Investing in Syrian humanitarian action

Syrian refugee women talk to Jihanne Latrous, a gender-based violence counselor from UNICEF, in an unfinished apartment block in northern Lebanon. Photo by: Russell Watkins / DfID / CC BY

More than five years since the conflict in Syria began, an estimated 13.5 million men, women and children are still in need of humanitarian assistance inside Syria. The Syrian humanitarian crisis is one of the most complex and tragic in history that has changed the world and the face of humanitarian response.

The protracted crisis has impacted all aspects of humanitarian work in Syria and increased the need for assistance specifically at the local level where international aid organizations have limited access to enter and deliver operations inside the country. This has led the international humanitarian community to rely heavily on remote management and to form partnerships with local Syrian organizations who often have limited experience in humanitarian work.

Addressing the knowledge needs and providing professional development opportunities to Syrian humanitarian aid workers is essential to the immediate emergency response situation. Relevant training will also be critical because humanitarian work could become a long-term career option for many in the future.

As the need for professional development increases, technology-based learning has become one of the primary options for delivering training to the aid workforce across the country. Technology-based learning is particularly relevant in Syria, where it is becoming more and more challenging, dangerous and costly for aid workers to cross the border into neighboring countries to attend face-to-face training.  

A consortium of three nonprofit organizations — (an initiative of the Cornerstone OnDemand Foundation), Mercy Corps and the International Rescue Committee — is working to strengthen the knowledge, skills and capacity of Syrian civil society organizations through the Investing in Syrian Humanitarian Action program. The program takes a two-pronged approach to supporting the development of local organizations to effectively respond to humanitarian needs across Syria.

“Relevant training will be critical because humanitarian work could become a long-term career option for many in the future.”

— Tina Bolding, director at

First, ISHA provides subgrants for project implementation, as well as intensive capacity building support, to a small group of selected local partner agencies.  

Second, under DisasterReady’s leadership, ISHA provides professional development opportunities and technology-based learning options for the wider community of Syrian humanitarians working inside Syria.

One of the first and most important steps in designing the technology-based learning component of the ISHA program was for the DisasterReady team to conduct a technology-based learning assessment. Careful attention went into designing and communicating the assessment which included DisasterReady traveling to Jordan and using a consulting team in Turkey that met face to face with over 100 regional and field staff members from Syrian nongovernmental organizations, INGOs, and United Nations’ agencies. In addition, we conducted an online survey in Arabic and English that received more than 600 responses from humanitarians working inside Syria.

We learned so much about the challenges of delivering aid in this region as well as the opportunities to bring these various actors together to achieve their common mission. This technology-based learning assessment revealed that:

1. There is both a clear need and high demand for humanitarian capacity building in Syria.

Many of the Syrian aid workers delivering critical assistance are highly educated people who left their profession to assist in the crisis with little time and access to training needed to learn what it means to operate a humanitarian aid organization and implement programs. Highlights from the assessment revealed how Syrian humanitarians prefer online courses and videos in Arabic that can be accessed through mobile phones. They emphasized the importance of using learning scenarios specific to a protracted crisis and/or the Middle East as well as complementing self-paced learning with collaborative social learning opportunities. Priority learning topics included humanitarian essentials, project management, financial management, protection and distribution to name a few.

2. Capacity building for the Syrian humanitarian crisis is challenging but achievable.

Technology-based learning is not a “nice to have” but a “must have” when building capacity in Syria. In an environment constrained by border closures, security risks, limited internet access, and unstable electricity, technology can be challenging. We were encouraged, however, by the work many INGOs, agencies, and private companies are doing to overcome these challenges through the use of online and offline learning, mobile learning, and blending modalities such as facilitated online training via Skype. It was a major highlight to discover the leaders of a Syrian NGO had their entire staff complete four online courses using DisasterReady’s Arabic learning portal. For NGOs working in Syria, capacity building using online learning is necessary and, despite the myriad challenges they face with technology, possible.

DisasterReady’s Arabic learning portal. More than 6,000 humanitarians in the Middle East region have begun taking online courses in Arabic as well as in English. Source:

The feedback from aid workers on the ground in Syria is and will remain critical to the development of the ISHA online learning program. The ISHA online learning program will be available in DisasterReady next month and will continue to grow as learning resources are added over time. This program will target learning resources for humanitarians in the whole of Syria and is also available for free to anyone in the world through the DisasterReady portal.

To learn more about and the ISHA technology-based learning program, join our community of more than 80,000 humanitarians and gain access to over 600 free online learning resources available in English, French, Spanish and Arabic.

Currently, the DisasterReady learning portal has over 6,000 humanitarians in the Middle East that have signed up and begun taking online courses in Arabic as well as in English. Our work is just beginning as DisasterReady continues to partner with the humanitarian sector and as part of the ISHA consortium to develop even more learning resources for those working on the ground and in surrounding locations.

While we have witnessed the incredible support from across the sector to provide training to aid workers inside Syria, what still remains is a tremendous opportunity for INGOs, U.N. agencies, and private companies to strengthen coordination and collaboration in order to minimize duplication and streamline the way we deliver technology-based learning to aid workers. We invite anyone with subject matter expertise or content that would help build individual and organizational capacity to join us in this innovative program. By working together we will go farther and faster to help humanitarians in Syria respond to emergencies in their country.

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About the author

  • Headshot tina%2520bolding

    Tina Bolding

    Tina Bolding is the director of — a free open online learning portal for humanitarians working in relief and development around the world. Before joining, Tina served as chief human resources officer at Food for the Hungry, an international relief and development organization, where she built a global HR department and implemented support services to assist HR operations across 22 countries. Tina holds a B.A. in organizational communication and psychology from the University of Tulsa.