Syria and the challenge of transformational resilience

A view of the convoy as Major General Robert Mood, head of the newly established U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria, leads a delegation to the Khalidiyyeh neighborhood of Homs to meet opposition members. Governments and donors must take a transformational resilience approach to Syria’s refugee crisis. Photo by: Nadine Kaddoura / United Nations

The Syrian crisis has shaken an entire region and been at the epicenter of a global displacement crisis for the past five years. This crisis has turned some 20 million children, families and communities into refugees and 40 million into internally displaced persons within their own countries, according to UNHCR.

The humanitarian community has been under massive strain to deal with this global crisis. The cracks of this strain are evident in a string of significantly under-resourced humanitarian appeals across fragile states, including Syria and the regional response.

Making matters worse, half of the Syrian refugee population are children, as are many of those inside Syria and in harm’s way. The reality that this crisis has a child’s face — now famously memorialized in the little washed up body of Alan Kurdi on Turkish shores — raises the urgency for humanitarian organizations to figure out how to work with fewer funds in the face of escalating human need and desperation.

In response, the international humanitarian and development community has strengthened its resolve to combine efforts, finite resources and partners under a so-called resilience approach. Resilience is a means of building a diverse range of capacities among individuals, households, communities, systems and governments to manage risks from shocks (such as conflict and disaster) and stress (such as urbanization, migration and resource scarcity).

To be sure, only a negotiated political solution will end the Syria conflict. However, a resilience approach is critical to do less with more in response to overwhelming human need across the relief and development divide, and set a foundation for the eventual recovery of both Syria and the region.

Raising the bar on resilience

A regional refugee and resilience or 3RP plan has been put in place across many of the countries hosting refugees, including Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt. Building on this plan, a growing body of research has been commissioned by the United Nations, international nongovernmental organizations and others on how to raise the bar on resilience for maximum impact.

Critical to raising the bar is a focus on what might be called “transformational resilience.” Transformational resilience takes place at a higher level, calling for building and bridging capacity within formal government institutions and informal institutions (such as community groups). While some might argue for a more modest response focusing on better coping strategies and contingency planning to help communities better adapt to and absorb stress, a United Nations Development Program report with Mercy Corps rightly affirmed that large-scale transformational resilience is essential for protracted, conflict-induced emergencies like the Syria crisis.  

This bridge-building effort between formal and informal institutions is essential to successfully creating programs that lead to transformational resilience. Foundational to this effort is the strengthening of social capital — the ability to mobilize groups, networks and partnerships for greater cooperation, solidarity and support in the face of conflict, disaster and breakdowns in services and markets.

We have seen this type of social capital at work in sophisticated ways in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. A report commissioned by Mercy Corps, Search for Common Ground and World Vision profiled the existence of social and economic networks used by those fleeing intermittent conflict or migrating between urban and rural areas for jobs. The report reinforced the need to support these forms of resilience and social capital strengthening.

Transformational resilience is critical for refugees and host countries alike

Here are 4 action steps we should pursue to promote transformational resilience:

1. The international humanitarian and development community must ensure a transformational resilience approach is the topline objective for addressing shocks and stress and unifying the humanitarian and development community in the most difficult fragile states. We must use declarations, compacts or similar instruments to identify and agree on priorities and a critical path for fostering transformational resilience in a variety of contexts.

For the Syria regional response, identifying a critical path would not replace existing regional and country plans, but rather focus them on this higher resilience effort to target risks and cultivate greater domestic capacities in the face of insufficient external resources for services and support.

2. Design a critical path to pursue the twin goals of transformational resilience: building and bridging capacities across formal and informal institutions, and making social capital the foundation for these efforts. The applied research cited in this article provides thoughtful entry points for this work. This includes strengthening the capacity and cooperation between municipalities, civil society groups, the private sector and service delivery providers.

Importantly, it also includes leveraging these entities as a means to mobilize communities and social networks within their circles to promote social inclusion, dialogue, and joined up approaches for service provision and support. When coupled with efforts to provide inclusive access to information on the context, challenges and opportunities for positive change, these efforts would go far in promoting greater trust in public institutions and forming partnerships to unlock formal and informal capacities — critical elements of resilience. World Vision’s Citizens Voice and Action initiative, active in Lebanon and 44 other countries, brings together governments and communities to identify and address gaps in service delivery while promoting social accountability, dialogue and trust. CVA and similar initiatives can help promote transformational resilience.

