Local or diaspora organisations and humanitarian assistance for Syria

18 March, 2015

conflict, diaspora, humanitarian assistance, Syria,

With no end to the conflict in Syria in sight, and the mounting challenges of responding to those in dire humanitarian need in areas controlled by all parties, how can local and international actors work together more effectively?

Syria: engaging with local actors to increase humanitarian outreach

Monday 9 – Wednesday 11 March 2015 (WP1384)

The conflict in Syria is posing tremendous challenges to humanitarian organisations. Few predicted the conflict would last this long, become so complicated and cause such significant levels of needs. Lack of access, active combat, ever-changing battle zones and numerous warring parties add to the complexity of the situation. Where the traditional international humanitarian system – the UN, International Committee of the Red Cross and international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) – has access, its capacity is stretched to the limits. More than ever, diaspora or local Syrian organisations are on the frontline in delivering humanitarian assistance. Yet these organisations struggle to achieve recognition from traditional humanitarian actors and donors, who have tended to regard local and diaspora groups only as implementing agents, rather than partners with whom they should establish a genuine and inclusive relationship.

Wilton Park, in cooperation with the Humanitarian Policy Group of the Overseas Development Institute, London, the Arab Thought Forum, Amman, the UK-based Asfari Foundation, and the Norwegian Peacebuilding Centre, brought together local and diaspora groups to meet for a frank and open dialogue with the international donor community, and international organisations, to examine ways in which cooperation between local and international efforts can be improved to work more effectively together. The workshop was also supported by the Dutch and Swiss governments.

Among key issues arising in the discussion were:

  • Violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law are manifest in Syria, with IHL essentially suspended; at the same time, humanitarian organisations are essentially bearing the weight of the international community’s failure to resolve the Syria conflict. The international community, and governments, need to invoke the requirements of international humanitarian and human rights law and increase efforts for these obligations to be respected.
  • While recognising the rights of states to protect against terrorists, counter-terrorism (CT) measures have a very significant impact on humanitarian aid, impeding banking activities – just registering for a bank account is a very lengthy and time-consuming process for local and diaspora organisations – and the transfer of money. While international organisations are also affected by CT measures, smaller Syrian organisations have not sufficient risk management mechanisms to protect themselves, and there is often a negative perception of organisations working in Syria, especially Muslim ones. There needs to be a dialogue between the humanitarian community and donors/states on these issues, and in particular the Financial Action Task Force.
  • Small civil society organisations have to chase funding, through making successive individual applications, and they have no long-term institutional funding. There is an urgent need for funding to cover a longer-term, not just six months, despite reticence on the part of the donor community. Small grants, or pooled funding could be considered, or use of a ‘pilot project’ which would include a mentor from an INGO. There also needs to be an innovative approach to fundraising, for example use of zakat in relief and development activities.
  • Partnerships between Syrian civil society organisations should be meaningful, they should not be regarded as implementing agents only. There could be co-implementation of projects, and INGOs themselves will need to change their structures, mentality and approaches to partner successfully with local and diaspora groups. INGOs should not recruit experienced personnel from local and diaspora groups, thereby depleting the skill sets of these organisations. There should be better sharing of information between international organisations and local or diaspora organisations, and between the local organisations themselves, while alert to the need for security precautions. There is also a need for duty of care in partnerships: there should be adequate provision for insurance, salaries and other measures for security of those taking the risks to provide assistance in-country, and especially reach difficult to access areas.
  • Training needs to be adapted to the needs of Syrian civil society organisations, with remote training for those who cannot travel, and assistance for capacity building through mentoring or secondment by INGOs over an extended period of time – for example a year or more.
  • Efforts should be made to create platforms or umbrella frameworks of Syrian civil society organisations, and diaspora can play an important role as a connecting link between local civil society organisations and international organisations or donors. Local organisations will have a stronger voice internationally if they work collectively. Combined advocacy among organisations in media activities, approaching donors and with banks could have greater impact. There is a need for somebody to take the initiative to establish such platforms.

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Syria: engaging with local actors to increase humanitarian outreach

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