On the ground in Syria: Making ends meet in face of insecurity, bureaucracy

Syrian refugees cross the border into Jordan. Development groups struggle to make ends meet in Syria and neighboring countries, where insecurity and bureaucracy impede their work. Photo by: N. Daoud / UNHCR

Inside Syria and neighboring countries, aid groups are making ends meet with the meager funding from donors, and struggling to get the job done by their limited freedom to operate due to insecurity and bureaucratic impediments.

Four implementing partners consulted by Devex now wonder how the $1.5 billion pledge made by G-8 leaders during their meeting this week can provide meaningful assistance to the Syrian people if concerns about limited flexibility and donor coordination are hampering work.

Despite the seeming influx of aid to Syria, money just trickles in, and often too late, aid groups lament.

Partners are saying things on the ground should change, and ask donors to discuss aid coordination during pledging conferences or put up offices in Damascus.

Syria’s unique case

While world leaders scramble to find a political solution to the ongoing crisis and media feast on the Syrian crisis, aid support has been slow and scant.

Right now, donors have so far funded only “$3 of every $10 appealed” by the United Nations for the first half of 2013, not counting the $5 billion the world body has requested to continue its operations in Syria for the rest of the year.

Development practitioners on the ground told Devex that the Syrian deaths are different to those of Haitians buried under the rubble of the 2010 earthquake, a type of disaster that got much more attention and therefore donations from governments, the private sector and individuals.

The civil war in Syria has been ongoing on for almost three years, but the majority — if not practically all — of the funding for humanitarian assistance has come from governments.

“When the only channels of funding are ones that come from government, then we’re all tied to their funding rhythms,” said Mike Weickert, World Vision Canada’s team leader in Jordan, one of the countries hosting Syrian refugees.

Much of the funding is tied to the U.N. appeal, the timing of which can be a matter of life or death for Syrians.

United Nations, Weickert suggested to Devex, should appeal at the right time and make sure the money is asked for well in advance so donors can pledge early on.

Money at the right time

But many donor countries, Weickert noted, seem to commit their money in certain times during their fiscal years: “The timing of the commitment is tied more to the government’s calendar than the actual aid need  but that’s not always the case.”

A clear example of this is the situation of the World Food Program, which right now needs about $1 billion to feed the Syrian people.

“We need to raise $26 million everyday until September. We still need to raise three quarters of a billion,” a WFP spokesperson told Devex.

When money doesn’t come by, work on the ground stops.

World Vision Canada, for instance, brought in technical experts to write proposals like for water and sanitation. “Then the proposal sits for a long time. We start to pay the experts to be here and it just costs us money,” explained Weickert.

Syrian refugees in Lebanon, he pointed out, failed to receive supplies to fight off the cold winter season last year because aid groups failed to get enough money from donors.

Here and there

When funding does come, donors are sometimes “here and there:” They have different rules and priorities, making it hard for aid groups to understand what they need from their partners.

“Donors must come together and develop more of a consensus on what they ask from their partners,” Nathaniel Hurd, conflicts and disaster policy advisor at World Vision, told Devex.

In short, aid groups want to get the same things when they talk to this or that government.

Hurd noted that from the start if there is a donor conference, aid coordination needs on the agenda: “It can’t be just a pledging conference.”

Put money where it’s needed

Funding woes aside, implementing partners also complain about the limited flexibility they have in working in one of the most dangerous places in the world at this time.

Aid groups explained donors have requirements as if Syria were in peace or if humanitarian work was like an ordinary business. Their ability to change operations once fighting ensues or funds shift when a different need arises from the planned ones is virtually impaired on the ground, as different donors have different rules and policies and implementing partners need to abide by all of them, as well as the different priorities of each particular donor.

The reality on the ground, they noted, is that donors can’t seem to agree on what and where the needs are.

Partly the problem stems from the lack of qualified needs assessments conducted in in both government-held and opposition-controlled areas, according to Hugh Fenton, Middle East regional director at the Danish Refugee Council.

“The U.N. is currently negotiating with the Syrian government on the subject of an interagency assessment, but so far without result,” Fenton told Devex. “We simply need access to hard data on the situation to make sure we are meeting the needs.”

Donors, he stressed, need to provide “operational flexibility” in a sense that partners can direct aid to “those in need,” a precondition in an environment where fighting shifts quickly.

“What is the use of sending a convoy to an area if people have been forced to leave it?” asked Fenton.

How to cross the bridge

Aid groups know where aid is most needed: Syrian people in opposition-controlled areas. But the reality on the ground is far from simple.

The practice is that aid groups require permission from the Bashar al-Assad government to roam the streets and help people in need, regardless of who is in control of the territory.

Observers say this process inherently helps the regime by channeling resources to where it wants and blocking aid to where it does not want.

Aid, in a sense, legitimizes Assad’s rule.

If aid groups enter opposition-held areas, they have to get a go-signal not only from the regime but also from the powers-that-be around these areas. The risk is indeed high, especially when dealing with a government that can persecute neutral groups working in opposition areas.

Still, that doesn’t stop other groups like WFP to help bring in aid to Syrian people in rebel-controlled towns.

Last week, the U.N. agency was able to dispatch food for 15,000 people to the besieged city of Rastan in Homs, the scene of the bloodiest fighting in Syria, and aid workers also took advantage of the ceasefire in Al-Wa’er, Homs to send five trucks loaded with enough supplies to feed 30,000 people.

Daily struggles

Fenton said that Syria is such in an environment where the right solution today can often become irrelevant the next day.

For instance, he explained, the Danish Refugee Council has not been involved in cross border activity, which was everybody’s agenda three weeks ago, but now it appears more emergency aid needs to be distributed from Damascus.

“Donors should concentrate on the beneficiaries they want to reach and allow the NGOs on the ground the freedom to decide how to reach them” and reopen offices inside the country, suggested Fenton.

He added: “One way to improve this in particular is to have donors actually re-establishing their offices in Damascus, as that would ensure a needed and better shared understanding of the situation between donors and international NGOs.”

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About the author

  • John Alliage Morales

    As a former Devex staff writer, John Alliage Morales covered the Americas, focusing on the world's top donor hub, Washington, and its aid community. Prior to joining Devex, John worked for a variety of news outlets including GMA, the Philippine TV network, where he conducted interviews, analyzed data, and produced in-depth stories on development and other topics.