The truth behind the UN's $1.5bn aid pledge to Syria
A Syrian girl stands at the entrance of a makeshift home set up in the catacombs of the ruins of a building in the ancient Roman city of of Serjilla, in northwestern Syria, on Monday. (AFP Photo/Daniel Leal-Olivas)
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In late January the United Nations raised more than $1.5 billion in just one day’s worth of pledges at their conference in Kuwait. The money was intended for the suffering masses of Syria’s civil war but critics say most of the aid will never reach the rubble-strewn streets of Aleppo, Idlib and Homs.
The burden of delivering the aid rests on the shoulders of the ten NGOs that the Syrian government approved prior to the start of the uprising in March 2011. The problem is that those NGOs aren’t able to operate in the places that need them most, although that’s not a truth they will readily or publicly admit to.
But the incompetence of local NGOs isn’t the only problem that the pledges will have to face.
While much of the media coverage has focused on the Syrian refugees registered in neighboring countries, the majority of ‘refugees’ are internally displaced within Syria. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, there are around 590,000 Syrian escapees, compared to 2.5 million internally displaced people.
Only about one third of the money pledged in Kuwait will go to in-country aid programs. That’s about $1,600 for every refugee, compared to about $208 for every internally displaced Syrian.
And that one third will have to battle through an almost impossible assault course to find the people that need it most.
The Syrian government has been accused of stopping aid deliveries but even without their influence, a journey that took less than four hours before the uprising can now take more than ten, replete with bombs and artillery shells to dodge and a plethora of territory governed by warlords to navigate.
Most international organizations must work through local NGOs to provide aid to Syrians. It is a further layer of bureaucracy that threatens to cut off supplies from the most vulnerable.
The few local organizations that do exist - such as the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) - are patrons of President Bashar al-Assad, his family and other top regime officials. Of course, SARC is staffed by ordinary aid workers, struggling to do some good in incredibly dangerous conditions.
But the head of SARC is Dr. Abdul Rahman al-Attar, who also owns the Attar Group, an organization accused of being an auxiliary medical service for the Syrian Army.
Many of the local organizations are accused of political motives and will only deliver aid to “official structures” — code for regime ministries. So it’s near impossible that any aid delivered to these groups will find its way to the makeshift field hospitals that spring up to treat the wounded.
Yet another roadblock on the path to delivering aid is the implementation of international law. Under their own regulations, UN agencies are banned from distributing in rebel-held areas without government approval.
Unsurprisingly, President Assad’s government is not keen to allow the aid workers in. There have been notable exceptions, such as a January delivery oftents and blankets to Azzaz refugee camp in Aleppo province. However, according to the UN, in Idlib, where some of the worst suffering is happening, only 11% of the World Food Program’s food aid has been delivered.
Some have argued for increasing donations to groups willing to provide direct aid in breach of international law. But there would undoubtedly be huge problems with smaller organizations attempting to absorb and distribute supplies. Keeping the process transparent would be impossible.
There is no doubt that there needs to be a rethink of how aid is delivered in Syria. The question is whether the facts on the ground will permit it, and whether corruption and political complications can be overcome.
Where do you stand in the debate over aid to Syria? Do you think there is a way aid could be delivered more efficiently? Let us know your thoughts!