Localization of aid and accountability to affected populations in Syria
A side event to the VIth Brussels Conference on supporting the future of Syria and the Region

05/05/2022 11:30-13:00 CET at Thon Hotel EU, Brussels

Conference report

This report summarizes the side event to the VIth Brussels Conference on supporting the future of Syria and the Region on localization of aid and accountability, co-organized by We Exist, the Syrian Civil Society Networks Platform, SHAML Coalition and UOSSM International. In accordance to the Brussels Conference’s principles, views, thoughts and opinions expressed during this event solely reflected those of the speakers and do not constitute endorsement by the EU or the UN. The event took place on the 5th of May 2022, from 11:30 to 13:00 (CET) at the Thon Hotel EU in Brussels. The conference was held in a hybrid format; one panelist had joined online, as well as participants. The discussion was moderated by Marjolein Wijninckx, Programme Lead for the Middle East at PAX, and gathered four speakers: Reem al-Haswani, Empowerment & Leadership Programs Manager at Women Now for Development (WNFD), Fadi Halisso, Co-founder of Basmeh & Zeitooneh Relief and Development, Shadi Shhadeh, Partners Relations Officer at UOSSM International and Wejdan Jarrah, Regional Representative for MENA at NEAR.

The question of localization of aid has been increasingly addressed during various discussions and seminars organized by or with donors and INGOs, since the “Grand Bargain” launched during the WHS in Istanbul in May 2016. However, only “very little progress” has been made according to several panelists, who claim there does not seem to be any real donors’ commitment to localization. Syrian organizations are getting funds based on projects, and not long-term partnerships and this constitutes a major issue. “Donors set the agenda and we are still considered as local implementers rather than active local citizens who hold rights” said Reem al-Haswani, Empowerment & Leadership Programs Manager at WNFD, as she denounced the “box ticking approach” that donors globally have when it comes to localization, causing various bottlenecks on organizations and their ability to respond to local communities’ needs. Over the discussion, many of these challenges arose from different panelists: the excessive centralization of International relief systems leads to a certain discrepancy between key decisions; the globally required overcompliance limits the access to funding, especially in Northern Syria, and it sometimes pushes local organizations to register and thus support conflict actors; the lack of time for project development hinders organizations from conceptualizing long term approaches and applying them; the results-based management of funds limits the possibility for learning and adapting progressively as organizations need to report successfully, given that future funds depend on it. As a matter of fact, several panelists seem to agree that funds are almost exclusively allocated for a short term, with overly optimistic goals, sometimes based on unrealistic assumptions, and considering organizations as subcontractors engaged to implement donors’ agenda. Shadi Shhadeh, Partners Relations Officer at UOSSM, explained the need for donors to mix both emergency and development based approaches: “as local actors, we have to acknowledge both compliance processes, enhance our capacities, develop our vision and use strategic thinking and planning outside of the emergency that our work was born into. We are still short on our aspiration; we need more dedicated efforts thus dedicated resources”.

As a matter of fact, after over a decade of response to communities’ needs, local organizations have demonstrated great operational, organizational, coordination and compliance skills. Yet, according to several panelists, this doesn’t seem to be enough for them to be considered equal partners by donors, despite the numerous capacity building sessions and trainings these workers attend; “sometimes we feel trapped forever in a capacity building academy that we don’t ever graduate from”, said Fadi Halisso, co-founder at Basmeh & Zeitooneh Relief and Development. The Syrian humanitarian needs have been increasing more rapidly than the capacity to address them. Local actors provide more access and more sustainable actions than others; yet their capacity depends on their relationships with the International humanitarian community. As some actors are working hard at engaging local communities at every stage, it is mostly crucial to involve them in the planning process. “Participation of local communities is key” said Wejdan Jarrah, Regional Representative MENA at NEAR; “without it, aid cannot be successful”. All four panelists agree and stress that point. Local actors know de-facto authorities and how to navigate their frameworks; they know the local context better than anyone and the needs that emerged from it. The proximity they have with local communities offers them the possibility to quickly acknowledge, understand and address their needs, at least much more rapidly than international organizations which would often still be pooling information and assessing needs from the ground as local actors would have already started deploying emergency aid. The example of the emergency response to snowstorms in camps, mentioned by Wejdan Jarrah and Fadi Halisso, perfectly illustrates the need for donors to acknowledge local organizations as equal partners and build trust relationships with them. Both panelists have witnessed the capacity of local actors to address the needs more rapidly but also to raise more funds from Syrians within the diaspora, than from donors, in a short period: “Bekaa was besieged by the snow for 2-3 months. No one comes prepared for this, except for local organizations. We launched a committee of organizations to secure emergency funds and managed to get 200k $ from Syrians across the world, as we got only 100k $ from all of our 35 partners. It’s shameful because the storm is not a surprise, it comes every year”, said Fadi Halisso, claiming that the Covid-19 pandemic has also shown how local organizations are better at quickly responding than INGOs. These numbers illustrate the issue of trust, which seemed easier to get from Syrian diaspora communities than from donors who may have had years of collaboration with these actors.

During this discussion, several solutions were recommended by panelists to donors. One concrete suggestion was that donors should commit to a certain percentage of funds dedicated for local organizations to develop projects’ agendas, and a monitoring mechanism should be set up to regulate that this percentage is respected. All organizations’ representatives agreed that donors should trust organizations more, share the projects’ implementation’s risks with them, be clear on their expectations from local organizations, build long term partnerships with them to try to implement new projects, and provide them with funds to set up their own agenda according to needs they observe on the ground. The idea of setting some criteria to define localization in agreed terms was also mentioned as an answer to the fact that donors seem to see localization differently than organizations on the ground do. Lastly, a great emphasis was given on the importance to give time and space for organizations to conceptualize relevant projects, and give them the time to be critical. “I call for you to stand by my side equally, in a meaningful way. Allow me to think on a longer term and to feel supported. Share risks with me and offer me a place to think, resources to innovate and space to have a critical thinking to reflect, discuss and then decide what and how best to act and react” said Shadi Shhadeh, as he openly addressed his demands to donors.