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. 

Photo: Getty
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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?