Help Syrians Help Themselves

By Michel Gabaudan
A poster from the office of a Syrian-run NGO in southern Turkey.

This post previously appeared in Politico.

Syria’s civil war has become one of the largest humanitarian disasters in recent memory. The number of displaced Syrians is climbing rapidly, and the United Nations now estimates that half of Syria’s 20 million people could need aid by the end of this year. The Obama Administration and Congress have responded generously to the needs of Syrians during the last two years of conflict, but clearly more must be done.

A bill introduced this spring by Senators Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) seeks to push America’s Syria policy forward, in part by increasing aid to families trapped inside the country. Having just returned from the camps and villages of northern Syria, Refugees International strongly endorses increased humanitarian assistance, but we also caution Congress that money alone cannot solve this problem. To reach the people in greatest need, Congress and the administration must expand U.S. engagement with Syrian-led NGOs that commit to conducting cross-border assistance in accordance with humanitarian principles.

The ongoing efforts of international aid agencies within Syria are simply inadequate. Spontaneous camps for internally displaced people are appearing throughout the country, particularly in border areas. Families fleeing violence go from camp to camp in search of safety, shelter, and basic services. Humanitarian relief agencies are struggling to coordinate aid deliveries and assist the most vulnerable.

Syrians, both the displaced and those trying to help them, are angry at their situation and feel abandoned by international community – especially the U.S. Frustrated and exhausted, they are losing confidence that the U.S. and European governments will provide the help that they need.

One such Syrian our team met was a physician from Aleppo with more than 20 years of experience. Now working out of improvised warehouses along the Syrian border, he and his colleagues supply hospitals and clinics with essential medical supplies. They have created a distribution network that covers numerous towns and cities throughout Syria, and during our short visit he received countless phone calls from doctors asking for help. His work is invaluable, but with U.S. support he could do a great deal more.

There are countless other skilled Syrian professionals who are desperate for a larger role in this aid effort. In many cases, their own lives have been shattered by violence, yet they remain committed to helping their neighbors and friends survive.

This January, more than a hundred Syrian organizations met in Istanbul to begin to coordinate their activities in the hope of having a greater impact. A number of these organizations met with officials from the State Department and USAID. Several received rudimentary civil society training, and many more were approached by the countless international aid contractors, consultants, and NGO workers that descended on the region. But according to Syrians involved in the meetings, there has been virtually no follow-up since those initial meetings: no technical training on donor relations, proposal development, or reporting requirements. They want to partner with the U.S. agencies, but so far they have largely been sidelined.

To be sure, most of these Syrian organizations are small and relatively informal. The best of them, however, are run by educated, capable Syrians with relevant experience administering emergency aid. They are businessmen, doctors, and engineers. They know how to organize people, ready supplies, and build delivery systems. Most importantly, they have extensive networks in parts of the country that are difficult to access. But in order to work on a larger scale, they will need the technical guidance and funding that U.S. agencies can provide.

The Casey-Rubio bill would help move these partnerships forward. It would authorize Congress to both improve the assistance package for internally displaced Syrians, and also give U.S. agencies authorization and political support as they seek out a more diverse range of partners – including Syrian organizations. Working alongside Syrian-led NGOs that are already providing aid in accordance with humanitarian principles will significantly improve U.S. programming.

USAID can also start building these partnerships immediately by training Syrian groups on international standards for humanitarian assistance, documentation, transparency and accountability. USAID should also create a $10 million fund that will provide small grants directly to emerging Syrian aid groups. Even this small amount of money would save lives.

As Casey and Rubio recently wrote for POLITICO, “The Syrian people must see that America is working through all available channels to assist them in their hour of need.” We agree, and we believe that helping Syrians help themselves is the best way forward.