Youth voices from the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit


SAIIA Youth Policy Committee members Luanda Mpungose and Annabel Fenton are in Istanbul for the first ever World Humanitarian Summit. They are providing daily updates on the main developments at the Summit, from their perspective as young South Africans.


Luanda Mpungose and Annabel Fenton at the entrance to the World Humanitarian Summit

From Istanbul: update by Annabel Fenton, Youth Delegate for South Africa

The World Humanitarian Summit has been faced with a lot of criticism in the build up to the conference: Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) refused to attend because of the impunity of the international community, it appears to some to be all rhetoric with little action, and even certain youth delegates were unhappy with the logistical planning – fearing that our involvement was more tokenistic and just to fill a quota. Thus, when I got on the plane to Istanbul, there was a minute level of unease that offset my otherwise overwhelming excitement and disbelief.

Upon arrival, today’s programme consisted of the World Humanitarian Summit Youth Pre-Forum, which was a fantastic warm up for the summit tomorrow. In the speeches, Ahmad Alhendawi, the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, raised many of the very issues I was concerned about: he urged us as the youth delegates to ensure we are not just tokens of inclusivity: ‘Be annoying!’, he said. While this speaks to the role of the youth, there is still the underlying issue of how the current policymaking structures are elitist in themselves, and dominated by the West. However, as this dawned on me, I realised that by then just pulling out of the process, I, and others who feel the marginalisation from the current institutions, are letting these groups continue to decide the world agenda… what is the solution then?

Through the break-away session I was in, which focused on ‘Investing in Humanity’, I realised that the issues we were discussing (corruption in Africa, the Syrian refugee crisis and how to solve them) were too complex and nuanced for an hour brainstorming session for recommendations. The ideas, the motivation, is there though – this was evident to me from the stories from a girl who lived through the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, people working in refugee camps and many others. What we need, though, is more focused follow-through and implementation of these broad discussions into the individual contexts.

And this is where the plot twists: not as conveniently as to mitigate all of my concerns relating to the Summit, but rather by me realising that my presence here – the presence of youth at the summit as well as underrepresented or unheard population groups – is in itself making a difference. It is the young people around me who bring up the criticism of the very process we are a part of, and encourage critical analysis that starts to stimulate those uncomfortable discussions that force people to change their ways.


From Istanbul: update by Luanda Mpungose, Youth Delegate for South Africa

The first ever World Humanitarian Summit convened today with an agenda to revise and improve the structure of humanitarian aid within the framework of the United Nations. There have been consultations all over the globe leading to this conference. The purpose of the consultations were to get input from various stakeholders including people directly affected by conflict and natural disasters.

With an estimate of 5000 people in attendance, day one of the summit commenced with an opening ceremony that set the mood for the summit. A former Ugandan child soldier together with celebrity humanitarian champions like Forest Whitaker, Daniel Craig and Ashley Judd appealed to the participants to #ShareHumanity. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon welcomed all participants, which concluded the opening ceremony.

Following the opening plenary session, we had a full day with a back-to-back schedule of side events, roundtable discussions, exhibitions and special sessions.

Going around to different events, most stakeholders were discussing their roles and commitments. In the ‘Empowering Local Communities’ discussion, Dr Jemilah Mahmood, Under Secretary General for Partnership at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), emphasized the importance of empowering young people and building capacity. She went as far as saying that the old generation has failed its young people and needs to rectify this urgently. It is well worth noting that this was not a youth side event or co-hosted by a youth organisation which further encouraged me that she truly believes in championing young people.

As far as the outcome of the summit goes, it is unclear at this point what that is going to look like.  On day two, I hope to engage with South African delegates to discuss possible commitments.

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The Opening Ceremonies of the World Humanitarian Summit

From Istanbul: update by Annabel Fenton, Youth Delegate for South Africa

The dynamism of humanitarianism has become so apparent to me during the first day at the World Humanitarian Summit. It has become clear that humanitarianism is no longer only about food aid deliveries, first responders to natural disasters and volunteering at refugee camps – the voices of delegates and civil society have started to emphasise the need for humanitarian intervention to be more strategic, sustainable and pro-development.

