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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser