Last week’s news that international NGO Mercy Corps has been asked to leave Turkey comes as the sixth anniversary of the Syria conflict is upon us. In those six years, five million Syrians have become refugees in neighboring countries. Inside Syria, six and a half million people are displaced from home, and 13.5 million need humanitarian aid to survive even as humanitarian needs continue to grow. Year after year there has been a shortage of funds for assistance inside Syria and to refugees, and multiple UN Security Council resolutions pushing for unhindered humanitarian access inside the country have had limited success. The situation for 2017 does not look promising.
A hopeful development of the past half decade has been the growth of dozens—even hundreds—of local Syrian groups and networks delivering aid inside Syria and their ability to get aid across the border from Turkey into Syria. These groups have become an essential element of assisting people inside Syria, especially in places the United Nations and INGOs cannot get to because of security concerns. As tends to be the case for local residents in any humanitarian emergency, Syrians in their own communities have always been the first to respond to events on the ground. But they have also proved themselves capable in turning what were often informal groups into professional organizations that are valuable partners for larger aid agencies that need to reach people on the ground.
One way that aid made it to Syrians inside Syria was through such collaborations: the United Nations and INGOs could often provide goods and systems that locals could deliver directly to people in need. These partnerships were not always relationships of equals. For years, local Syrian groups have struggled to be treated as implementers in their own right, rather than simply as delivery or information-gathering tools for bigger groups. Recognition of the both the need for and the value of capacity-building for Syrian organizations has led to extensive improvements in the quality of partnerships with local NGOs. Additionally, a number of INGOs have made serious commitments to building the operational and organizational abilities of the local groups they work with, in acknowledgement of the idea that local aid providers should be as supported as possible in helping their own communities.
Mercy Corps is one of the international NGOs that has been committed to the idea of involving local partners worldwide in humanitarian aid provision. Its work in Turkey upheld this principle, and the group’s role in helping its local partners learn and grow will be a loss for humanitarian work inside Syria. With six years of devastating need behind us and more to come, the humanitarian community cannot afford to be without any of its members, but especially one that was so committed to helping people to help themselves.
Though we tend not to hear as much about local Syrian groups as we do about the larger agencies, it is high time we began to realize that so many of the lives saved inside Syria were saved because local groups risked their lives to reach people.
Last year an appeal from 87 human rights and aid organizations to UN member states urged them to carefully consider Russia’s role in the Syrian conflict as they voted for Human Rights Council members. In a reaction to the letter, Russian Senator Konstantin Kosachev stated: "that [sic] overwhelming majority of groups mentioned in mass media reports about the appeal were 'insignificant Syrian structures' and the phrase 'over 80 humanitarian organizations' should be taken with a grain of salt."
This is exactly the sort of dismissive attitude toward local humanitarian groups that hinders establishing the best possible humanitarian responses generally and in Syria specifically.
While Russia is predictably averse to criticism of its role in Syria, it is hardly the only government that gives short shrift to local groups providing humanitarian response in extremely complex situations. For years now, donors have rationalized their reluctance to support local groups with reasons ranging from supposed lack of capacity of the groups to pressure to fund their own national partners. But these things cannot change until donors and implementers alike decide that they really will help empower local groups. While humanitarians have talked about building and relying on local capacity for a long time, Syria is an opportunity to actually make this happen.