Local NGOs and diaspora groups involved in frontline aid delivery in Syria want more recognition from the wider humanitarian community as well as the chance to access direct funding, rather than working merely as silent implementers for international NGOs.
Relations between local and international aid agencies are often uneasy - and the topic is likely to feature prominently on the agenda at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul – but the scale of the Syrian crisis, as well as access and security challenges, have raised the stakes.
Limited communication due in part to language and cultural barriers but also to concerns around terrorism has led to parallel and duplicated operations, competition for donor funding, staff poaching and a general feeling of mistrust.
And as the Syrian crisis enters its fifth year, there are growing calls for more equitable partnerships between international and local players, as well as more flexibility and creativity in how aid is delivered and by whom, to ensure the greatest number of people are reached.
Fadi Al-Dairi quit a safe private sector job in the UK to co-found Hand in Hand for Syria, one of a number of diaspora groups formed in response to the conflict, and one which has since become a major aid and healthcare provider to communities inside Syria.
As well as delivering food, water and other supplies, the NGO supports hospitals with skilled staff and ambulances, trains Syrian doctors and runs field clinics across the country.
Sometimes it uses its own funding to carry out distributions, but often it works as a so-called implementing partner for international NGOs “who act as middlemen securing funding from donors and then passing it onto us so we can do the donkey work,” Al-Dairi told IRIN, on his way to the Hand in Hand office in Gaziantep, southern Turkey, from where much aid into northern Syria is co-ordinated.
Sometimes, the international NGOs do not reveal their local partners to donors and often contractually the local partners are not allowed to say which NGOs they are working for.
“Last week I was talking to a Western diplomat and it turned out his government had been supporting one of our hospitals for two years, but they had no idea, nor did we know where the money had been coming from,” Al-Dairi said.
He wishes his organisation had more direct access to donors. “We would save them money,” he said. “The international NGO wouldn’t need to take a cut and we spend less on overheads and staffing costs than they do.”
He would also like to be more involved in planning aid programmes.
“Too much seems to be about what donors want to fund rather than what needs money,” he said, noting last month Hand in Hand for Syria had been forced to shut a surgical hospital in the suburbs of Aleppo because the donor wanted to focus its support on child and maternal health instead.
But UN agencies that could fund such groups directly do not know enough about them to fully trust them.
Counter Terrorism Fears
Many donor countries have beefed up their counter terrorism laws, forcing aid agencies to carry out ever-more stringent checks on how money is spent and to whom aid is dispersed.
“The Syrian NGOs are absolutely key to the humanitarian response and of course they would like more direct access to funding…. but as organisations they come in all shapes and sizes,” explained Barbara Shenstone, head of the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Turkey.
“International donors are under a lot of political pressure to make sure their funds don’t fuel the conflict by supporting inadvertently or deliberately an armed group, so everyone has to be a bit cautious,” Shenstone said.
Counter-terror legislation has also hampered smaller NGOs and fundraising groups working in Syria, many of whom have experienced bank account closures due to a practice known as “de-risking”, in which banks cut off low-profit and supposedly “high risk” customers.
“Our accounts have come under a lot of scrutiny and it’s a real problem because when funds are frozen, we can’t pay for basic things like car hire and petrol and that impacts our ability to deliver aid to people in need,” Al-Dairi said.
“Last week the bank phoned me to query a donation of 50 euros – that is how paranoid people are. I have no idea where it came from. Our bank details are online, so anyone can donate – that is the point.”
The European Commission's humanitarian aid arm, ECHO, together with EU member states, is the largest contributor of humanitarian aid to the Syrian crisis.
ECHO’s legal requirements limit it to working only with organisations with whom it has signed a Framework Partnership Agreement, an ECHO-specific scrutiny process.
“But in Syria, we do engage significantly with local organisations as first-line implementers and key responders on the ground,” said Youcef Hammache, head of ECHO’s office in Syria.
He added that consultations with local implementing partners were “regularly taking place”.
The tensions in the relationship between local and international groups in Syria were cited in a new report by the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) in London, which called for a more flexible approach and more equitable partnerships.
“Whenever we discuss how we operate with actors who are less well-established in the formal system, we tend to emphasize the differences, rather than focus on the similarities and how we can build on that,” noted report co-author and HPG director Sara Pantuliano.
“I think what we really need is a shift in mindset,” she said. “Emergencies by nature evolve rapidly and dynamically and if you want systems that can match that you need a variety of actors and a variety of capabilities and experience.”
Capacity and experience are major challenges. Syrian organisations formed overnight by individuals with limited knowledge of the humanitarian sector have struggled to keep up with the bureaucratic demands of working with international aid agencies.
“Some Syrian NGOs can have problems writing the proposals. They may have trouble with language, or with demonstrating that they can procure things in an honest way,” explained OCHA’s Shenstone. “It’s not that they are not honest; it’s just that they haven’t learned yet how to meet the audit expectations of an international donor.”
When Al-Dairi started out in humanitarian work, he admits he and his colleagues did not have experience, so international NGOs gave them some training on writing reports and doing assessments.
“But it was only a limited amount,” he said, “and for instance, if we file a report that’s not very good, we don’t feel we get honest feedback. They will just rewrite it themselves to submit it to the donor. Sometimes I think it’s as if they don’t want us to get better.”
International agencies say they have tried to incorporate Syrian NGOs into coordination structures, give them a voice in strategic planning, and engage in a real dialogue with them.
“We have worked together to develop common messages for advocacy to ensure Syrian NGOs are able to access the same resources as [international] NGOs,” Emily Dakin, the coordinator of the Forum for NGOs operating in northern Syria, told IRIN. “However, even with the efforts made by the humanitarian community, challenges remain and gaps continue to exist.”
Shenstone said OCHA had hired Syrian staff “specifically to engage with Syrian NGOs” and that Syrian groups had been invited to take part in formal meetings, known in the industry as clusters and sectors..
“Are we there yet?” she said. “No, but things are moving in the right direction.
“Everybody needs each other and there is room for everybody, but when you have different nationalities, different cultures, different languages, different ways of doing things, there is bound to be a period of adjustment, of getting to know each other.”
The HPG report concluded: “The question is not which of the two groups is better: both have their limitations, as well as capabilities and potential.
“The formal system has its place just as local actors do. The question is how they can work together where doing so will enhance the humanitarian response, while also recognising that at times they will choose to operate separately.”