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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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.