Can We Use Aid for Syria in a Better Way?

As of this morning, the fourth international donor conference for Syria has generated $11 billion in pledges. The current appeal stands at almost $9 billion. This is the amount required to assist people inside Syria, as well as those in the nearby countries hosting the largest numbers of refugees. The size of the request has grown year after year, but so has the funding shortfall.  If the commitments for 2016 are honored, there will be a chance to improve the support available to millions of Syrians in need. But along with money, donors and humanitarians need to further develop their approach to providing aid inside Syria, where access is not likely to improve much.

In five years of travel to the region specifically to look at the humanitarian response, RI has witnessed the continual deterioration of living conditions for Syrian refugees. 

The day-to-day implications of humanitarian funding shortages related to Syria have been painfully apparent as the displacement crisis continues to worsen. Assistance as fundamental as food has periodically been cut (and fortunately, partially restored) for Syrian refugees. Rental assistance is in short supply, eligibility for low-cost health care has been curtailed, and in some cases educational programs have been shut down entirely. At the same time, relatively little humanitarian aid makes it across the borders into Syria, and only a comparatively small amount is generated through the organizations that work from Damascus.

In five years of travel to the region specifically to look at the humanitarian response, RI has witnessed the continual deterioration of living conditions for Syrian refugees. More Syrians are homeless on the streets of urban areas, or living in inadequate or dangerous shelter. More children are being pulled from learning programs in order to go to work and help support the family. More people are attempting to cross the Mediterranean hoping to find better prospects for the future. More people have run out of borrowed funds, savings, or property to sell and are considering whether it might be preferable to return to Syria.

Humanitarians have stressed the need for more funding to address the needs of 4.5 million Syrian refugees and 13 million vulnerable people inside the country, but have also emphasized that money alone is not going to resolve all the issues. A political solution to the crisis— which is not in the control of humanitarians — is the best option. But in its absence we need to face the fact that there is not enough money to serve millions of people in desperate need, and to figure out how to do more with what we have.

One way to use the current resources more efficiently is to engage more local Syrian groups in the humanitarian response, both by supporting them in providing services to those in need, and by building the ability of small, local groups to grow and take on more work and larger challenges in a responsible way.

There is no quick and easy way to make the available funding stretch to cover everything. Aid agencies make agonizing decisions about programming when money is tight: is food more important than medical care?  Is medical care more important than safe shelter?  Are child-friendly spaces essential when people don’t have enough to eat?  But one way to use the current resources more efficiently is to engage more local Syrian groups in the humanitarian response, both by supporting them in providing services to those in need, and by building the ability of small, local groups to grow and take on more work and larger challenges in a responsible way.

Syrian groups — both formal and volunteer — and individuals are providing an impressive amount of humanitarian aid inside the country that often goes unremarked by the larger UN-based system to which donor governments contribute. It is important to note these local actors know the communities where they work because they are part of them. They often know who is in need, what those needs are, and how best to address them sooner and in more depth than international organizations do. They are also doing much of the work on the ground that the international organizations cannot do for lack of access and, understandably, very real security concerns. These local groups may receive money, planning and direction, or technical support from international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), but they are the ones who so often make the activities happen, and often at great personal risk.

If $11 billion does indeed materialize for Syria, there will be an opportunity to engage local Syrian groups more effectively in the humanitarian response. Supporting these groups more robustly, through funding, capacity-building, and mentorship by more experienced groups, would allow them to continue and improve the work they are already doing. RI has talked extensively with such groups, and they are interested in not only learning how to do humanitarian aid work according to international standards, but also in having small grants that would allow them to use their new training and knowledge. Through that process, they would eventually be able to take on more of the work that is normally the purview of INGOs, which so far have had limited ability to conduct large-scale operations inside Syria. This would not be a full solution to the staggering amount of humanitarian need in that country, but it would help address the situation, and would be a way of helping Syrians to help themselves, now and in the future.

Top photo: Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan.