Barak Barfi is a Research Fellow at the New America Foundation, where he specializes in Arab and Islamic affairs. He recently returned from Aleppo. Barak writes often for publications including The International Herald Tribune, The New Republic, the Washington Post, Foreign Policy and The Atlantic, and is a regular guest on CNN, Fox News Channel, France 24 and other international networks. He is based between the U.S. and the Middle East.
Among camera flashbulbs in Kuwait’s five-star hotels this week, the United Nations raised more than $1.5 billion in pledges to help civilians embroiled in Syria’s civil war.
But far from the media glare, in the muddy, rubble-filled streets of Aleppo, few will benefit from the aid.
From international legal hurdles to bureaucratic limitations, non-governmental organizations (NGO) will be unable to help more than a sliver of those in need.
The dilemma NGOs face – but are reluctant to discuss – is that most of them simply cannot work in Syria.
NGOs need authorization from host governments to work in their nations. But Syria has not allowed any new groups to enter the country since the uprising began in March 2011. This leaves the burden of aid distribution to the less than ten organizations the government authorized before hostilities broke out.
Though 592,969 Syrians have fled the country, about 2.5 million are internally displaced, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Yet of the $1.5 billion the UN’s donor nations pledged in Kuwait, only $519 million is earmarked for use in Syria.
This means that while each Syrian refugee outside Syria will receive $1,654 in aid spending, ailing civilians in the country will each get only $208.
The few NGOs on the ground are finding it difficult to maneuver between the warring parties, the Assad regime and Free Syrian Army-led opposition.
Sometimes the government hampers their work. But mostly the terrain has become so dangerous that a four and a half hour road trip from Damascus to the northern city of Idlib has been transformed into a ten-hour adventure, complete with dodging war planes and constant artillery shelling.
Lavishing these organizations with more aid will not solve this problem.
And other challenges stem from the nature of operating in an authoritarian country like Syria.
Few international NGOs work directly with the Syrian population. Instead, they utilize local Syrian groups to distribute aid. But in a country where the regime requires groups to ask for permission to hold meetings fifteen days in advance, there are no civil society organizations.
Instead, there are a few associations with ties to senior officials who offer them the patronage and protection they need to operate. Funneling aid to these organizations (which often, thanks to said patronage, have a political agenda) hardly ensures that civilians in rebel held territories will receive the help they so desperately need.
Other groups note that they only distribute aid to “official structures,” a code name for government ministries, as a Damascus-based NGO worker told me earlier this month.
But in a war where hospitals have become choice targets, doctors have moved to secret clinics to treat the wounded. Because these makeshift centers are not “official structures,” some NGOs refuse to support them, leaving physicians without the medication and supplies they need.
Beyond the ideological challenges and funding stipulations lie the more practical difficulties of aid distribution.
Of the $1.04 billion the UN said NGOs needed to cope with the humanitarian fallout from the Syrian conflict in its January edition of the Syrian Regional Response Plan, $764 million, or 73.2 percent, was allocated for three of its agencies.
The next largest non-regional NGO in terms of funding was the Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development, with a comparatively paltry $19.8 million.
These UN organizations are barred by international law from delivering aid through rebel controlled border crossings without the consent of the Syrian government. But since none has been forthcoming, they have largely been confined to the regions surrounding Damascus where there is only sporadic fighting and internal migration.
It is the rebel controlled provinces of Aleppo and Idlib that are most in need of gas and bread. But logistical and legal constraints will ensure that these regions are the least likely to benefit from the UN’s Kuwait pledge drive.
Though the Syrian government decided to allow the UN’s World Food Programme to import more fuel and wheat into the country, it is doubtful the rebel held areas will receive these basic necessities.
According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the WFP has only been able to provide food to 11 percent of those in need in Idlib province. This figure is by far the lowest of all the governates in which it operates.
What can be done?
Some have argued that what is needed is a mechanism that places more money in the coffers of NGOs willing to violate Syrian sovereignty and less in the war chests of risk-averse UN bureaucrats who have international reputations to uphold.
But such an approach overlooks the realities of technical capacity.
Local and foreign NGOs simply do not have the ability to absorb such massive amounts of money. At the top of the list is the Syrian Red Crescent Society, which has been distributing medical supplies in the country. When the group mobilized to deal with a refugee crisis stemming from the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, NGO officials scoffed at the idea it would succeed.
“A prospect that embassy interlocutors contemplated with something akin to dread,” noted an American diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks.
More experienced international NGOs face the same dilemma.
Veterans such as Mercy Corps and Oxfam only requested $20.1 million between them, according to the UN’s Syrian Regional Response Plan.
If even only 10 percent of the $764 million earmarked for the three largest funded UN agencies was shifted to these two organizations, they would likely be hard pressed to allocate it this year.
A boost of $38.2 million over its current budget would make Syria Oxfam’s largest country of operations. It would be forced to scramble to staff positions and build the infrastructure necessary to distribute such massive amounts of aid.
But even if such NGOs are able to absorb substantial aid increases, there’s no guarantee that they will be able to distribute it to the provinces of Aleppo and Idlib, both of which border Turkey.
Of the $1.04 billion the UN said it needed in its January Syria Response Plan, only 15.2 percent was budgeted for Turkey. Lebanon, which had a similar number of refugees, was earmarked 25.6 percent of the aid. And of the $158.6 million allocated to Turkey, the UNHCR was budgeted more than 68.7 percent of the financial pie — because only a handful of the smaller non-UN NGOs are operating in the country.
NGO officials note that Ankara has erected numerous hurdles for organizations wanting to register in the country. And the lucky ones that do are kept on a short leash by a government that seemingly wants to control virtually every detail of the relief effort.
The Turkish Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH) is largely directing aid distribution in refugee camps that are operated by the government. In other countries neighboring Syria, it is the UN rather than the host nation that is managing the camps.
Throwing more money at organizations that cannot overcome Turkey’s legal barriers will not help the Syrian civilians who are in need.
NGOs need to find creative ways to ensure aid reaches the war torn regions of Aleppo and Idlib.
Until they do, conferences like the one held yesterday in Kuwait will do little to alleviate the suffering residents there experience on a daily basis.