By Anna R. Hurt

Syrian refugees have found temporary safety in Kafar Kahel informal settlement in the Koura District, in Lebanon, on June 2, 2014. Photo © Dominic Chavez/World Bank
Some Syrian refugees have found temporary safety in Kafar Kahel informal settlement in the Koura District of Lebanon (Photo by Dominic Chavez, World Bank)

“There is no clear end, there is a political frame that is very complex, and it’s easy to say ‘I can’t do something.’ That conclusion is false.” When it came to talking about the lag in funding for the Syrian humanitarian crisis, now in its’ fourth year, Sam Worthington minced few words.

Worthington, president and CEO of InterAction, along with Ed Cain, vice-president of grant programs for The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, and Lana Asfour, a journalist who has reported extensively on the refugee crisis in Lebanon, were united in saying the needs in Syria and the accompanying refugee issues in surrounding nations are great, and those needs warrant the attention of donors, large and small. The three spoke June 3, 2014, during a Center for Disaster Philanthropy webinar, “The State of Syria: What Donors Can Do,” sponsored by The UPS Foundation.

The conflict in Syria is currently in its’ fourth year.  There are more than 9 million people in need of humanitarian assistance within Syria, according to USAID, and more than 3 million refugees in the surrounding nations of Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt.

Cain said the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation made the decision to allocate $1.2 million to two non-governmental organizations working to provide relief in Syria because of a realization that globally, organizations should “step up to the plate.” (Click here for more on the HIlton’s Foundation’s support for Syrian relief.)

“One of our primary driving factors was to set an example,” Cain said. “This is not a burden that should fall entirely on the shoulders of the adjacent countries.”

All three speakers highlighted the breadth of needs in Syria: food, water, health, education, psychological care, job pilots in host communities, and advocacy.

Asfour said the lack of routine health provision is devastating.

“Deaths due to people not having the routine things they need for health conditions such as diabetes or epilepsy are far greater than conflict injuries,” she said.

Asfour also discussed her observations of needs while visiting camps in Lebanon.  Besides the health and medical needs, shelter and education were largely under-funded and unmet areas.

“One in every five people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee and that [figure] is increasing every day,” Asfour said. “There are camps everywhere, which are informal settlements that are not confined to a particular area.”

Education and the needs of children become even more pronounced in these areas of informal settlements, with little to no structured aid channels. One well-educated adult might be “elected” to teach lessons to children in lieu of formal school classes, but Asfour noted that any attempt in this area was challenging when reaching out to children scarred from horrific experiences.

Worthington said that international nongovernmental organizations(iNGOs) working in Syria are engaged in two areas: refugees in surrounding countries; or in Syria itself, either though programs under government-imposed restrictions in Damascus, or cross-border work.

“We ‘woke up’ the world on Darfur, but not so much in Syria,” Worthington said. “The world has not come to terms with the fact that this is the crisis of our generation.”

Both Cain and Worthington spoke on key takeaways for donors to consider in regards to Syria.

First, Cain said that funders should realize that there is a global sharing of responsibility in Syria.

“The average American citizen sees that whole area of the world as a big blur,” Cain said. “They look at what little they know of the situation and it is so overwhelming that they don’t know where to begin.  We have a responsibility to try and compartmentalize the kinds of interventions that are required.”

When needs are broken down, Cain said it creates a menu of options for donors to consider, based on their preferences, a second consideration for donors — creatively finding niche areas and new means of outreach.  One example might be raising awareness or perusing advocacy options to help organizations understand Syria. Another might be the distribution of traceable credit cards allowing families to purchase what they need.

“This situation should have our attention, both from a humanitarian standpoint and a security standpoint,” Cain said.

Worthington said that there were many concrete options for donors to make a real difference in the Syrian crisis.  Whether it was influencing the big picture through advocacy programs, or funding a specific need on the ground, there are many ways to help the situation, he said.

“Whatever program your target is, even at the ground level, it will make a difference in the lives of those families, simply because no one else is reaching them,” Worthington said.

A final takeaway is that donors should not be fooled by the lack of media attention or open information on the needs in Syria. All three panelists agreed that the ability to tell the story of Syria was hampered by the security situation in the country. Worthington said it was simply not safe for news networks to extensively provide coverage, and iNGO staff members were working under very difficult circumstances.  Often, in order to protect the lives of their own members, iNGOs are quiet on their efforts to help those in need within Syria, he said.

“Choose your topic of interest and then seek help in finding an organization working in that area,” Worthington said.

The Center for Disaster Philanthropy is able to facilitate donors finding and organization or specific area to focus relief efforts on that provides traceable, quantitative feedback on services provided.  Contact bob.ottenhoff@disasterphilanthropy.org or regine.webster@disasterphilanthropy.org with questions or for more information.

Editor’s notes: Special thanks to The UPS Foundation for sponsoring this convening. For full disclosure, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation is a donor to CDP.