Why The First-Ever World Humanitarian Summit Matters

The United Nations is convening its first-ever World Humanitarian Summit this month in Istanbul. It comes at a time when protracted conflict, instability and forced displacement are defining features of the global landscape. Combined with an ever-increasing number of natural disasters, the world has witnessed widespread human suffering and destitution.

There are more than 60 million refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced persons worldwide as a result of violence and persecution. The average length of displacement for a refugee is now 17 years. While displacement has been on the rise, the numbers of refugees repatriating has been declining. The 126,000 who did go home in 2015 were the lowest number in over 30 years.

A change in mindset to deal with protracted crises and displacement is urgently needed. Displacement has traditionally been seen as a short-term emergency. But it is equally a challenge to long-term progress, affecting poverty levels, education, employment and service delivery--not only for those who have been forced to flee their homes, but also for the nations and communities hosting them.

While there are no "quick-fixes" for the longer-term challenges, there are important steps that governments, donors, humanitarian and development partners can take to better respond to the needs of crisis-affected populations. Understanding the developmental dimensions of crises and the threats they pose to the stability and security of neighboring countries and beyond is critical to ensure the sustained engagement of a broader range of actors and resources.

The growth in humanitarian crises and the associated financial needs has been dramatic. So are the shortfalls in funding. Despite the generosity demonstrated by increased support from the international community over the years, huge gaps between appeal requirements and contributions continue. The 2016 Global Humanitarian Appeal seeks $20 billion to assist more than 89 million people in 39 countries. Five months after its launch, just 20% of those requirements have been funded. These shortfalls translate into cuts of basic assistance and services to vulnerable populations, the majority of whom are women and children.

More predictable, flexible, timely and multi-year funding is a prerequisite for delivering more cost-effective assistance. We cannot continue to respond to long-term crises or attempt to address the root causes contributing to people's vulnerability with the current reliance on short-term financing.

Greater assistance for the frontline states hosting refugee populations is critical. Although much of the world's media focus has been on the arrival of displaced populations in Europe, the vast majority of the world's refugees are hosted by middle-income and developing countries, which often do not have the means to provide assistance and protection to a large influx of people while meeting the needs of their own populations. Among these are Jordan, Lebanon, Ethiopia and Kenya. They must be recognized as providing a global public good and should be supported by the international community to ensure they are able to meet both the needs of refugees as well as their own vulnerable populations.

Bold steps are needed. Greater coordination between emergency relief and long-term development is long overdue. More effort must be made to not only save lives, but also to support education, job creation and other opportunities that promote self-reliance and help break the cycle of dependency on aid. The engagement of the private sector must not be overlooked. Their resources, skills and capacities need to be more fully leveraged to support job creation and economic growth that would benefit both displaced and host country populations. Strengthened partnerships that support national safety net systems in fragile, conflict-affected and refugee-hosting countries are one example where emergency and development collaboration can make a difference.

There is a real risk of many school-age children and youth from the countries affected by crisis becoming a lost generation. Without access to proper nutrition and adequate health care at critical times in their development, their futures are compromised. Older children often miss out on learning opportunities and adolescents face dangers that include child marriage, labor exploitation and recruitment into armed groups. We must come together to protect the world's most vulnerable.

The bottom line is this: A family affected by crisis does not care about donor funding windows, organizational mandates or categories of assistance. They want to know that whether remaining in their country of origin or forced to flee across a border, they will have access to food, shelter, health care, water and sanitation as well as educational opportunities for their children. They want opportunities to work and be self-reliant. If displaced, they want assurance that in returning home, these same basic needs will be met. This will be a prerequisite for reintegration and post-conflict peace consolidation to be successful.

The current alarming levels of crisis-related needs is a reflection of the inability of the international community to prevent conflicts and to find solutions to ongoing crises. Addressing the humanitarian needs that emerge from these unresolved conflicts has become an ever more difficult and dangerous task for relief workers who must interact with a range of state and non-state actors in environments where adherence to the basic principles of International Humanitarian Law is not always observed.

It must always be remembered that although the humanitarian community is committed to meeting the needs of those affected by crisis wherever in the world they may reside, humanitarian action can never serve as a substitute for the political will and action needed to address the root causes of conflict and to reach sustainable peace. Until we can secure peace, the world needs to remember the innocent families trapped in violence and ensure that their most basic needs of survival are being met.

Tackling the challenges of today's crises must be understood to be in the public interest. Conflict, natural disasters and public health emergencies do not respect national borders. We must seize the opportunities in front of us to work more effectively together.

Our common humanity demands nothing less.

Rick Leach is the president and CEO of World Food Program USA, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., that supports the mission of the U.N. World Food Programme, the largest hunger relief agency in the world.