A Syrian child in a Lebanese refugee camp. Photo: Getty
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Four years in to the Syria conflict, how are we handling the biggest humanitarian crisis of our time?

This weekend marks four years since the start of the crisis in Syria.

This weekend marks four years since the start of the crisis in Syria. Four years of brutal, steadily escalating civil conflict have decimated the country, creating the biggest humanitarian crisis of our time.

The ever-growing numbers involved tend to wash over people now, inured as we are to the extremes of suffering in Syria, but they bear repeating: at least 210,000 killed; 12.2m in need of humanitarian assistance, including 5.6m children; more than three million refugees; 7.6m people internally displaced; and, 2.8 million children out of school. No one in Syria remains untouched by the horror.

A crisis on this scale has triggered a massive humanitarian response, with the United Nations, governments and non-governmental organisations throwing unprecedented resources behind the effort to help those in need both inside Syria and in the neighbouring countries.

Aid agencies are running refugee camps, clinics and education programmes that reach millions of people. As Syria’s infrastructure collapses, with schools, hospitals, water and electricity networks destroyed, the need for outside help grows ever greater. The 2015 Syria Response Plan, drawn up by the main humanitarian actors, says $2.9bn will be needed this year.

But the ability of the humanitarian system to reach everyone who needs assistance in Syria is in question. The war has exposed the cracks in an over-burdened, often inflexible system. A lack of funding, coordination and international political will to guarantee aid access has meant that many people are not getting the help they need, particularly in hard-to-reach areas inside Syria.

A new report out today by Save the Children, Oxfam, NRC and other leading NGOs titled ‘Failing Syria’ strongly criticises the UN Security Council for failure to deliver on three UN resolutions passed last year which promised to stop attacks on civilians and ensure humanitarian access in Syria. Instead of making progress, in almost all areas the situation has got worse. The parties to the conflict have ignored or undermined the resolutions and the international community has failed to enforce them.

This issue is not unique to the war in Syria. Humanitarians have known for some time that the system is badly in need of reform, if it is to meet the complex challenges of the 21st century.

We are facing ever-more emergencies – in the last 15 months alone Save the Children and other humanitarian actors have responded to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, protracted crises in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, mass displacement in Iraq, the war in Gaza and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, among many other smaller emergencies. This has left resources stretched hopelessly thin and, in some instances, coordination mechanisms between agencies faltering.

Though this series of crises is unprecedented, we cannot expect it to be a one-off confluence of extraordinary events. Climate change, population growth and the increasing multi-polarity of international relations means that we will see a growing number of emergencies in the future, both natural disasters and wars.

The trends are clear: Three times as many people around the world are in need of humanitarian assistance as compared to ten years ago. Over the past decade, the amount of money requested through humanitarian appeals has risen almost 600 per cent - from $3bn in 2004 to approximately $17.9bn today.

The humanitarian community must adapt fast to meet this challenge. It is possible to reform the system and move toward responses that work with and for people caught up in emergencies. We have to start by shifting power from donors to the people affected by crisis, preparing, training and resourcing them to be the first-responders in an emergency.

The sector should look at broadening its outlook to build effective humanitarian coalitions comprised of a wide range of actors, from NGOs and the UN to businesses, civil society and governments - as we have seen recently with the Ebola response. This process has already begun, but there is much more that can be done to harness the resources and know-how of those in corporate sector and elsewhere. Learning from their experiences in Sierra Leone, the UK is in a position to play a leading role in this.

As the world’s power structures fragment and conflicts become more complex, humanitarian actors must also pioneer new strategies to get help to civilians in hard-to-reach areas. This is particularly relevant for Syria, where traditional methods for reaching those in need are falling short in the face of extremism and arbitrary attacks. International NGO workers are increasingly targets, so organisations must work with local actors to build their capability and find innovative ways to deliver aid. Some extraordinary work has been done in Syria in besieged cities by local Syrian organisations and community groups.

Finally, the funding system needs to be reformed to ensure that the burden is better shared between countries and that donors’ priorities match the needs on the ground. Too often, funding is too inflexible and donor-led to be truly responsive to the changing needs of people affected by humanitarian emergencies.

These are just a few of the steps we can take to create a humanitarian system that will work for the future, one that harnesses all the resources and know-how of our shared planet effectively to save and improve lives. Ultimately though, while humanitarians must change the way they work, politicians must also take responsibility to address the root causes of these emergencies, whether wars or climate change. Syria has been a wake-up call – and everyone involved in humanitarian response must heed it.

Justin Forsyth is CEO of Save the Children, and a former senior adviser to two prime ministers on international development. He oversees an organisation that responded to over 120 humanitarian crises around the world last year, from the Ebola outbreak to the war in Syria. 

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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era