Questions remain as to how the money will be distributed, and how quickly, if at all, it will reach civilians in Syria’s hardest-hit areas, including opposition-controlled areas of Aleppo and Damascus’s Yarmouk refugee camp, where more than 50 people have died of starvation.
We asked Gareth Price-Jones, Syria country director for Oxfam, and Barak Barfi, a New American Foundation fellow studying Syria, to weigh in on the challenges ahead.
Syria Deeply: Now that it’s been pledged, where exactly will the money go?
Gareth Price-Jones: Basically the vast majority of the money will go to U.N. organizations like the World Food Programme and UNICEF. They, in turn, work closely in partnership with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) in government-controlled areas of Syria. A lot of money will go to those structures.
Oxfam’s program has $16-17 million, and there’s a number of NGOs with [about] that scale program. And there’s a small number of agencies currently working within Syria: most of them are working through SARC as well.
Barak Barfi: The Kuwaiti donors, for example, will use Kuwaiti NGOs that are operating in the region, or they’ll go through other organizations that have links in [neighboring] countries: Syrian NGOs funded by Kuwait. [That’s because] Syria has Provincial Councils, but they are comprised of people from inside Syria who haven’t travelled widely; they don’t have broad exposure and they’re not well-known outside the country.
I just talked to the head of the Aleppo Provincial Council and asked if he had been receiving aid from the Gulf, and he said no, they don’t give us money for the projects we ask for. Instead, Gulf-funded organizations will come in, like the Qatari Red Crescent.
What happens is that if you’re a Gulf country and you want to give a lot of money, you’ll funnel that to your local NGOs, like the Red Crescent, and have them distribute the aid for you on the ground. You’re funding your own organizations, which essentially function as ambassadors for your country in the region [Syria and its direct neighbors]. So donor countries like Kuwait will likely use their own NGOs and have them distribute this money.
SD: Where are these local conduit agencies working?
GPJ: Right across the country, agencies have different working areas. Agencies who were in Syria before the conflict [largely] work in the northeast, where the Iraqi refugees were. And agencies like Oxfam have now expanded into areas like Hama, Homs and Damascus. If they’re local Red Cross organizations, they then work with the SARC [where the SARC works].
SD: What are the challenges to distributing the aid?
GPJ: One is the physical access to people. It’s a really big deal for us to talk to people and decide what urgent needs are, and now we have to make a lot of assumptions about that. The security is a huge problem, but we also face constraints from the government about where we can travel.
A change in access is critical. It’s not about getting [our hands on] aid: we can get access to food and water, but until we get access to people, we can’t tell if that’s the assistance they need, or whether aid is going to the people who need it most. And we know that the aid is not getting into the areas where people need it most.
Other agencies are working across borders in the north in opposition-controlled areas. But again, their biggest constraint there is security. We’ve seen a lot who’d had to put their operations on hold because of staff kidnappings. We’re not able to do the kind of verification we’d normally do, to assess what the initial needs are. And we’re not able to do post-distribution monitoring. So at the moment, we’re measuring more input than we are actual impact on the ground. We can be sure we’re having impact but we can’t be sure we’re reaching most urgent [cases]. And even the $6.5 billion was a scaled down number; it’s nowhere near enough to reach the actual need.