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Istanbul Humanitarian Summit Convenes With High Hopes, Limited Expectations

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during the opening ceremony of the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, Turkey, May, 23, 2016.

World leaders are convening in Istanbul with official optimism offset by concerns that the summit may prove to be a "photo opportunity"’ rather than a catalyst for change.

An opportunity to shape history is how United Nation Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described the UN’s first Humanitarian Summit.

With over 100 million refugees worldwide, levels not seen since the end of World War II, the secretary general said the gathering was aimed at getting the world to change its attitudes and mentality.

We declare that we are one humanity with shared responsibilities," said Ban. "Let us resolve, ourselves, here and now, not only to keep people alive but to [give] people a chance at life in dignity.

The UN secretary general is calling on countries to provide more money and to share the refugee burden more equally. That call was echoed by the summit host, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Erdogan urged all countries to shoulder responsibility for the refugees. Turkey says it has spent more than $10 billion on migrants while the international community’s contributions remain at $455 million.

The summit was mired in controversy even before the two-day conference started.

French group Doctors Without Borders called it a "fig leaf for international failures" and Oxfam dismissed it as an “expensive talking shop.”

Few leading heads of states from donor countries are attending. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is the highest-profile Western leader at the two-day conference.

That, observers say, is bad news for the UN, which is hoping to secure pledges to cover a projected shortfall in billions of dollars needed by its agencies to deal with the refugee crisis.

The European Union committed itself in what it called a "grand bargain" to help the UN close the shortfall. Part of the deal entails redirecting finances to those on the front line of assisting agencies.

Along with funding, the secretary general urged nations to uphold and enforce international laws, particularly regarding the protection of schools and hospitals, which have been repeatedly targeted in conflict zones.

The summit will need to avoid the problems of previous large meetings. A new report last week found that only one-sixth of the money pledged at the London summit to help Syrian refugees for this year ($6 billion) had been committed by mid-April, according to Concern Worldwide. Commitments made in Istanbul must lead to action rather than hollow promises, analysts say.