Today marks the fifth anniversary of the Syria crisis. With more than half the country’s original population displaced and humanitarian access still restricted, it’s not obvious from a quick glance that there have been some positive changes in the past five years. When RI first started visiting Syria and the surrounding countries in 2012, there was relatively little appreciation for some of the basic facts: most Syrian refugees were not housed in camps, Syrian children and adolescents were missing out on multiple years of basic education, and local Syrian groups were providing significant amounts of humanitarian aid and services inside Syria.
Today, donors and aid agencies alike have recognized the need to support the non-camp population in order to reach the largest number of most vulnerable Syrians. Access to education is a real challenge, but there is wide recognition of the urgency of providing schooling and instruction to all Syrian children, and numerous international and local groups are wrestling with this issue. And five years on, there is general acknowledgement that Syrian NGOs—both “official” and not—are the ones saving Syrian lives every day by risking their own to reach those in need. Now that this has been established, how do we support them in continuing this life-saving work? For years, humanitarians have brainstormed, researched, and reported on the many benefits of building local capacity as a best practice in humanitarian response. But progress in making it happen has been very slow.
It is neither surprising nor incomprehensible that international donors do not readily fund small, local NGOs addressing humanitarian crises. These local NGOs often don’t have a large staff and are not part of the formal international aid system that treats UN agencies and international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) as preferred partners: a system that most often is administered in English and requires actors to understand the complexity of the international aid system, which can take decades to learn. These small local groups often implement programs and plans that may well be the result of learning by doing, rather than decades of tested practice and constant analysis of the failures and successes of the worldwide system. Many of these groups materialized in response to the needs of so many Syrians affected by the conflict, and don’t have the experience, reputation and history of a United Nations agency or a large, universally recognized INGO like Save the Children.
But little by little, Syrian groups participating in aid activities have proved their abilities and become an important and better-recognized element of the humanitarian response to Syrians. RI has been tracking this development for several years. NGOs that arose in the Syrian diaspora around the world are much more readily visible in the list of groups supporting and implementing aid projects in and around Syria, and are now regularly part of the international coordination mechanisms in the region. In turn, they are bringing more and more of the smaller Syrian NGOs into the system and helping them to learn, build capacity, and secure funding. There still remains a disconnect between the large international groups and support for these local ones, but a recent RI mission to Turkey revealed that the donors and the international system responding in Syria have a genuine commitment to supporting and including these irreplaceable organizations.
A number of Syrian groups registered in donor countries now receive direct funds from government programs in the European Union, and others are reaching a point at which they have enough history and experience to become eligible for U.S. funding. Grants awarded to US-government partners sometimes specifically require offering capacity-building support to local groups, and UN pooled funds are reaching more and more Syrian organizations than ever before. This shift has been a long time in developing and still has far to go, but the situation in Syria and the obstacles to humanitarian access there are forcing us to get more serious about how we create meaningful partnerships with local groups. After five years of trying to figure out how to get more aid inside of Syria, these developments don’t come a moment too soon.
Top photo: Volunteers with a Syrian NGO help carry supplies brought in from Turkey.