What a quid pro quo could do for Syrian refugees

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron host the Supporting Syria and the Region conference. Photo by: Rob Thom / CC BY

Only time and checkbooks will tell whether or not the Syria donors conference held in London Thursday will be hailed an historic day for Syria and the almost 20 million vulnerable Syrian refugees worldwide.

On the face of it, more than 60 countries pledged $10 billion — about $5.6 billion for 2016 and $5.1 billion for 2017-2020. This is in addition to the $1.8 billion pledged last year for 2016 in Kuwait, and exceeds Thursday’s $9.1 billion goal, set by the United Nations after three listless pledging rounds in four years.

But the conference marks a departure from the pledging norm for another reason. For the first time, donors like the United Kingdom emphasized nonhumanitarian, sector-based goals, focusing on education more than food aid, and economic development in lieu of things like shelter.

Aid staples like food and shelter will be part of the package, of course, but by focusing on education and livelihoods, donors put in place a framework for long-term development without leapfrogging humanitarian response. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron announced, along with the financial pledges, the collective pledge to put “1 million children in the region in school by the end of this school year,” and “create 1.1 million jobs for refugees and residents in the region.”

The goal, as U.K. Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening said during a civil society summit Wednesday at the Royal Society in London, is to connect the immediate and long-term needs by focusing on both the monetary and development metrics — namely the number of jobs created and children returned to school.

“It’s an attempt to move away from a continuous annual cycle of humanitarian pledges, to something that’s focusing on trying to, in the words [Greening] used, promote resilience within conflict,” said Frances Guy, head of the Middle East region at Christian Aid.

Possibly as a result, countries pledged over longer periods — Germany set the bar at four years’ worth of funding — and donors divided themselves into plenaries to suss out what would be needed to meet the education and economic goals.

The private sector also played a role in the potential shift. Scholastic, the Agha Khan Foundation, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and others pledged almost $1.5 billion. Concessional financing could also serve to lengthen donors’ engagement in the region, with more than $40 billion in loans pledged over four years by multilaterals such as the World Bank.

#SupportSyrians: News from the donor pledging conference in London. via Devex YouTube

Finally, the recipient countries took the reigns of the funding talks when King Abdullah II of Jordan served donors a quid pro quo: Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey would create a number of work permits for refugees in exchange for the guarantee of multiyear commitments from donors, increased trade preferences, and investment from the private sector.

One might say these countries, currently hosting more than 4.5 million refugees (not counting the millions displaced by previous conflicts) have leveraged space in their countries in exchange for real, sustained development.

Whether the arrangement is a chance to close the humanitarian and development gap, an economic hostage or a politically expedient solution to Europe’s “migrant crisis” perhaps isn’t important, some suggest. In the grand scheme of things, according to some development professionals, it could add up to good development outcomes.

“I think the quid pro quo could be helpful, because one of the challenges is that big promises get made and of course they don’t get delivered,” Laurie Lee, CEO of Care International U.K., told Devex.

“If there’s really a deal, then those countries can threaten not to follow through, so it can actually strengthen accountability,” he said.


Aid professionals emphasized the need, overall, of an end to the violence before real progress can start.

“If the political intent — and one has to question that,” Guy said, “is to stop refugees moving to Europe, then the best thing you can do is to stop the fighting in Syria, and help Syrians build their society.”

Guy also pointed out that donors could be at risk of sacrificing quality over quantity in education and job creation, given the already overburdened schools and job markets in the region.

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About the author

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    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a former U.K. correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.