This was especially apparent to me at a Side Event organised by the United Nations Sustainable Development Network (UNSDN), which was on integrating the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agreed upon last year with humanitarian action. Jeffrey Sachs, head of the UNSDN, emphasised how humanitarian action in the twenty first century needs to focus on preventing conflict in the first place – he emphasised how we don’t focus on foreign policy enough, yet it is crucial to actually ending wars such as the Syrian conflict, which has been greatly exacerbated by US involvement. As he put it: ‘Without the United States government, there would be no war.’ This is directly related to the SDGs, as the Syrian war has not only pooled the funding intended for the implementation of the SDGs, but also directly counteracted development efforts.

Throughout the panel, the aforementioned need to focus on political will to end conflict was an interesting talking point, as Andrea Tamburini, CEO of Action Against Hunger, emphasised how getting too political has caused his humanitarian actors to be expelled from countries and the politics of funding means that specific donors attach political conditions to the funding of humanitarian efforts. It was thus clear that the prevention of conflict is one very complex geopolitical issue.

Bineta Diop, the African Union Commissioner’s Special Envoy on Women, Peace and Security illustrated that while trying to solve the more long-term political issues relating to prevention, what we need in the meantime is more action – especially relating to environmental need. Her emphasis on innovation of women and youth, and giving these groups agency in insecure places such as northern Nigeria, provided one way in which we can use more strategic humanitarian solutions that assist and complement the development agenda.

I have been so intrigued and inspired by these perspectives. There has been one clear message: while dwelling on challenges and failures of the humanitarian system is very easy to do, it is possible to try and change unequitable institutions from within while being critical of them. As Sachs put it when I asked him about how the US and Russia can be held accountable by the international community while they still have veto power on the UN Security Council, ‘The UN is all we’ve got. While it has its problems, without it there would be even more chaos. So let’s support the UN and try and change it.’

Even in the UN Women/Oxfam side event on the role of women and girls in humanitarianism, it was clear that this approach is the way forward: government officials from Australia, Tuvalu and the United Kingdom discussed how even at the high level, women are in the minority at the negotiating table, and when included often just fulfil the token role for diversity. It was interesting to see their views on how this high level change will ultimately trickle down to decision-making on the ground. They emphasised that the most effective response to the systematic problems is to try to put our foot in the door and demand change. This event also echoed the message of a strategic change to humanitarian efforts: no longer shall aid, especially aid to women and girls, be based on charity – it must rather be about capacitating and emphasising the voices of local people who are doing so much to deal with droughts, conflict and cyclones in their regions. This is especially so as the local people are always the first responders and last responders to a crisis. With this in mind, a more ground-up approach to humanitarianism which incorporates the development agenda such as empowering women and capacitating local people, is what should and what will lie ahead.

There is a lot of uncertainty in some spaces at the summit: some of my fellow youth are doubtful about whether it is going to result in concrete change, or whether all of the resources put into such a large conference will be worth it. However, what I have seen so far is that the summit has been beneficial for bringing together the voices of humanitarian actors and solidifying their position so that we are all better able to hold our governments accountable post-summit: will there be better systems in place to prevent and respond to crisis situations? How will we ensure that humanitarian involvement complements development? We need to recognise our role in answering these questions. With this, I think we will be better able to utilise our own positions, as varying as they may be, to change problematic governance systems, encourage the shift of UN structures and humanitarian response to be more dynamic, inclusive and accountable systems.

South African delegate Luanda Mpungose with fellow delegates from Liberia, The Gambia and Nigeria.


From Istanbul: update by Luanda Mpungose, Youth Delegate for South Africa

One highlight for day two was the youth round table discussion on ‘Transforming Humanitarian Action with and for Young People’, chaired by UN Youth Envoy Ahmad Alhendawi. He encouraged youth to address the root causes of man-made disasters, and emphasised the need to devise different approaches to man-made and natural disasters.

Youth-led work at the summit ultimately culminated in the presentation of the World Humanitarian Summit Youth Compact. Youth@SAIIA became a signatory of this compact that supports the capacitation and empowerment of young people in the humanitarian space. I was pleased to be able to sign on behalf of the Youth Policy Committee and the youth of South Africa.

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South African delegate Luanda Mpungose signing the World Humanitarian Summit Youth Compact on behalf of the Youth Policy Committee and Youth@SAIIA
25 May 2016
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