Aid Inside Syria: Time to Go Small in a Bigger Way

Many of the Syrian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) based in Turkey and providing humanitarian aid inside Syria have reached a high level of organizational and operational capacity that was previously absent.

The capacity-building initiatives of multiple donors, United Nations agencies, and international non-governmental organization (INGO) partners have helped a number of these groups develop their ability to provide humanitarian responses in accordance with international standards and to be effectively involved in the international coordination structure that was previously out of reach to them. In addition, as the Syrian conflict marks its sixth anniversary, some of these Syrian aid groups now have up to six years of experience in aid delivery and on-the-ground operations. These groups are staffed primarily by Syrians, many of whom are in the field on a daily basis, risking their lives to serve their own communities. They are the people who are most familiar with what is happening on the ground at any given moment, and who best understand the changing humanitarian needs and how to adapt their work accordingly. With this significant new talent pool available, the moment is right for donors and operational agencies to take next steps toward supporting humanitarian response in Syria that is “as local as possible,” in keeping with best practice and the stated commitments that donors and INGOs have voiced over the past decade.

We need to use the knowledge of the local, on-the-ground implementers [in planning]

Major donor to the syria response

It’s not just the money. It’s about the effect of supporting the NGOs themselves, not just the response.

Employee of syrian ngo


Six years ago, when the Syrian conflict started in earnest, a number of Syrian NGOs emerged with the aim of providing humanitarian aid inside the country. In general, these groups fell into one of two categories: diaspora-based and -created NGOs staffed by educated (usually Syrian) professionals from a range of fields; and small, locally-active Syrian NGOs (also called community-based organizations, or CBOs) that were sometimes inexperienced, but had tremendous access inside Syria to areas the United Nations agencies and INGOs could not reach.

As a result of their ability to enter places that were off-limits to non-Syrian organizations — including besieged and hard-to-reach areas —these Syrian groups were often taken on by the UN agencies and INGOs as partners that would do the actual delivery of goods and services and implementation of programs. With very few exceptions, these groups could not receive funding directly from international donors or the United Nations because they did not have the organizational and operational history that would make them eligible. In fact, for the first several years of the conflict, many of these groups survived primarily on private donations from their own networks, which allowed them to deliver aid to locations that the bigger groups could not reach.

These operational Syrian groups were–and still are—taking on risks to life and limb in order to provide assistance to their own communities. They are daily witnesses to events inside Syria and to the humanitarian needs of the people they serve. But for several years, few international partners engaged with these groups as a way to learn about what was happening on the ground within Syria on a daily basis. Instead, INGOs often demanded the implementation of projects that donors insisted upon but that were not always useful to the population they purported to help.


  • As part of its commitment to contribute on a trial basis to at least three pooled funds in 2017 (see below), the U.S. government should make the Turkey Humanitarian fund (HF) its next pilot of pooled fund support.
  • The U.S. government should make ongoing contributions to the Turkey Humanitarian Fund as support for the work of Syrian NGOs inside Syria.
  • The U.S. government should create and implement a plan to begin directly funding eligible Syrian groups on a pilot basis, with an eye toward providing regular support to these grounds as Syrian implementing partners.
  • Other parties to the Grand Bargain (see below) that are major donors to the humanitarian response inside Syria should review how they use the pooled fund in support of Syrian aid groups and adjust their contributions to achieve the greatest impact in both operations and capacity-building.
  • UN agencies and INGOs partnering with Syrian groups should invest in longer term “second level” capacity-building and mentoring for their partners with the goal of pushing Syrian organizations’ capacity beyond the ability to interact with specific donors and partners and into broader mentoring that improves operations.
  • The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) should expedite the auditing and review processes for completed projects financed by the Humanitarian Fund in order to facilitate independent application to the Fund by smaller groups.
  • OCHA should make information about donations, allocations, and administrative procedures of the Turkey Humanitarian Fund more accessible to recipients and potential applicants.

Daryl Grisgraber and Hans Hogrefe traveled to Turkey in February 2017.