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Tom Fletcher: Syrian Children Must Not Pay Price of Failed Diplomacy

The former British ambassador to Lebanon and current director of the Global Business Coalition for Education discusses how to make sure the pledges made at the New York summits actually reach refugees, in the final part of our “Voices from the Summit” series.

Written by Preethi Nallu Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Mideast syria17
FILE - In this Feb. 11, 2016 file photo, a child navigates rubble and barbed wire in Aleppo, Syria. Alexander Kots/Komsomolskaya Pravda via AP, File

NEW YORK – Hailing from a family of teachers, Tom Fletcher, the tech-savvy former British ambassador to Lebanon, says, “Education was in my DNA.” After he wrapped up his post in Beirut last year, Fletcher immediately turned his efforts to what he calls the “unfinished business of the Syrian crisis”: educating Syrian refugee children.

Fletcher is currently director of the Global Business Coalition for Education – a branch of the international children’s charity Theirworld – which was set up to galvanize private-sector partnerships to increase enrollments of children in school around the world.

The former diplomat is known for his candor on the political impasse over the Syrian refugee crisis, as well as on various nations’ failures to deliver on their commitments. Last month, he wrote an open letter addressed to the children of Syria apologizing for the world’s failure to deliver the aid promised at an international donor conference on Syria that took place in London this February.

“Syrian children must not pay the price of failed diplomacy,” he said during a conversation with Refugees Deeply after the twin summits on refugees in New York last week. Fletcher also discussed the current flaws in the global humanitarian system, which relies on summits and pledges, and how aid could be more impactful by simplifying the transfer process from large-scale NGOs to refugees in need.

Refugees Deeply: What was pledged in New York is less than half of what was promised at the London conference, where you were quite active. But the money that states had pledged has not fully come through. Perhaps we could start with your impressions about these promises of aid?

Tom Fletcher: I think from now on, we shouldn’t allow governments to talk in terms of pledges anymore. I think we should only announce when people come along and say, “We have now given this much in the last six months.” The whole pledge thing is actually broken as a mechanism for fixing these big crises. I’ve been on the inside of so many of these government summits. I’ve seen how they work. There’s a process where everyone identifies the target, and the NGOs kind of agree what they’ll ask for, and then there’s a celebrity that comes along and there’s a hashtag. Clearly as we saw after London, so many of those pledges weren’t delivered. Now, there were some brilliant pledges delivered – thankfully the U.K. was among them – but many others didn’t follow through.

Refugees Deeply: Speaking to UNICEF and NGOs working on education, you realize that these pledges have to be made for multiple years. How are you pressing this point, as we are talking about consistent education and not just filling a gap of, say, six months?

Fletcher: Completely, and especially when you look at the Syrian situation. Even if there was a full peace agreement tomorrow, it takes time to resettle people and for the areas be ready for people to go home. So the education crisis is going to last some time, and one of the flaws in the donor model is that we ask local governments to give us long-term plans, but there are very few donors who commit money on a multi-year basis. This proves very difficult for the business and the humanitarian sectors to plan three to four years ahead when they don’t know where the funding will come from. This is why the Education Cannot Wait fund is so important, because it actually gives us a mechanism that can give us a bit more global long-term stability on the education side. That is a big jump forward.

Refugees Deeply: A recurring theme at the U.N. General Assembly has been about engaging local actors and civil society organizations – the people on the ground who know the situation quite well. How are you encouraging this?

Fletcher: In the past, the U.N. and other actors would come to businesses and say: “Look, we have this great program in Turkey. Can you give us 20 million of your corporate social responsibility money for it?” Businesses would say: “What’s in it for us? A couple of photos, bit of a tax write-off, happy days.” This is obviously not a real partnership. What we’re trying to do now is get people on the front line of the response system. We say: “Here is what we need – we need tents, or we need internet, or we need books.”

In this sense the private sector is very result-driven. They will deliver what they say, but for them it’s often hard to know where to fit in. They don’t always have the expertise or the local networks to know exactly where they can add most value. We have to find a collaborative approach – local governments, NGOs, businesses and the big donors working together.

Now that we have this database launched today, the next time there is a crisis, if there’s an earthquake somewhere, the U.N. rep would call us and say: “Do you have anyone who can offer paint for these buildings we’re rehabilitating? We can do everything else, but we’re missing paint.” And we’d say: “Sure, a paint company is going to come in and help with that.” And you know, we’d be able to go straight to the companies and get them to provide the needed support. It is much more of a 21st-century approach.

Refugees Deeply: Now that the pledges have been made, how do you set up a commitment tracker, let’s say for the next two-year period, to ensure that the aid comes through?

Fletcher: This is really important, and Theirworld produced a report about a month ago, which is worth reading, written by Kevin Watkins, which tracks all the commitments from the London summit in February and calls out the people who haven’t delivered. The NGOs work together very well, so Theirworld will stay in close contact with Oxfam, Save the Children, and collectively track those commitments.

For the London summit, we had people in the room literally jotting down the amounts, so we’ve got something to work against. One massive flaw in the system, though, is no one ever really knows what the numbers mean. The commitments are all in different currencies. They never really have a clear start or end date. So it’s very hard for the Jordanian, Turkish or Lebanese governments to even know what they’re getting because there are different types of commitments and different time periods.

One of the things we tried to do when I was in Lebanon was to set up a World Bank trust fund. So there was at least one vehicle into which everyone could put finances. But even then it is difficult to track who is paying when, how long the commitment is for and so on. I’m not suggesting it as a sense of corruption. But there’s complicity there between us all, which makes me skeptical.

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