS in the opening plenary of the European Foundation Centre General Assembly this week. As the global conversation continues, many of us will be watching to see if increased engagement is possible for philanthropy post-Istanbul.

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