3. Ensure efforts to promote transformational resilience are guided by political economy and social assessments to better understand the patterns of exclusion and grievance, as well as to surface new opportunities for change. The OECD’s risk and resilience methodology refers to the need for political economy analysis to better contextualize efforts to assess multiple risks — social, economic, natural, physical etc.

In more protracted, fragile contexts, we must make standard a resilience assessment methodology that combines analysis on multiple and overlapping risks, political economy and social dynamics. Understanding social dynamics is one of the least attended to priorities, but is essential since a large part of transformational resilience requires social capital building and bridging.

4. Accelerate and integrate preparations for transformational resilience inside Syria, even though the conflict prevents much from happening now. While several efforts are underway on conflict mapping, civil society strengthening and livelihoods restoration, these efforts are disjointed. The result will end up replicating the humanitarian divide, as relief actors expand their operations inside the country and development actors struggle to “catch up.” The time is now to develop wider consultations and collaborations on a transformational resilience approach in Syria to shape both relief and development activities.

By contrast, in the Syrian refugee response, there are still too many examples of isolation. One family, Mohammad and Zakiya, along with their eight children, fled Syria and spoke to our staff about what’s happened to them since they arrived in Lebanon. They now live in a makeshift shelter. They have no neighbors or nearby groups to call on for support, sharing or a sense of belonging. This reduces their psychosocial resilience to trauma and uncertainty. It also reduces their ability to cope and find work as humanitarian aid diminishes.

Governments and donors must take a transformational resilience approach to Syria’s refugee crisis. When donors help create social capital across social networks and cooperative groups — such as parent-teacher associations, savings groups, water user associations, youth clubs and religious groups — the resources and capacities mobilized can be truly transformative.  

Several studies, including a joint paper from UNDP and UNHCR on social cohesion trends in the region, have underlined what happens when public institutions do the opposite, driving tensions between host communities and refugees.

World Vision actively supports the building of social capital. We have worked with education networks in Jordan to mobilize awareness and provide psycho-social support to children. We’ve partnered with churches in Iraq to host refugee families and provide a support network. Our recent Syria crisis impact report highlights our work to provide relief services for health, education and water and sanitation and build capacities and infrastructure. We see a clear need for greater multi-stakeholder partnerships to expand the scale and financing of social capital.

Where we have struggled more is with the bridging of formal and informal capacities in the countries hosting Syrian refugees to promote transformational resilience. We have experimented with these bridging approaches in other fragile contexts, including in Somalia, Haiti and the DRC, as well as through our leadership in the Core Group Polio Project to eradicate polio.        

This has involved efforts to support national safety net programs, joined up approaches with governments and communities to improve drought resilience and food security, and the establishment of reporting lines from our community health workers to line ministries and municipalities.        

Impediments to implementing resilience programming can be overcome

These resilience efforts will take time, trust, dialogue, innovative financing and program experimentation. Yet, there are impediments to even getting started. Some donors dedicate support only for “community resilience,” undermining the bridging work between formal and informal institutions and across social networks and groups.

Other donors and governments prefer the lion’s share of capacity development and support to go to government systems, without recognizing that with finite funds, we must mobilize more domestic capacities from communities, networks and the private sector to provide services and support and decrease tensions and mounting distrust in public institutions.  

There is also the looming threat that a resilience agenda can quickly default to a “recovery only agenda” with more focus on infrastructure and “bricks and mortar” projects than the harder, messier and less tangible work that must take place to build resilience in new and transformative ways.

The upcoming World Humanitarian Summit will rally together the humanitarian and development communities to tackle these hard issues. We must seize the opportunity to forge a new path forward and help the millions of children and communities in desperate need for whom our current aid system is increasingly unable to respond.  

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Jonathan Papoulidis

    Jonathan Papoulidis is executive adviser on fragile states at World Vision. He previously served with the United Nations, including in Indonesia as U.N. coordinator for Aceh, in Liberia with U.N. peacekeeping and with UNOCHA at headquarters and in the field. He has held appointments as visiting scholar at Stanford University and York University’s Center for Refugee Studies. He has a master’s degree in international relations from the University of Cambridge.