The migration crisis poses enormous challenges for the system of humanitarian aid. (Pascal Rossignol/Reuters)

The World Humanitarian Summit (WHS), the very first of its kind, will take place May 23 to 24. The United Nations responded to criticism of the legitimacy and direction of humanitarian aid — aid aimed to save lives and alleviate human suffering — by launching a three-year process of consultation aimed at improving the system. The world has not held still in the meantime. The escalating migrant crisis — 60 million people displaced today and many on Europe’s doorstep — only proves the need for change that can make humanitarian aid more effective.

What is the summit trying to accomplish?

The United Nations’s Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, hopes the summit will lead to humanitarian aid becoming more efficient, coordinated and cohesive. Ban’s report — One Humanity: Shared Responsibility — frames the WHS agenda. It renews the UN’s commitment to humanitarian principles, conflict prevention, solutions to the migrant crisis and better approaches to financing. For instance, Ban encourages key donors to participate in the ‘Solutions Alliance’ to creatively address situations in which people are displaced from their homes for years on end. Humanitarians are also expected to pledge support for the “Grand Bargain,” a new financing model under which key donors will make their funding more flexible, diverse and transparent. The three-year consultation process leading up to the summit included regional consultations with over 23,000 grassroots voices, and seeks to promote the resilience of crisis-affected people.

What will the summit actually do?

A simple idea lurks behind the plethora of proposed reforms and ideas. The WHS provides a unique opportunity to formally bring all the actors in the humanitarian sector together. They will have a lot to think about. The world we live in has changed dramatically since the end of WWII, while the humanitarian system has changed very little: U.N. agencies and major international non-governmental organizations implement aid activities through their self-established rules, standards and structures.

The desire for change means that the summit will likely have political consequences. It is becoming a battleground where actors are fighting to stake their claims in the humanitarian system. Whose values and voices matter? This is the real question behind the commitments and technical reforms up for debate. The summit matters because it highlights the direction and distribution of power in the humanitarian system.

Who’s out?

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), an organization that has received the Nobel prize for its humanitarian work, has recently pulled out of the summit. Disagreeing with the summit agenda, MSF withdrew in hopes of bringing public attention to how the humanitarian system is undermining its core values and placing humanitarians in harm’s way.

For instance, the summit sets out to bridge the divide between humanitarianism, which deals with crises and emergencies, and development aid, which looks to help countries over the medium and long term. MSF suggests that this may undermine the independence of humanitarians. While humanitarians look for independence and neutrality, development aid often operates through governments. If humanitarians become closely identified with governments, they will be more likely to become targets of war in places like Syria or South Sudan. MSF also argues that the summit is soft-pedaling criticisms of the bad regimes most responsible for humanitarian crises, making these governments more likely to behave badly again in the future. It fears that humanitarians will be overstretched if they not only prevent and respond to crises but also rebuild societies to boot. And finally, MSF argues that donor funding follows political and security interests instead of real humanitarian need.

In MSF’s eyes, all of this politicizes humanitarian work and hurts effectiveness. MSF thinks the summit is shifting humanitarianism away from its root objectives — preventing human suffering based on need and regardless of politics.

Who wants in?

While MSF is opting out of the summit in order to promote its values, other humanitarians seek the summit spotlight in order to endorse theirs. Aid organizations in the Global South are fighting for greater control of the humanitarian system. They are using the summit to argue that aid is an outdated and paternalistic, top-down system. They emphasize how international humanitarians, flying in and out of the countries they work in, often do not address local needs and remain unaccountable to recipients.

A coalition of Global South actors is demanding change and, as explained in a recent Guardian article, is happy to make traditional aid actors uncomfortable in the process. They are packaging the desire for more local control as a global justice issue. Advocates like Degan Ali want to help their own countrymen in times of need without jumping through the hoops established by international actors.

They argue that, despite the rise and success of so many national NGOs in the Global South, Western funders are holding the purse strings on humanitarian aid and setting rules and arrangements. Many international aid actors agree. The Humanitarian Policy Group’s new flagship report, Time to Let Go, argues that large UN agencies and INGOs must take a step back and rethink their purpose in the humanitarian system. Instead of running operations themselves, they should support local actors. A recent Reuters poll finds that nearly 90 percent of international charities working in post-earthquake Nepal believe that bilateral funding should go directly to national-level NGOs.

The burgeoning movement to localize aid includes a set of concrete proposals up for debate at the summit. The Charter4Change is an initiative that seeks to localize aid, beginning with a commitment by INGOs to give at least 20 percent of their funding to national organizations.  Aid actors in the global south have also proposed establishing a global network for Southern NGOs. Together, these proposals would lead to a small-scale revolution in how humanitarians operate.

Is change necessary?

Some are pushing back against ambitious agendas, arguing that the greatest challenge humanitarians confront is enough funding, and not the structure of the system. A common adage among these advocates is that humanitarianism is “broke not broken.” A senior official at CARE argued that “consultations have reaffirmed that we’ve got the model right.” Meanwhile, others argue that change in a system as large as the humanitarian sector must be gradual. Approximately 2 percent of aid currently goes directly to local organizations. A shift to 20 percent, as outlined in the Charter4Change, would already be a massive shift in international behavior. Skeptics fear that in a worst-case scenario, hasty change could cripple the humanitarian response to future crises.

Finally, some argue that local actors have been heavily romanticized in the quest to localize aid. In the WHS consultations, many crisis-affected people worried that local relief groups had corruption problems. A Reuters poll found that international actors are skeptical local NGOs can meet compliance standards.

International, national, principled and pragmatic humanitarians alike will all arrive at the World Humanitarian Summit next week. Far from just an agenda of technical reforms, the summit represents the struggle for power and influence in the humanitarian system. And while it likely won’t culminate in a grand declaration or an entirely new aid system for tomorrow, it is certainly the beginning of something new.

Jessica Anderson is a PhD candidate at George Washington University.