The other 'humanitarian' crisis in Syria

The Babunnur refugee camp in Aleppo, Syria. Beyond gaining access to areas in need of humanitarian support, local aid groups operating in the country face other challenges caused by misunderstanding and rigid processes. Photo by: IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation / CC BY-NC-ND

Building local capacity has increasingly become a vital component of humanitarian and development programming. The problem, however, is when different groups have different definitions and expectations of what it should look like in practice — as in the case of Syria.

For some international aid agencies, capacity building entails holding workshops to train national organizations that are increasing in size and scope on how to manage their growing finances better or what to do when faced with a logistical impediment.

When you ask Syrian groups, however, their expectation is they will be trained on how to manage their growing and geographically dispersed staff, or write complex funding proposals to win grants from the U.S. Agency for International Development or the U.K. Department for International Development, two of the largest donors to the Syrian crisis.

Many of these local groups were only established when the crisis broke out four years ago, and so have little to no experience dealing with donors’ institutional requirements. But these much-needed skills transfers aren’t always made available or are “inadequately taught,” finds a new report by the Overseas Development Institute.

“Quite often it’s training that’s not always adapted to the needs of local organizations. So having a dialogue where you clearly define what your relationship will be like [is important], so there aren’t any expectations that are misplaced,” author and ODI research fellow Eva Svoboda told Devex ahead of the report’s Friday launch.

In defense, international aid agencies claim that they do invest in teaching local organizations skills, such as proposal writing, but these trained staffers often leave for better-paying jobs in another organization.

This disconnect is not unique to the Syrian situation. As Devex previously reported, security training — often considered part of aid groups’ capacity building — given to local aid workers in conflict-affected countries like Somalia, for example, focuses heavily on how to reduce vulnerabilities to kidnapping or how to handle the situation once abducted. But such training is generally more useful for foreign aid workers, not for local staff.

It is particularly critical to resolve this disconnect in Syria, where there is no indication of an immediate end to the crisis and where all stakeholders need to work closely together to continue much-needed humanitarian assistance. As the ODI research fellow notes, the crisis needs “all hands on deck.”

International organizations may have the capacity, technical know-how and experience in winning funding from institutional donors, but bureaucratic hurdles such as securing access and permits for staff are preventing them from reaching beneficiaries. Local organizations meanwhile may have more ease in travel and reach within the county, but they lack sufficient funds to fuel their operations.

Svoboda said it would be helpful for local organizations to clearly communicate to both international aid agencies and donors what they need in terms of training and mentoring or if they need further advice on a particular issue.

Yet operational definitions are just one part of the problem.

A system too rigid

Most of the systems and procedures in place in humanitarian settings have long been established. But they aren’t always ideal in every situation.

In the case of Syria, both international and local organizations are expected to be on top of the aid they are giving, particularly when it’s coming from institutional donors that require rigorous monitoring and evaluation for every aid dollar given.

While donors cannot be found at fault for demanding accountability for the aid they have given, whether in kind or in cash, Svoboda said organizations can do with a little more flexibility on how to do this. Having the names of beneficiaries for instance may not always be feasible, as some of them may not be comfortable in providing it given the risks involved of being tracked down, especially when they are being associated with either parties of the conflict.

And it’s the same when donors and international organizations insist on providing goods like food as opposed to cash. At times, particularly when traveling in hard-to-reach areas, local organizations prefer to bring money as it is more logistically sound and attracts less attention. In addition, some types of assistance like food can be bought locally.

But donors and international aid agencies, because of fear that the money may fall into the wrong hands, often insist on in-kind assistance, which only raises frustration among local organizations.

While understandable, aid diversion, Svoboda argued, can happen in any conflict and for any kind of assistance.

“Local organizations are frustrated when international organizations  look to them only when they don’t have access. So it’s almost like [they  are] Plan B. And then they find they are subcontractors in a way, just  implementing agencies rather than equal partners”

— Eva Svoboda, research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute

“A conflict is messy, and there is always that risk,” she said. So instead of being at loggerheads with each other, donors, international organizations and local Syrian groups need to agree on the kind of transfer modality that is best adapted to a particular context, which at times might be cash. The report acknowledges though that local groups are open to transporting lifesaving medicines, which are not always readily available.

Donors could also learn to adapt to the changing circumstances on the ground. For instance, allowing organizations to disburse assistance as they see fit rather than sticking to the original plan that is based on an already outdated assessment.

“The conflict in Syria requires that you’re a bit more flexible [but] without throwing everything overboard,” the author said. But “I think it’s also illustrative of the struggle the humanitarian system faces in general with the situation in Syria. … [But] because the system is quite inflexible, at times it takes much longer to adapt.”

The importance of dialogue

Svoboda placed heavy importance on the need for different aid actors to have that “dialogue of substance,” where they clarify roles and find each other’s strengths. It could also help build trust with donors, which may be thinking twice about directly funding local organizations that are often accused of lacking neutrality or impartiality.

But this dialogue rarely happens in conflict situations.

While Svoboda knows it takes time to build the relationships needed to get this dialogue going, time is something Syria does not have.

“From the beginning, access was restricted to international organizations by all parties to the conflict. And so rather than having the time to build up these relationships with local organizations, [partnerships] had to happen quickly,” she said. “That’s obviously not a good starting point for a relationship that needs time where you get to know each other better, where you make a plan on how you want to work together.”

A few international organizations that have been operating in Syria prior to the conflict, however, were able build these relationships beforehand and leverage them during the crisis.

But for those organizations that haven’t, the lack of trust is creating animosity. One organization featured in the report, for instance, finds the term “partnerships” a misnomer as it feels international organizations are only tapping local groups when convenient.

“Local organizations are frustrated when international organizations look to them only when they don’t have access. So it’s almost like [they are] Plan B. And then they find they are subcontractors in a way, just implementing agencies rather than equal partners,” Svoboda said.

In addition, when having these dialogues, it’s best to meet organizations halfway. And this can be as simple as communicating in the local language and avoiding humanitarian jargon.

The predominant use of English in coordination meetings, for instance, has put off some local groups, which then chose not to participate, according to the report.

Jargon meanwhile “is so ingrained in the formal system. When you’re a new local NGO, you don’t know what cluster systems, steering committee for humanitarian response, [for example] means. So jargon doesn’t help, [but rather] creates a barrier,” Svoboda said.

The good news is that, even outside Syria's borders, these dialogues are starting to happen, particularly among aid actors that have realized the need to find better ways of working together as the conflict isn’t likely to end soon. Turning these discussions to practical action, however, seems to take as much time — sometimes even longer.

“Things are happening, but again, it’s almost like the response is so absorbed by the needs and the changing environment that you really have to make an effort of trying to do both at the same time. And that’s not easy,” Svoboda said.

The issues aid groups face in Syria are commonly found in other humanitarian emergencies. What else needs to change in the way the humanitarian system works? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you FREE every business day.

About the author

  • Ravelo jennylei

    Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.