On How the Aid Industry Failed Syrians

March 21, 2017

“It failed,” explained Marcell Shehwaro, “because it did not listen to Syrians. They [the aid industry] wanted to impose things on us.”

Shehwaro, who is the executive manager of Kesh Malek, went on to say that this situation has not changed, noting, “We are fighting to be taken seriously on a daily basis.” One example of how Syrian-based NGOs are not being taken seriously is that they have not been invited to the Brussels Conference on ‘Supporting the future of Syria and the region’ that will take place on April 5, 2017. Shehwaro and others, including Assaad Al Achi and Ibrahim Olabi, are continuing to pressure to be “taken seriously” – and to be invited to Brussels. “We are developing a list of priorities. If nothing else works, we will have our own event,” said Al Achi, a Syrian economist, civil society activist, and executive director of Baytna Syria.

The panelists agreed that there were things that aid organizations could do to improve the way they operate: cooperate among themselves; support long-term initiatives (mentorship not five-day training courses); and provide targeted and short-term expertise when – and only for as long as – it is needed. Shehwaro commented, “The best international expert is the one who is willing to leave when I’ve learned. They are going to leave. I’m going to stay. I need to become the expert.”

Olabi, who is the founder of the Syrian Legal Development Programme (SLDP), said that one of the reasons that the aid industry had failed in Syria is that it has operated within the constraints of a state-based system that was set up by the UN after the end of World War II. Instead of working to change the rules of this system, the aid industry decided to abide by it. In this way, said Al Achi, it prioritized the rights of states over the rights of victims. Current rules, for example, restrict cross-border relief operations making it impossible for many people to get the assistance they need. “The aid industry in Syria is in crisis. It has failed completely,” said Al Achi.

International law has failed Syria in other ways as well. Olabi pointed out that because personal status documents can only be issued by the state, there are now many children in Syria who don’t have birth certificates or graduation certificates – documentation they need now and will need in the future to secure their rights.

The failure of the international law community can be seen most dramatically in the lack of response to what Olabi described as a “series of blatant illegal immoral acts.” These include dropping incendiary weapons on civilian targets, targeting humanitarian relief convoys, and using chemical weapons on civilians. Olabi pointed out, for example, that hospitals are not being hit accidentally. They are being targeted. “Things are happening in the open but states are refusing to deal with it,” he said.

Shehwaro, Olabi, and Al Achi strongly criticized the decision not to address the issue of transitional justice at the Brussels Conference in April. “Justice has been left off the agenda,” said Olabi. Al Achi commented, “When we raise these issues, we are accused of being warmongers. We are just trying to say that it is hard to imagine peace without justice,” he said.

Peter Harling pointed out that humanitarian aid takes place in a context and that a number of international conflicts have been mismanaged in recent years as individuals and organizations adjust to a world in which western domination has been challenged. “No one knows what to do,” he said. Harling said that the Syrian regime had taken advantage of this confusion.

All of the panelists commented on the difficulty of working with aid organizations that require an enormous amount of documentation, reporting, and vetting. “We have turned humanitarian aid into a bureaucratic challenge,” said Al Achi. Peter noted that many in the aid industry understand “how bad it is” but were not sure what to do. Shehwaro pointed out that some of the misguided initiatives that donor organizations pursue – spending “huge amounts of money” on five-day training events at five-star hotels, for example – are “ruining ideas that will matter some day.”

Assaad Al Achi, Peter Harling, Ibrahim Olabi, and Marcell Shehwaro made their comments during “The Third Lemkin Reunion: How the Aid Industry Failed Syrians” at the Shattuck Center on Conflict, Negotiation and Recovery on March 20, 2017.