The international community’s response to the Syria crisis has been unsatisfactory on many fronts, and humanitarian aid and development is no exception. While there has been renewed emphasis by development organizations on the importance of engaging local actors − notably highlighted in the new Sustainable Development Goals − the reality is this has been woefully lacking in practice. And Syria is simply one example of many where the failure of UN agencies and other humanitarian actors to partner with local actors has hampered the response to humanitarian crises.
The problem is that international agencies usually have high and unfair expectations from Syrian individuals and organizations, requiring them to speak the ‘language’ of development, meet international standards, and demonstrate a wide range of expertise. However, these demands are not reciprocated by international organizations and experts being expected to have the same depth of knowledge of the local context in which they are operating. In addition, while Syrian actors are expected to be neutral, impartial and politically unaffiliated, foreign aid appears to be driven − explicitly and unashamedly − by the political objectives of the donor countries.
There is a double standard at work. In many cases, international ‘experts’ on Syria have little local knowledge, but there are no channels to measure or question their level of expertise. At the same time, including local Syrians in decision-making is seen as a threat to predetermined objectives, rather than as an asset.
Syrians could add an indispensable source of knowledge and context to international agencies, as well as add local credibility. But too often they are brought on board to be part of the humanitarian and development picture or to get their simple feedback for evaluation and needs assessment reports to satisfy donors’ requirements, rather than employed as an integral component of designing and implementing projects. Though some of this is down to a pretext of lack of capacity, it raises the question of whether there is an international political willingness and genuine organizational courage to involve Syrians at programming, decision and policy making-levels.
The importance of local
The Syrian example is not isolated. While there is now a debate to encourage engaging local actors, this does not happen in practice. The Local to Global Protection Initiative study reported that local and national humanitarian actors received only 0.2% of the overall direct global humanitarian response in 2013.
Moreover, the international humanitarian and development systems are designed, together with foreign aid policy, to be self-contained and to exclude local actors. This allows donor governments to use the systems as political tools for leveraging control. It is equally difficult for both outsiders as well as insiders to understand how the system really functions. The UN-led coordination structure is one example of the heavy international architecture that remains unable to reform itself, learn from its previous mistakes, or to engage with local actors.
And that engagement matters. The Independent Research Forum emphasized in its brief in February 2014 how engaging local researchers and implementing bottom-up participatory learning can make countries better prepared to achieve the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals. Those goals, as well as the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit, highlight the importance of including local actors in the humanitarian and development responses.
Fortunately, such initiatives are creating a momentum within the development community to make radical changes through bottom-up approaches that put sustainability into practice. But if the Sustainable Development Goals want to affect real change, there will have to be a significant drive to move from rhetoric and ‘intentions’ to reality and actions. Currently it seems that the international community prefers to simply maintain the current status quo. It only takes a brief reflection on how many Syrians are included in every project or programme and how many Syrians are in positions to contribute at the policy and decision-making levels to realise the scale of the impetus required to change this system. To make that change might provide an opportunity for Syrians to restore some of the ownership to the outcomes and decisions of their conflict.
To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback