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What happened on COP28’s big humanitarian day?

‘Today was historic for us. For the first time in the COP series, there is some focus on conflict-affected countries.’

Leaders pose for a photo to mark the launch of the COP28's first ever Climate, Relief, Recovery and Peace Declaration, in Dubai on 3 December 2023. Will Worley/TNH
Leaders pose for a photo to mark the launch of the COP28's first ever Climate, Relief, Recovery and Peace Declaration, in Dubai on 3 December 2023.

As COP28’s grand musical light show closed the UN climate summit’s first ever day dedicated to humanitarian action, on 3 December, it was clear that two major policy trends linking climate and emergency aid had come to the fore. 

The first was the launch of the Climate, Relief, Recovery and Peace Declaration – a collection of policy and financing objectives designed to improve climate programming in conflict zones that was first reported by The New Humanitarian.

And the declaration’s 3 December launch event showcased the second key trend of COP28: another clear push for anticipatory action – a doctrine to better predict and prepare for crises – in response to the dual threats of conflict and climate change.

But with the day's big events driven by the usual suspects of agency leaders and international development ministers, some observers expressed concerns that – with the same players in charge – all the talk could remain just that. 

Focus on conflict-hit areas

The United Arab Emirates, the COP28 hosts, received widespread praise for officially bringing conflict and fragility policy into the most important climate event of the year, in what experts hope is the first step in a “paradigm shift” in humanitarian, development, and peace work.

The declaration calls for more climate finance and programming to go to places affected by war or fragility, improved conflict sensitivity of climate programming, and enhanced cooperation between the different organisations working in these settings.

“Today was historic for us. For the first time in the COP series, there is some focus on conflict-affected countries,” said Habib Ur Rehman Mayar, deputy general secretary of the g7+, an intergovernmental grouping of 20 conflict-affected countries.

The declaration’s “elements are a matter of our survival”, Mayar told The New Humanitarian. “However… it won’t mean anything itself unless there are actions.”

The declaration was also welcomed at a more grassroots level.

“It’s appreciated because it’s related to those of us who are on the front line of climate change and are in a conflicted region. It’s obvious there are many regions that have been neglected,” said Jamal Baloch, a human rights activist from Balochistan, a region encompassing parts of Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan.

Baloch stressed that any funding should go “to the people”, and said he hoped monitoring mechanisms would be used to prevent money being syphoned off through corruption.

The non-binding declaration received endorsements from 74 governments, including all 27 member states of the EU, Britain, the United States, China, Somalia, and Yemen. Forty institutions endorsed the text, mainly multilateral development banks and humanitarian agencies.

A full list of declaration commitments was unavailable at the time of publication, though one of the most significant announcements came from the Islamic Development Bank: Muhammed Al Jasser, the bank’s president, said it would allocate $1 billion of climate finance over three years to member countries affected by fragility and conflict.

Despite optimistic words from leaders and observers who support the peace declaration, new financing was lacking. This mirrored a broader problem running through the official climate negotiations: High-income polluting countries have been reluctant to deliver the green funding they’re obligated to send to lower-income countries under international agreements – including at least $100 billion a year in climate finance.

The scant financing means the declaration’s commitments depend “on existing funds reorienting to fragile or conflict contexts”, Nic Hailey, executive director at International Alert, a UK-based peacebuilding NGO, told The New Humanitarian. “The way they're set up makes that hard, so they'll need to change. Another reason why follow-up and accountability is key.”

Senior figures from both the World Bank and the Green Climate Fund (GCF), the biggest multilateral climate finance institutions, also pledged their support to the declaration.

GCF Executive Director Mafalda Duarte was particularly frank, telling the gathering her institution has the “the possibility of taking more risks than most… financial institutions”. The GCF wants “to really look critically at how we take advantage of that flexibility and possibility we have at our hand, and how do we take more calculated risks”, she added.

Duarte announced the GCF’s intent to develop a policy for fragile and conflict-affected countries where the “standard approach of the way we deploy support” cannot be used.

Some advocates also called for the declaration to be made stronger over time.

“It’s only a start,” said Hailey. “The declaration makes clear it is a non-binding call to action and the only follow-up commitment is to discuss [it] again at COP29. That's not enough: Delivery isn’t likely to happen unless it has more teeth. We need a formal, continuing mechanism within the COP process for follow-up and accountability.”

Conflict-affected countries in the g7+ would “absolutely” like to see this, Helder da Costa, the organisation’s general secretary, told The New Humanitarian, calling for a “high-level task force” to keep pushing the agenda politically.

This process, one observer suggested, could follow the blueprint set by the creation of a loss and damage fund, whereby regular dialogues grew into an official mechanism that ended up reporting to the COP summits.

One of the few politicians attending the launch of the peace declaration was the Norwegian minister for international development, Anne Beathe Tvinnereim, who told The New Humanitarian her government “might consider” supporting a more formal ongoing process to discuss conflict and fragility under COP.

Doubling down on anticipatory action

At the declaration launch event, and at side events around COP28, humanitarian leaders made repeated calls for anticipatory action, as their institutions become more explicit about wanting to help build climate resilience.

“Would it not have been better if we had invested 30, 40 years ago to minimise the current fragility and conflict?” asked Jagan Chapagain, secretary general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. “At the moment, we are focusing on fragility and conflict. But by ignoring investment, in 30, 40 years we may be contributing to [the creation of] new fragility and conflict.”

Humanitarian donors have been pressing for anticipatory action in recent years – even at the G7 intergovernmental level. But aid groups have been slow to scale up.

There were a raft of anticipatory action announcements from donors and institutions attending COP28’s big humanitarian day. European Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarčič said humanitarians “cannot address the root causes of a humanitarian crisis on their own, and they cannot provide the mid- and long-term solutions”. He said the EU would spend 80 million euros on disaster preparedness and plans a “30% spending target” for climate mitigation and adaptation in EU development policy, although he didn’t provide any timeframes. 

Britain announced that up to 15% of its humanitarian budget, slated to total £1 billion next year, will go to a dedicated fund to build resilience and adaptation. Germany’s special envoy for international climate action, Jennifer Morgan, said her government “should remain the second largest donor” for anticipatory action. And Norway’s Tvinnereim said, “we need [a] mindset shift among donors to finance anticipatory action instead of after disaster strikes”. She also maintained her government’s support for the World Food Programme’s “excellent work on scaling up anticipatory action”.

At a separate high-level event, a Charter on Finance for Managing Risks was launched to establish principles “to ensure better use of finance to manage risks and protect people” from climate-related disasters. It received endorsements from 14 countries and the EU.

The “recognition that we have to take an integrated approach” was welcomed by Mayar of the g7+. “We cannot merely solve these problems by reacting through humanitarian actions. Because if we react through humanitarians alone, without focusing on building resilience, these disasters will keep happening.” This was a sentiment echoed by several other officials from conflict-affected countries in different conversations with The New Humanitarian around the event.

While the ideas were welcomed, some worried that they had heard it all before: that anticipatory action could just become another buzzword – a donor trend that doesn’t spark major reform and meaningfully shift resources and power to the Global South.

“There is definitely a fear about the anticipatory action just becoming another funding instrument for bigger organisations, because that risk aversion is still there,” Nimo Hassan, director of the Somalia NGO Consortium, told The New Humanitarian. “So unless we correct and establish proper financing channels for local partners to access, it will be just another commitment that's not realised.”

Hassan, meanwhile, called for a “genuine discussion to distinguish exactly what are the practical realities for local partners to access funding”, adding: “Otherwise, it’ll be just another name for the same thing.”

Edited by Irwin Loy.

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