CHALLENGES OF THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN INTERNATIONAL DONORS AND SYRIAN CIVIL SOCIETY
Lina Khatib, Lina Sinjab, Tamara Al-Rifai
Video interview by Lina Sinjab in collaboration with Joude Gorani.
Lina Khatib: A number of donors seem to be funding civil society projects in Syria that have a very short-term lifespan – for example, funding projects that only go on six months. What’s the danger of this short-term approach to project funding?
The danger to only having a short-term vision for projects by Syrian civil society inside Syria is that you do not allow these organisations to plan for sustainability. You do not allow them to feel secure in their planning, and you go against a basic principle for civil society development, which is looking at the medium to the longer term. Developing organisations or institutionalising civil society work takes from three to five years just to build and grow these organisations and then from five years onwards for them to become actual effective, efficient institutions.
Donors have concerns about whether or not these projects or their funding is going into the right hands, whether or not there is going to be a shift in the political situation in Syria that would no longer allow them to fund the way they currently do, especially in the case of civil society organisations or NGOs that are in areas either under opposition control or under contested control. These concerns by donors often make them think very short term, so that they do not expand their responsibility, or even accountability over their money, into the unknown, so into the future. But this has very dangerous effects on the sustainability, and even the development and the morale, of Syrian NGOs.
Is there a danger that when the donors retreat, after finishing a short-term project, that some other actors with ulterior motives might zoom in and try to present themselves as alternatives to local residents in a particular area who, until that moment, had some of their needs covered by those projects that have now ended?
Exchanging favours or exchanging services for loyalty or allegiance has always been a tool used by political actors. This isn’t particular to Syria. Different political or religious groups have often attracted followers not necessarily because of what they represent intellectually or religiously, but because of the services that they offer.
A donor never goes into a funding opportunity thinking that this will be funded forever. Any serious organisation or NGO will seek to become financially autonomous within a few years, either because it can eventually raise funds from other sources or because it has established itself enough and is able to run because it has projects that are income generating.
However, yes, one can see situations where the abrupt cutting or the early cutting of funds to a project that seems to be running, and popular, and attracting people in a local community, may seem like an opportunity for political or religious groups to take over that project (for motives that are different from those of the NGO that had established the project). An NGO would be seeking to empower a community. An NGO is seeking to, maybe, patch part of a community together around a service, whether it’s a school or whether it’s a project to counter gender-based violence or to empower women.
Political or religious groups generally tend to use these projects to attract loyalty to the ideas that the political or religious group is seeking to promote. That’s a completely different approach from constructively building civic engagement and a civil society.
What about this argument that we often hear that there is a danger of money going into the wrong hands? This argument is being used right now in the debate about humanitarian aid and assistance going to NGOs in Idlib. Some within policy circles in certain Western countries are saying that this kind of funding should be cut completely, as a way to put pressure on the main armed group that is now present in Idlib, which is Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham.
This is a conflict. Like every conflict, we cannot have completely distinct categories: armed group, medical services, schools, feeding centres. Conflicts are situations where everything is a bit merged, where an armed group controls the territory and is composed of fighters who have families and whose families are, therefore, civilians who also are entitled to aid.
Diversion of aid and diversion of aid money is also typical of every conflict. Every conflict will have situations where groups that control territories also control access to either funding or humanitarian assistance, because these groups feel that they are also entitled to receiving that aid and to taking some of the food parcels home, or even to controlling the funds that the territories in which they operate receive, because they have priorities, or they see priorities in their communities that are different from those of the donors or aid agencies.
The donors may now be focusing on gender-based violence, and the armed group that controls a territory might see famine looming, so they want to support food rather than education or psychosocial support. This is not a justification. This is just to say that in situations of complex humanitarian emergencies, like the situation in Syria, and situations where humanitarian emergencies are the result of very complex armed conflicts, with very varied armed groups, it’s standard to have aid diverted, and aid controlled, and aid used as a tool. This of course is unacceptable under international law and under humanitarian principles, but unfortunately in every complex conflict, parties try to politicize aid.
Donors’ concerns are therefore legitimate, particularly in the framework of the fight against terrorism. But donors are also requested to keep an open mind and – precisely to go back to your first question – to fund the organisations, or the individuals, or the groups, or the movements that have been credibly believed to be professional, transparent, and really servicing the community.
So can we say that donors need to continue seeking what I call the “pockets of hope” that still remain on the ground in Syria, instead of taking a black-and-white approach built on the idea that if an area sees an armed group being in military control of that area, then we should write it off and cut all aid to it”?
Absolutely; absolutely. “Pockets of hope” is really the right word because, if there is any patching up or any resemblance to – “reconciliation” is even a big word – communities coming back together, it will be thanks to organisations that have worked relentlessly and throughout several years of conflict on the same basis, based on the same values and principles, and here I mean independent NGOs. Regardless of their political affiliation or their ideological affiliations – pro-democracy, pro-change, etc. – they have been part of the community, servicing the community, receiving funds to develop that community and to stay within the community.
Donors should live up to their commitments – the commitments that they have always voiced in international conferences on Syria about the importance of civil society groups and the importance of grassroots movements. If these are so important, then the commitment should continue, and then the funding and the support should continue.
Today there is a concern about fighting extremist groups in Syria. This concern is translating increasingly into support for military action, such as the action of the international anti-ISIS coalition that is now aiming to liberate Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor. Do you think that the civil society dimension of the fight against extremism remains under-studied or given less attention than it should be?
Yes, I do believe that there hasn’t been enough attention given to civil society and given to the phenomena of developing burgeons of civil society across Syria. We should always remind ourselves that Syria is a place where, prior to 2011, there was almost no civil society work per se, as there was no independent space where different organisations and different groups, different intellectuals, the media, and the academia worked as a buffer to different politics and to different political entities.
Such groups have been able to develop in Syria since 2011, and some of them have developed along the values that represent the mindset of civil society and of civic engagement, but these are the groups that seem to have suffered the most. They have been completely sandwiched in the middle of military operations and military allegiance, and even religious and ideological allegiance. The groups that have managed to steer clear from political and religious affiliations are the ones that deserve to be reinforced, and to be supported, and to be highlighted. They have not been supported enough.
How difficult will it be for donors to identify such groups in an area like Raqqa or Deir ez-Zor?
Donors should not play tongue in cheek. Donors have known for the last six years who these groups are. Donors have already supported many of them. Donors use representatives and spokespeople from these groups when they need them at international advocacy events and organisations, so donors know them. There is a vetting mechanism that is in place in the international aid and international advocacy circles, so donors already know who these people are.
Donors are also already extremely engaged in various constellations: movements that support women’s empowerment, movements that support child education, movements that work against child marriage. These are movements that are composed of Syrian NGOs and Syrian civil society groups. Donors already know them, so I don’t think we should be going around in circles.
Can these kinds of organisations play a role in what is termed “stabilisation” following the military defeat of extremist groups in certain areas, particularly with the debate on the establishment of de-escalation zones?
They can definitely play a role if they are given the space. If these stabilisation areas become areas where there is crackdown on civil society, then these groups will not be able to work. I’m glad you’re bringing this up, because I believe that allowing or providing enough space for civil society groups that are already present in areas that are becoming de-escalation or stabilisation zones, allowing them to continue working, must be posed as a precondition for the establishment of those stabilisation areas.
Otherwise, what’s the point? These organisations, if they are intimidated, if they come under pressure, they’re going to have to move out or suspend their activities. In that case, they will not be able to draw on the influence that they have on a particular community to help patch up some of the differences and be constructive in looking forward beyond the conflict.
Tamara Alrifai is a Communications and Advocacy specialist with over 15 years of experience working with humanitarian and human rights organizations. She is currently a Communications Advisor working at the United Nations. Prior to that, she worked at Human Rights Watch (HRW) as the Advocacy and Communications director for the Middle East and North Africa. Before HRW, Tamara had worked for over a decade with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in various countries including Sudan, Egypt, Nepal and at the ICRC's delegation to the United Nations in New York.
Tamara is a native of Syria, with a BA in Political Science from the American University in Beirut and an MA in International Studies from the University of Birmingham, UK.