A DFID humanitarian advisor looks out over an informal tented settlement for Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. Photo by: Russell Watkins / DFID / CC BY

LONDON — The United Kingdom’s parliamentary aid watchdog reported Wednesday that while the Department for International Development has improved the reach of its humanitarian interventions in Syria, it is not adequately safeguarding aid recipients from exploitation, and is struggling to implement lessons learned in its response.

The Independent Commission for Aid Impact, which reports to the parliamentary International Development Committee, awarded DFID a “green-amber” rating for its work in Syria, a peg down from the highest possible score. The majority of ICAI’s critiques focused on DFID’s lack of mechanisms for gathering lessons throughout its interventions and the need for a systematic way to iterate based on past successes and failures.

“The conflict in Syria has been one of the most brutal in modern history, and the U.K.’s response had been its largest ever humanitarian operation,” Alison Evans, outgoing commissioner of ICAI, said in a statement.

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"Too many programs showed signs of basic design errors, with poor delivery and a lack of quality control," according to an Independent Commission for Aid Impact review of the £1.2 billion ($1.7 billion) Conflict, Stability and Security Fund.

“However DFID was slow to acknowledge the scale and extended nature of the crisis and resource its response appropriately to the overwhelming need. Going forward, it is important the U.K. learns lessons to ensure it can respond much more swiftly to any future crises,” she said.

The review assessed DFID’s humanitarian response in Syria dating back to 2012. ICAI interviewed DFID staff in the U.K., Syria, Turkey, and Jordan; as well as staff from roughly half of DFID’s 27 delivery partners, including United Nations agencies, NGOs, and Red Cross groups. It also spoke to 330 recipients of DFID-funded assistance, including in 28 opposition- controlled communities in three governorates of Syria — Aleppo and Idlib in the north-west, and Daraa in the south — and 67 community leaders and downstream partner staff.

Though ICAI’s criticisms focused mainly on the need for better learning and iteration, the report also noted that DFID’s due diligence in its Syria interventions “did not explicitly address risks around safeguarding aid recipients from sexual exploitation, which has been identified as an issue in the international humanitarian response in Syria.”

While there have been no specific allegations of exploitation in Syria related to U.K. funding, there have been wider reports of this happening during aid delivery in country. The report says that DFID “acknowledges its efforts to date to address this risk have not been sufficient and is now working to strengthen its systems and processes.”

Commending DFID interventions for helping many Syrian families send their children back to school and re-establishing some semblance of normalcy in the face of crisis; ICAI still criticized the slow rate of transition in Syria from humanitarian programming to longer-term, livelihoods-focused interventions where security conditions allow. A move that experts suggest would help ensure sustainable peace and improve Syrian lives and economic conditions for the longer-term. Livelihoods programming makes up less than 5 percent of DFID’s Syrian humanitarian portfolio. The report also noted “slow progress” on its goal of shifting toward more cash-based programming.

Finally, ICAI found that DFID and its international NGO partners benefited greatly from the switch in 2016 to multi-year financing of Syria interventions. However, these benefits “were not necessarily being passed on to Syrian partners,” many that continue to work with DFID on a short-term basis, “hampering their ability to retain staff and build capacity.”

Acknowledging that DFID should be allowed to remain flexible in its funding decisions given the fluid nature of the conflict, ICAI found that the donor has not established “a systematic approach to building the capacity of Syrian downstream partners.”

A DFID spokesperson said the report “rightly recognizes that U.K. aid is providing lifesaving support to communities in need across Syria, giving emergency food that has alleviated suffering, sending children back to school and reducing migration and local crimes.”

“The U.K. has led the international response to the crisis in Syria — one of the most dangerous places on earth — and Syrians themselves say U.K. aid has made their country safer and more stable, which is firmly in all our interests.”

About the author

  • Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a former U.K. correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.