Keynote speakers at the Opening Plenary of the 2016 EFC AGA and Conference stressed the pressing need for philanthropy to leverage its unique attributes to work in much closer partnership with other sectors to alleviate the refugee crisis, among other social challenges. Lyse Doucet OBE, the BBC’s Chief International Correspondent; Peter Bouckaert, Emergencies Director for Human Rights Watch; and Kristalina Georgieva, European Commissioner for Budget and Human Resources, outlined what they see as the most effective ways for philanthropy to get more involved.

The current refugee crisis represents a common challenge that requires consideration and integration of short and long-term interventions. How can the world – governments, the private sector, civil society organisations and philanthropy – combine resources and ingenuity to alleviate the most pressing needs of today while simultaneously launching an effort to develop truly effective mitigating measures for the long term? What is the most effective role philanthropy can play, acting as a funder, catalyst, incubator or bridge builder? Jo Andrews, outgoing Director of Ariadne, and journalist Marcia Luyten moderated this opening session.

Kajsa Ollongren, Deputy Mayor of the City of Amsterdam, was on hand to officially open the conference. She emphasised the centuries-long history of citizen engagement and public-private partnership that have made Amsterdam the city it is today. In this context she warmly welcomed delegates and stressed the importance of working even more closely together to face today’s tough challenges. Katherine Watson, Director of the European Cultural Foundation, EFC Vice-Chair and the 2016 Conference Chair, set the scene for the coming three days of site visits, sessions and networking.

In a moving speech, Ms Doucet offered delegates first-hand accounts of refugee stories, saying that we should call them what they really are: ‘human stories’. Based on her experiences on the ground in war zones and at political and humanitarian conferences, her main message to delegates is that aid agencies, governments and philanthropic organisations must first listen to those they are trying to help. And then, they must strike a ‘grand bargain’ and find new ways of working together in the same direction because, ‘The system we have is simply not working.’

She stressed that the refugee crisis is a test not only of Europe’s humanity but also its system: ‘It is a test in a time when we live in the best of times and the worst of times… These are times that can bring out the best in us or the worst.’

Mr Bouckaert stressed his exasperation at the lack of a unified European response to the refugee crisis. Europeans were opening their homes to people while some national governments were closing their borders. Echoing a point made by Ms Doucet, Mr Bouckaert pointed out that even if the flow of migrants continued into 2016 and 2017 at the pace seen in the last year, they would still only represent .4% of Europe’s population. The real crisis is in the countries bordering Syria, where the numbers of refugees are approaching 25% of domestic populations. He said that the crisis in Europe, ‘is caused by the inability of European countries to come up with a common response’.

Referring to the recent deal with Turkey, he emphasised that it was doomed to fail: ‘Europe cannot outsource its responsibilities.’ He said that foundations could help by promoting a unified system for asylum management in Europe; supporting fundamental integration of newcomers; working towards reclaiming the political landscape from the far right; and raising awareness that refugees in Europe are only a symptom of a global displacement crisis.

Ms Georgieva said that her current position has given her, ‘front seat exposure to the enormity of the challenges displaced people are facing’. She saw three areas of change necessary to alleviating this crisis: create one asylum system for Europe; protect our external borders to ease the anxiety of those who, out of fear, would turn to populism; and be generous to people in need. She concluded by saying that in the last several years of crisis, ‘Hate has been very loud and goodness very quiet. Our job is to amplify the voice of goodness.’

Following the speeches, a lively interview-style debate took place among the speakers. The opening session also featured musical performances by Dutch trumpet player Eric Vloeimans and Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh.