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First Humanitarian Summit Must Address Causes of Recurring Crises

Johan Rockström — Executive Director, Stockholm Resilience Centre
John Cassidy — Managing Director, Monitor Deloitte
Luca Alinovi - Former Executive Director, Global Resilience Partnership

The following post originally appeared on Huffington Post.


The first United Nations World Humanitarian Summit takes place among the mosques and minarets of Istanbul today. While long overdue, it will fail to address recurring humanitarian crises. The truth is that the monolithic institutions charged with dealing with these crises—and the thinking that governs these institutions—are rapidly becoming obsolete as we enter a new, less predictable era.

Worldwide 125 million people need humanitarian aid.

The causes are well known: conflicts and natural disasters. In 2014, violence and conflict displaced 15 million people—approximately the population of the Netherlands. While natural disasters, of which 90% are weather related, forced 19 million people to abandon their homes—just less than the population of Australia.

In 2015, OECD nations spend $13.6 billion on humanitarian aid, a rise of 11% on 2014, and $131 billion on overseas development, a rise of 6.9%. Over the last 30 years, one-third of development spending—$3.8 trillion (USD)—went on recurrent crises. With war raging in Syria and ten million people in southern Africa requiring food aid this year, there is a clear tension between short-term humanitarian priorities, long-term development goals and limited financial resources.

Key Figures:

  • Worldwide 125 million people need humanitarian aid. [Share]
  • In 2014, violence and conflict displaced 15 million people—approximately the population of the Netherlands. [Share]
  • OECD nations spend $13.6 billion on humanitarian aid, a rise of 11% on 2014. [Share]

This tension led to Médecins Sans Frontières abruptly and understandably withdrawing from the summit. The summit must go beyond Red Queen solutions where “We must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place”, as Lewis Carroll wrote, not least because the ground beneath our feet is feeling increasingly unstable as a result of human impact on the planet. Very soon, even Red Queen solutions will no longer suffice. Why?

Earth has entered the Anthropocene—the age of humans.

Our impact has now pushed the planet beyond its usual operating state that has provided a remarkable climatic stability for 11,700 years. Increasingly, shocks reverberate globally thanks to interconnectivity from communications, trade, financial systems and politics—the Arab Spring and global financial crisis are two prominent examples. The people hit hardest, ironically, are those who have done the least to cause them—the poorest.

The 21st century will be defined by three drivers: increasing complexity where societies and ecosystems become even more intertwined; global interconnectivity, from local to global scales; and, surprise.

This means stability and assumptions of linear, incremental change are history. Shock and stress—from droughts, to pandemics and violence—are here to stay. Efficiency and optimisation is not enough, we must invest in diversity and flexibility. And, we must recognize that reactive humanitarian aid is insufficient, we now need an international strategy for proactive action to enable communities to avoid disaster and transform positively through crises.

In short, we must build resilience.

Resilience is often used rather narrowly to refer to how something—a person, community, city or ecosystem—returns to its original state after being pushed by an external shock—a virus, flood, civil war or fire, for example. This has led to a myopic focus on disaster preparedness as the catch-all resilient solution. The solution often involves separating human societies from nature to focus on social and technological strategies to resist change. This assumption worked relatively well in the past but in the Anthropocene it is wrongheaded.

Resilience cannot just stop at ‘bouncing back’. It must build capacity to avoid abrupt, irreversible change, adapt to change, and transform in situations of crisis—both society and the ecosystem society lives within. We need social and ecological resilience. We need to actively see unpredictability and surprise as an opportunity—not just a challenge.


The Global Resilience Partnership (convened by the Rockefeller Foundation, USAID and Sida) is investing $150 million (USD), and leveraging billions more, to apply radical resilience thinking across four of the most vulnerable regions on Earth: the Horn of Africa, the Sahel and south and southeast Asia. The Stockholm Resilience Centre is providing an intellectual anchor point to ensure this investment delivers long-term resilience to chronic stresses and contributes to the transformation and development of these societies and the ecosystems upon which they depend.

This unique partnership is on a mission to redefine resilience for humanitarian and development aid—as strategies for persistency, adaptation, and transformation—and provide essential solutions.

The World Humanitarian Summit is the opportunity of a lifetime to go beyond Red Queen solutions. To succeed, it must lead to urgent action moving from disaster management to resilience building of interconnected human and ecological systems, from local to planetary scale. The summit must not degenerate into a well-meaning talking shop where nations risk parodying Lewis Carroll: “I give myself very good advice, but I very seldom follow it.”

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