Flickr/Anthony Gale. Some rights reserved.The international ‘Supporting Syria’ conference in London today will serve to burnish yet further Britain’s reputation as an aid-giver. The £1.1 billion spent over the five years of the crisis makes us easily the biggest donor after the United States – more than the European Union and, as British officials like to point out, twelve times more than the French.
British aid is financing vital work both inside Syria and among the 4.4 million refugees in neighbouring countries. It is also aimed at achieving a series of self-serving national goals. For David Cameron, in his foreign policy speech at the Guildhall last November, British aid to the region has become “a fundamental part of our strategy to keep our country safe.” More than that, he said, it makes us “number one in the world for soft power,” and added this chest-thumping observation: “I can tell you that soft power packs a real punch.”
The outcome of the conference, which Britain co-chairs with Germany, Kuwait, Norway and the United Nations, will be judged by its results. Each year of the Syria crisis the needs have got larger, yet in 2015 international appeals amounting to $7.4 billion were only 53% funded. With neighbouring countries under mounting pressure, the appeal total this year has risen to almost $9 billion. How much of that will be raised and translated into aid?
The biggest challenges remain inside Syria where local services have been in free fall through the war.
Conference organisers have made one concrete commitment to refugee communities. At present there are 700,000 Syrian children, half the total living outside the country, who are receiving no education at all. Today there is undertaking to have them all in school by the end of the 2016/17 school year. Aid givers are also going to underwrite the creation of tens of thousands of jobs in the region for refugees and for the hard-pressed local communities which host them. Western domestic politics are at work here, too. These programmes are aimed specifically at keeping refugees in the region, and away from Europe.
The biggest challenges remain inside Syria where local services have been in free fall through the war and in many areas are in a state of total collapse. Civilians are by turn barrel-bombed by government aircraft and starved to death in towns under siege. With neighbouring countries restricting entry at crossing points, the uprooted now congregate in the grimmest of informal border camps.
Here too Britain has proved an effective aid-giver. Ministers have authorised up to half of all British assistance to Syria to be channelled across international borders rather than through Damascus. This proved a vital initiative in the first three years of the conflict when the United Nations was prevented by the government and its Russian allies from conducting any cross-border humanitarian operations at all. Even now what should be a large and consistent flow of UN aid is hampered by obstruction from the regime and diplomatic caution in New York.
Today We Drop Bombs, Tomorrow We Build Bridges: How Foreign Aid became a Casualty of WarThe Department for International Development does not distribute the aid itself in Syria but acts as what British officials term the ‘wholesaler.’ The ‘retailers’ are several big international NGOs. Save the Children, for instance, has a significant cross-border operation in northern Syria. The American non-profit Mercy Corps which was expelled from Damascus for its engagement in opposition areas has received more than £40 million from DFID to run food convoys into the north. There are other NGO ‘retailers’ not named, says DFID, “for security reasons (operating outside the UN led response.”)
All the real aid work in Syrian opposition areas is done by the Syrians themselves. Ever since the advance of Islamic State jihadists across northern Syria and the gruesome beheading of aid workers and journalists, westerners have been almost entirely absent from the field. Even the resourceful Médecins Sans Frontières has been forced to retreat and now works through a network of remotely-supported hospitals and clinics. Along with courageous civil society organisations, other local staff are employed in the war zone by Syrian Diaspora NGOs started up in Europe and the United States when the war began.
Here the British government aid machine and other official donors have work to do. Such is the west’s suspicion of Muslim charitable efforts in the world’s conflicts that it is seriously restricting the effectiveness of legitimate aid efforts. The need for control has led to easy-to-reach areas being favoured over the more distant and challenging. Similarly, official donors insist on relief goods being transported over borders rather than allowing cash to be used for local purchases and thus reach more people in more remote communities. New players in the aid world – from the Gulf States for instance – are said to be more flexible and very welcome.
Syrian diaspora charities in Britain complain of the level of petty and not-so-petty harassment they encounter on the way in and out of the country. A multiplicity of security agencies bear down on them at home where, it turns out, the night time knock on the door is not confined to Syria. Charity bank accounts are arbitrarily closed down, and executives say that their own Muslim donors prefer to use private, more dubious channels to help people back home rather than an NGO with a high profile.
Today’s London conference is the first of a series of major international gatherings that will respond this year to humanitarian needs in modern conflict. It might make a start by assessing the world’s catastrophic failure to stop the carnage in Syria and how this should be addressed for the future. After Rwanda and the Balkans in the 1990s, the UN’s great millennium project was ‘The Responsibility to Protect.’ Now it lies in ruins. Since David Cameron believes that Britain’s “soft power packs a real punch,” perhaps he could use it to help build a humanitarian system for the 21st century.