How to help Ukrainians: 3 lessons for aid groups from Syria

Syria-Ukraine Aid

Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty

A woman walks with a child in the Kurdish-run al-Hol camp in northeast Syria’s Hasakeh governorate, where relatives of suspected Islamic State (IS) group fighters are being held, August 18, 2021.

The massive flow of international support to Ukraine since Russia first invaded in February 2022 includes billions of dollars in military and humanitarian aid from dozens of countries.

We hope the war between Russia and Ukraine will not last as long as the ongoing conflict in Syria, which began in 2011 as a civil war sparked by a popular uprising to overthrow a entrenched authoritarian regime. Almost 7 million Syrians are still internally displaced, 6.6 million have fled the country and more than 60% of the population are at risk of starvation. The estimated death toll is between 350,000 and 605,000.

There are several parallels between the two tragedies. The first is that Russia is using tactics in Ukraine similar to those used in support of the Syrian regime, including a mix of indiscriminate and targeted bombings and sieges of key cities.

These attacks have deliberately killed civilians and destroyed homes, schools, hospitals, power grids and other infrastructure. The catastrophic destruction of Ukraine is leading to a serious humanitarian crisis which, as in Syria, has displaced millions. Other similarities include the involvement of foreign combatants and the international conviction of leaders for involvement in war crimes.

Another parallel is the involvement of many United Nations agencies and non-governmental organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Save the Children. We drew three lessons from Syria for these humanitarian agencies to consider, based on what we’ve learned from our research on humanitarian response there.

1. Let local organizations take the lead

After more than 10 years of war in Syria and worldwide efforts to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people, UN agencies and non-governmental organizations are still predominantly running the show. Humanitarian organizations generally use local groups as subcontractors who give orders on where and how to respond to local humanitarian needs. This arrangement is common because international donors rarely give direct funds to local organizations.

But our research has shown that organizations led by people living in a country experiencing upheaval are often best positioned to respond to the immediate humanitarian crisis with food, shelter, medicine and protection from violence. Local organizations understand exactly what civilians need in fast-moving wars, and they know how to navigate shifting frontlines, manage local gatekeepers, and find sanctuary in scenes of violence.

These organizations will remain in existence long after the NGOs and UN agencies have moved on.

And yet donors, UN agencies and NGOs tend to underestimate and cast aside local knowledge and skills.

Ukrainians spontaneously organized themselves to respond to the needs of their suffering compatriots. This means that the UN and NGOs have many potential Ukrainian organizations to work with on humanitarian operations. However, it remains to be seen whether they are willing or able to give local groups more space to take the lead.

2. Beware of the pitfalls of “remote management”

International organizations have a low risk appetite. This means that when conditions become dangerous, foreign aid workers and organizations often leave, leaving locals to take the risk and lead the operations. The humanitarian community calls this “remote management” because the people in charge are not physically present in the country.

Almost all foreign aid workers and international organizations left Syria in 2013. As security conditions in Ukraine deteriorate, we expect a similar tipping point – when most international organizations and foreign workers will relocate.

While the remote approach appears to cede authority to locals, in practice this is generally not the case. In Syria, most of the UN agencies and NGOs operating there tried to call the shots, but from a distance. They continued to hold the purse strings and make important decisions. They expected local organizations to do what they were told – including how and where to work.

Yet local organizations lack the security systems, insurance plans, survivor benefits, and ease of leaving the country that are available to aid group workers from Canada, the United States, France, and other Western countries.

That means local aid workers are typically at a higher risk of injury, kidnapping, and death.

3. Pay close attention to what people living with conflict say they need

Civilians experiencing conflict often develop adaptation strategies to protect themselves from violence and meet their basic needs. As one of us explains in a forthcoming publication, social connections in Syria have been essential to both spontaneous and organized survival strategies.

They can also help civilians find safe passages and set up warning systems against attacks. These informal networks also help people find financial support, develop alternative sources of energy, and get help to remote areas or places under fire. Friends and relatives help each other deal with the emotional trauma of war and the uncertainty of the future.

However, the international response to the war in Syria has shown that the UN agencies and international non-governmental organizations that dominate humanitarian action rarely engage with or support these grassroots survival strategies.

Instead, they continue to provide things like grocery baskets and hygiene kits, which may be necessary for some households but largely fall short of the needs of most Syrians.

Since the beginning of this conflict, Syrians have requested agricultural supplies so they can produce their own food and small loans to restart local businesses. They have asked for medical supplies, fuel and help in finding debris-clearing machinery. After more than a decade of international neglect and deliberate destruction by the Assad regime and allies, including Russia, Syria’s reconstruction will require large investments to repair communications systems, schools and hospitals, water treatment plants and power grids.

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Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine shows no sign of abating. The evidence points to destruction there on the scale seen in Syria, with chilling reports of human rights abuses and escalating humanitarian needs.

We believe that Ukrainian-led organizations and systems are best placed to assess, understand and respond to these needs and make decisions and priorities based on local knowledge and experience. These organizations will inevitably need financial and material support from international organizations and donors. But that doesn’t mean they have to be told what to do or how or where to do it.

It is unclear whether the international humanitarian system is ready and willing to relinquish this level of control.The conversation

By Kimberly Howe, Assistant Professor of International Relations, Tufts University and Elizabeth Stites, Associate Research Professor of International Relations, Tufts University

This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article. How to help Ukrainians: 3 lessons for aid groups from Syria

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