Kristalina Georgieva, EU humanitarian aid commissioner, speaks with the humanitarian staff members at the Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan. Photo by: Khalil Mazraawi / European Union

A sixth version of the U.N. humanitarian response plan for Syria is in the works, with a new focus on maximizing aid impact through better coordination and international NGOs and donors being more involved from the start.

“[Version 6] should aim at maximizing the impact of our money … through harmonized packages of assistance, common assessments in all sectors of assistance and common monitoring tools,” EU humanitarian aid commissioner Kristalina Georgieva said during an exclusive interview with Devex in Brussels.

Georgieva explained that for 2014, the priorities for dealing with one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent memory will be to improve the quality and timeliness of needs assessments, analyze gaps and assess the impact of humanitarian assistance provided not only inside Syria but also to refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and other countries; develop a realistic response that is targeted and adapted to people’s needs and vulnerabilities, notably children; and strengthen a cost-effective approach to optimize the delivery system for assistance.

Here are a few excerpts from our conversation with Georgieva:

How concerned are you about the humanitarian situation in Syria?

The humanitarian situation inside Syria is dire — the country is a battlefield. Delivering aid is extremely difficult and often precarious. Many areas have been cut off and we’re sometimes unable to reach vulnerable people in need. Our partners continuously highlight the extremely vulnerable situation of large numbers of civilians trapped in areas under siege, often without water, food, electricity and shelter — not to mention medical care and most other basic necessities.

But is aid getting through?

A key issue is the disrespect of international humanitarian law. But yes, despite the enormous difficulties, aid is getting through to many areas and a huge and unprecedented humanitarian operation is ongoing and will continue as long as the needs exist.

And regarding refugees, are neighboring countries now at a breaking point?

It has reached a point where the humanitarian emergency is exceeding the capacity to deal with it. The number of refugees has increased from 190,000 to over 2.1 million since this time last year and Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey and other countries such as Iraq and Egypt are providing sanctuary. The burden to these countries is staggering. And as the conflict continues to rage — with little hope of a political solution — I dread to think what the number of refugees will be next year.

So how does the international community reach a consensus on Syria to tackle the problems?

Well, for an overwhelming humanitarian crisis such as the one in Syria, it is crucial to come together as an international community and recognize how important it is to retain a common commitment to international humanitarian law for access to people in need. This has been left out of international discussions for far too long.

It’s essential that this is translated on the ground. Let’s not forget that 33 humanitarian workers have been killed so far, which is completely unacceptable … And then of course, we need to continue raising money this year, next year, the year after. Because even if fighting stops tomorrow, the humanitarian consequences for Syria — for the neighborhood — are so profound that it will take a long time to deal with them.

Even if Syria is no longer a “headliner,” continuing to raise money is not only morally right, but also in our own self interest. Building a broad coalition — as we did on the margins of the U.N. General Assembly — showed that reaching an agreement on the humanitarian agenda is not actually so difficult when we manage to separate this track from the political discussions and talk only about the grave needs of the people.

And what are the remaining challenges in terms of timing, partners, instruments, etc. in forming this consensus?

Well, the most dramatic problem is inside Syria, where at least 6.8 million people need help and — at best — less than half receive it on a regular basis. Why? Because of the difficulty to serve the so-called contested areas and because of the lack of sufficient international pressure on both sides of the conflict to allow help to get to people.

For far too long we have been silent on the fact that the government created obstacles in getting help to people. And many of the opposition groups create difficulties too, by acting in an uncoordinated manner and shooting at the convoys. This issue of access is absolutely paramount: even if we have the money, if we cannot turn it into help to people. It is very dramatic.

But do you think unfettered humanitarian access inside the country will follow any time soon?

A [U.N. Security Council] resolution and a Presidential Statement are not operational actions, but they raise the stakes and pressure on the [Syrian] government and on the opposition — especially the moderate opposition — to provide more access for humanitarian workers.

I would then expect to see improvements, although I’m under no illusion that we now have very radical groups operating in Syria that not only disregard the international community, but who are even induced to express their disrespect through violence … All that humanitarians are asking is “please stand by us in this very difficult journey.” And if we had this unanimous view of the international community, that would unlock some of the options to deliver help that have been unnecessarily locked.

And does that include addressing the estimated $1.8 billion gap in unmet funding needs, according to UNHCR and OCHA figures?

The Commission and EU member states have so far spent €2 billion on this crisis. We have continuously raised more and more funding. Many member states are continuing to pledge and commit funds and I will also do my utmost to find additional funding.

However, as said, humanitarian budgets are limited and we cannot spend everything on this one large crisis. One thing we have therefore done on our side is to mobilize more development funding and work in complementarity. For instance, in Lebanon, we worry about emergency aid through the provision of shelter, food, health, and water services to refugees directly, while development partners support governmental authorities and their national health and education systems.

Another thing we are currently doing is to work more closely with international financial institutions to ensure that all possible funding sources are used, but also to ensure that what we are doing together is based on a comprehensive strategy. Otherwise, we would not be efficient.

So in the short and even medium term it’s a humanitarian operation, but this will transition into a development effort?

We are already transitioning into a “humanitarian plus” phase. The latest contribution of the European Commission to addressing the Syrian crisis was €400 million, of which €250 million was humanitarian aid and €150 million was development support for the host communities of Jordan and Lebanon.

We are leading on this, but we’re also calling upon other donors and development organizations to step up to the plate. At the meeting in New York this year, we had the World Bank and the IMF participating because of the necessity to expand our instruments to address the crisis.

Can the international community expect a “version 6” of the Syrian response plan in the coming months? What concrete revisions to this plan do you envisage?

Yes, indeed. The U.N. agencies have already started working on version 6 of both the Regional Response Plan and the Syrian Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan. These plans are expected to be launched during the first half of December. The positive evolution in comparison to the previous plans is that iNGOs and donors are being more involved from the start. This close cooperation should be maintained and strengthened.

And for next year, 3 main issues require special attention. First, to improve the quality and timeliness of identifying needs, analyzing “gaps,” and assessing the impact of humanitarian assistance provided to countries neighboring Syria so far … Second, to develop a realistic response that is targeted and adapted to identified people’s needs and vulnerabilities, notably children. And third, to strengthen a cost-effective approach to optimize the delivery system for assistance.

[Version 6] should aim at maximizing the impact of our money … through harmonized packages of assistance, common assessments in all sectors of assistance, and common monitoring tools.

Stay tuned to find out more from Georgieva in advance of the European Development Days 2013 in Brussels on Nov. 26-27.

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    Richard Jones

    In his role as Editorial Director Richard oversees content for digital series, reports and events, leading a talented team of writers and editors, conducting high-level video interviews and moderating panels at events. Previously partnerships editor and an associate editor at Devex, Richard brings to bear 15 years of experience as an editor in institutional communications, public affairs and international development. Based in Barcelona, his development experience includes stints in the Dominican Republic, Argentina and Ecuador, as well as extensive work travel in Africa and Asia.