PHOTO: Part of a UN aid convoy destroyed by Russian-regime bombing near Aleppo city, September 2016

Peter Harling, Alex Simon, and Rosalie Berthier of Synaps write about the challenges of aid during the Syrian crisis and lessons that might be learned.

They describe Syria’s unique challenge and an aid system under stress before concluding:

This is a good time to start experimenting with a new paradigm, by developing deeper access and insights into a groundswell of organic Syrian initiatives, engaging with the informal networks that are critical to problem-solving, and leveraging the extraordinary asset of Syria’s unique entrepreneurial spirit. In other words, and although it should go without saying, the aid regime must put Syrians back at the heart of any recovery process.

Some forward-looking donors and INGOs have already started doing so. A more impactful shift in this direction will entail reforms that make relief efforts nimbler and more responsive to Syrians, who actually know the needs and do the work. Implementing partners certainly must improve, but they will do so far faster in a healthier relationship with their sponsors. And the responsibility for change lies first with the dominant party to this dynamic—grant-makers who are relatively experienced and self-assured, and are sparred the daily trauma of this conflict.

Donors who adapt in favor of a relationship based on genuine partnerships will soon discover that there is no shortage of local talent. To stay relevant, the aid regime needs help. And that help will come from Syrians.

There will be years of soul-searching to do on the many aspects of our failure in Syria, but humanitarian aid is one area that warrants bold and immediate action. The issue is not so much our inability to address the sheer magnitude of suffering and disruption, which may well be beyond anyone’s capacity to alleviate effectively. Rather, it relates to an unjustifiable paradox: Although aid and development programs have increasingly been driven by a desire to keep Syrians in or around Syria, they have also tended to disempower Syrians who want to stay and help others do so. Indeed, the relationship between international donors and local partners has continuously malfunctioned, despite obvious and attainable avenues for improvement.

Another, related paradox lies in the fact that Syria’s is arguably the best-documented crisis in history, and yet the multibillion dollar humanitarian response has remained hopelessly out of step with realities and priorities on the ground. Despite constant media coverage, abundant material from Syrians in the field, and sophisticated efforts by the aid & development community to track events and generate data, the relief effort has consistently failed to keep pace with the conflict’s escalation and evolution, with international priorities lagging months or even years behind developments in the field.

At the core of both paradoxes is the same challenge of linking a top-heavy international system with complex, fluid dynamics at the grassroots — a space where Syrians display the kind of agency that must be understood and harnessed if aid & development programs are to gain relevance and traction with the concerned.

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