The Syrian crisis is the largest and most complex humanitarian emergency of our time. More than 12 million Syrians — about half of Syria’s population before the war — are in need of humanitarian assistance.
During a trip to Jordan and several camps in Iraq a few weeks ago, I saw Syrian refugees struggling to keep themselves warm at night, when the temperatures dropped close to freezing. Doing everything possible to protect their children, the families I met had reinforced their tents with plastic sheeting in an effort to keep out the bitter winds. Our partners were working hard to get winter supplies both to these refugee camps as well as inside Syria. So far, they had distributed blankets, warm clothing, heaters and plastic sheeting to almost half a million people — an impressive feat amid growing insecurity and ongoing access constraints.
Despite determined efforts, the needs created by the Syrian crisis continue to outpace the response. The U.N.’s 2015 appeals for Syria and surrounding countries exceed $8 billion, but if last year is any indication, at least half of these appeals will remain unfunded. In the face of unprecedented challenges and daunting budget needs, our response has adapted and evolved. The following lessons reflect this effort to constantly seek out the most efficient and effective response strategies:
1. Focusing on Effectiveness and Accountability
With ever tighter budgets and mounting needs, USAID has needed to find ways to maximize aid with limited resources. These efforts have allowed us to provide food, sanitation and medical care to millions of families in areas of Syria controlled by the regime, the opposition or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) — at often considerable personal risk.
We remain the largest food donor in the Syrian crisis, providing more than $1.2 billion to date, including an additional $125 million on Feb. 17. Although the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) is confronting budget shortfalls, the organization has ramped up fundraising, reduced operational costs, and increased targeted assistance based on need
We have also doubled down our efforts to monitor the flow of supplies — it is critical that our aid is getting to the people who need it the most and for whom it is intended. Our partners provide weekly reporting of relief activities, and during my meetings in Jordan walked me through their logistical process, which includes tracked package delivery using barcodes and calls from beneficiaries to report delays or reroutes. I was reassured to hear how well the supplies are monitored, ensuring that they reach the people who need them.
2. Building Resilience in Syria’s Neighbors
Almost 4 million Syrians have fled their country, radically altering the map of the region. Syrian refugees are now one-quarter of Lebanon’s population and at least 10 percent of Jordan’s. The seemingly endless flow of Syrian refugees is overwhelming neighboring countries’ water systems, hospitals and schools.
To ease this strain, USAID is helping host communities better cope with the influx of refugees. Our food vouchers to Syrian refugees alone have injected about $1 billion into the economies of Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq. In Jordan, a country facing extreme water scarcity, we have worked with the Complex Crises Fund to build cisterns and provide loans so families can install rainwater harvesting systems. These efforts have saved 200,000 cubic meters of water — an amount equivalent to 5.5 million showers. We are also supporting hospitals to provide health care to host communities and refugees alike — when I visited a hospital in northern Jordan, I was struck by the quality of care and equipment that our support has facilitated, especially the psycho-social support provided to patients.
3. Enhancing Multilateral Collaboration
From the outset, we pushed to reach people in need throughout Syria — our NGO partners have heroically managed to deliver assistance across conflict lines and Syria’s borders. While access remains a major challenge, our efforts continue, and improved coordination with the United Nations (UN) has especially aided cross-border assistance. The UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2191 and its two predecessors allowed aid to reach areas previously cut off from assistance. In authorizing the UN to cross into Syria without the Assad regime’s approval, this resolution has allowed us to access people in need in an average of 66 hard-to-reach areas each month.
4. Seeking Out Increased Donor Engagement
U.S. leadership has been critical to galvanizing donors around a comprehensive response to the needs inside Syria and its neighborhood. We remain the largest donor of humanitarian aid to the Syrian crisis, but we cannot meet the needs of the Syrian people alone. Now more than ever, we need to forge strong partnerships with all donors. Contributions from Saudi Arabia and other donors helped stave off suspension of the WFP’s food donations to Syrian refugees in December, and we continue to see generosity from other donors. On Jan. 28, I participated in a top donors gathering in Kuwait to refine our strategy for the Syrian crisis. And on March 31, we will hold the Third Syria Humanitarian Pledging Conference, where we expect our allies will come prepared to strengthen their funding commitments to meet the immense challenges ahead.
We know that humanitarian assistance alone will not bring an end to the suffering of the Syrian people. But we do know that agile and targeted assistance, in partnership with other donors, can save lives, alleviate civilian suffering, and help Syria’s neighbors build resilient systems to cope with the regional impacts of this daunting crisis.