When we speak of aid being provided in Syria, of emergency medical response – of food kitchens, basement schools, trauma counselling, media training, agricultural programmes – we speak almost always of the work of Syrians on the ground. Syrians who came from a country where the government had repressed any attempts at real civil society development. Yet, despite these odds, it did grow in the midst of the ongoing conflict.
Violence, brutality and death have dominated reporting on Syria, overshadowing the opinions and activities of this fledgling civil society. But as civil society spaces in both government and opposition-held areas have begun once again to close from several different directions, it is important to understand this untold story.
New research from Christian Aid documents Syrian voices on civil society. As well as sharing their views on how civil society has developed and changed, they also discussed the impact of the international community on it. And they made suggestions for changes in international practice to support Syrian civil society organisations (CSOs), emphasising the need to act quickly to grasp the potential for supporting a democratic, open, pluralistic civil society before it disappears.
International funding: a boon and a curse
At the start of the conflict, grassroots civil society organisations (CSOs) emerged in order to respond to the situation on the ground, and in various places to work on rights and advocacy. But a huge influx of international funding – which has undoubtedly saved many lives - quickly transformed these grassroots initiatives into organisations managing multi-location, high-budget projects.
This profoundly influenced work inside Syria. It required Syrian CSOs to be subject, most of the time, to what donors saw as the priority work, which frequently did not align with what locals felt was most important. One respondent, who had been involved in non-violent, pro-democracy activism since the beginning of the protests in 2011, remarked: “with good intentions, the international community changed the civil society from activists to workers.”
International standards, local actors
With international funding also came international humanitarian standards, imposed on inexperienced CSOs. Funding was seldom matched by sufficient resources to build the capacity needed to manage it according to the standards imposed by donors.
Respondents discussed the practical challenges in providing multi-layered paper-trails of proof of money transfer, mileage of project vehicles or beneficiary names, and the security risks of carrying particular types of documentation. Over the years, these challenges have been raised with the donor community, but little has changed.
From development work to humanitarian work
One Syrian civil society expert described this “NGO-isation” as a “killing point” for CSOs in Syria, as they began to work on projects dictated by funders which often ignored their knowledge of their country and how its needs could best be met.
This has been most keenly felt in the last year as many donors have shifted the focus of their work in opposition-held areas from development to humanitarian projects. One Syrian representative of a European international NGO said this fuelled distrust of the international community, commenting: “I find it quite shameful how some of the donors have withdrawn money just because of who is governing the area. It’s really sending the wrong signals, it’s not about solidarity, and it’s not about standing up for the values we purport to support.”
Ongoing impact of the conflict
As the conflict continues and Bashar Assad’s government re-gains control of opposition areas, respondents narrated the profound impact on civil society: “All the areas that the regime got control over again, no continuation of work for civil society was allowed. Those who stayed either got arrested or had to keep a really low profile”.
Looking towards the future, another commented, “people now just bury their thoughts, their beliefs, their ideology. But just for now, I believe, not forever.”
Hopes and fears
Many respondents said that in an ever-shrinking space, the fight for civil society to exist was going to be long haul. But they also said that before the conflict, space to think and to speak out had not existed in most people’s living memory, and that this space would not easily close. They hoped that the spirit of change manifested in the creation of so many organisations would somehow continue in the shadows in government-held areas.
But there was also fear that the state would win. Hope, then, is not enough. Some kind of space, no matter how small, needs to be supported by the international community – even in the absence of major projects. One Syrian NGO worker underlined this, saying that: “maintaining space is a worthy goal. If you don’t maintain that space, what takes over? Darkness!”
What can the international community and media do?
A long-term view must apply to funding CSOs. There are still many capable organisations working in Syria; some still aspire to an open, independent, pluralistic civil society, and are intent on upholding those values. These organisations should be sought out and supported to continue their work.
In supporting Syrian civil society, it is important for the international community to recognise the impact of their own strategic decisions – for example, to shift from one kind of intervention to another – on local organisations. One way of achieving this recognition is to speak to those on the ground to understand context, risk and challenges. Another practical step is to ensure that funding is adequate to allow Syrian CSOs to meet international standards. Further, a shift from big-budget, complex programmes to smaller, localised projects that will allow work to continue in both government and non-government held areas.
For the media, there is a need to tell the untold story. Expanding representation of the conflict to highlight the stories of Syrian civil society - its wins, and its challenges – would go some way to holding back the darkness that threatens to fall over those who continue to work for change against the odds.
Read the full report by Christian Aid here