A Syrian boy at a school in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, where the U.K. government is supporting NGOs like Save the Children and UNICEF to provide catch-up education to Syrian children who have missed school because of the conflict. Photo by: Russell Watkins / Department for International Development / CC BY

In the long history of global conflict, there have been few scenarios more complex or troubling than that in Syria today. The war there so far has cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, and has displaced millions more, prompting an exodus of refugees on a scale scarcely seen since World War II. Devex spoke with Carolyn Miles, president and CEO of Save the Children U.S., and how conflicts and their causes can be more effectively addressed in future. Below are excerpts from this conversation.

What would you say your key learnings have been from a conflict as complex as Syria?

First of all I would say that Syria represents such a huge shift in conflict response for organizations like Save the Children, because of the numbers and the length of time. We’re now into our fifth year of working on this (conflict), and the numbers are just so huge; 11 million people who have been displaced, both internally and externally, and about half of them are children under the age of 18. So we have never actually experienced for such a long period of time serving that number of refugee children with all the needs that they have.

Some of the key learnings are around reflecting upon the longer-term needs of children. I’ve been to the region probably six times during this period, and meeting with kids at different times over the five years … and at the beginning I think it felt like a typical refugee kind of situation, where you were talking about temporary housing and temporary schools and feeding programs and those kinds of things. But, as time went on, those things obviously became permanent. The impact on children — not just in terms of the physical impact, but the psychological impact — has been really dramatic.

It seems to me that there are multiple crises when these conflicts break out, from a child’s point of view. What are these challenges that emerge simultaneously?

It really is multi-layered. You start with the basics of people needing a place to live, and needing access to food and fresh water … and in the case of Syria, I’d say it’s actually a mixed bag, even at that level. Save the Children is working in all the surrounding countries — Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt — all of whom are hosting these families in various forms, whether it’s in refugee camps or on land that people have rented to them, or whatever the situation is. And just getting the basics is actually probably becoming more difficult, because if you think about the burden on these countries.  … In Lebanon, probably 25 to 30 percent of its population is now refugees. (And that’s) not in camps, but on small bits of land all scattered across the country.

What partnerships among organizations have you’ve seen to be most successful in mitigating the worst effects of the Syrian crisis?

One interesting one is Toms Shoes, which is a well-known U.S. manufacturer of fashion shoes. Their mandate is that if you buy a pair of their shoes, they give a pair of shoes away. So for Syria we went to them and said that the problem in Jordan, where we were working in the camp, is that the winters are actually pretty brutal. They get freezing weather, they get pouring rain, and this was happening at the camps and the kids had no boots. So Toms actually designed a boot and manufactured a boot as their giveaway pair of shoes for the kids there … That was a particularly terrific partnership because we were able to talk to them about what the real needs of these children were, and how we could address those specific needs. I think we distributed 90,000 pairs of boots.

What’s the work done by Save the Children that you’re most proud of?

It’s probably the work inside Syria, because it is incredibly dangerous and incredibly heroic. Our partners inside Syria have been doing things like running a polio vaccination campaign. They’ve done this with [Bill & Melinda] Gates Foundation and UNICEF funding — it’s a big partnership, not just with Save the Children. There are people literally running round with these little coolers — because the vaccine has to be kept cold — between houses and buildings, and mortar fire is happening around them. … I mean, literally risking their lives on a moment-by-moment basis to deliver this aid to people. This is a country where polio had been eradicated … until this crisis. That work really is unbelievably heroic; most of the people who are doing it have experience living inside the country and have said, “I just have to stay and do whatever I can.”

How do you think Syria has affected the post-2015 development agenda? Have you seen people pushing for more explicit ways to address conflict in future?

Yes. Actually, we just did a report with the Center for American Progress on Sustainable Development Goals, the post-2015 agenda, fragile states and states in conflict. We looked back in that report on the Millennium Development Goals, and we looked specifically at countries in conflict. There were something like only three countries where they had met more than two of the MDGs. It’s shocking, the degree to which we have not made progress in those countries. … If you look at MDG 4 about child survival — which is the one that Save the Children has spent so much of its time working on  — and the preventable deaths of children under the age of 5, most of the countries not reaching MDG 4 are countries in conflict. That’s where we have to make the progress.

Conflict in Context is a monthlong global conversation on conflict, transition and recovery hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, Cordaid, Mercy Corps , OSCE and USAID. We’ll decode the challenges and highlight the opportunities countries face while in crisis and what the development community is doing to respond. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #ConflictinContext.

About the author

  • Musa Okwonga

    Musa Okwonga is a journalist, poet, broadcaster, musician, and PR consultant currently based in Berlin, Germany. He has written for several publications, including The Guardian, The New Statesman, ESPN and The New York Times, and is the author of two books on football, the first of which, A Cultured Left Foot, was nominated for the 2008 William Hill Sports Book of the Year. Find out more about his work at www.okwonga.com.