Syria donor conference falls short of funding needs

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell at the Brussels Conference hosted from the EU headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, 30 March. (Keystone / EPA AP Pool / Francisco Seco)

Donors at this week’s pledging conference for the crisis in Syria failed to meet calls to drastically increase aid to the country and surrounding region, where 24 million people require humanitarian assistance to survive.

International donors fell far short of the $10 billion requested by the United Nations ahead of the fifth annual Brussels Conference on Syria, which raised $4.4bn in funding for this year and a further $2 bn pledged for 2022 and beyond.

The UN called for the record sum to be raised to respond to the deteriorating economic and humanitarian situation in Syria and the surrounding region, as the conflict enters its eleventh year.

"With the added impact of Covid-19, there is no respite for civilians in Syria," the UN said in a media statement ahead of the conference, which it co-hosted with the EU. "They face increasing hunger and poverty, continued displacement and ongoing attacks," they said, warning that 24 million people in Syria and neighbouring countries need humanitarian assistance to survive.

The need for aid has increased rapidly over the past year due to the impact of the pandemic and the collapse of Syria’s currency, as well as the deteriorating economic and political situations in neighbouring Lebanon and Turkey, which host the vast majority of Syrian refugees.

Addressing the conference, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said, after a decade of war, many Syrians had lost confidence that the international community could “forge an agreed path out of the conflict”.

“The war in Syria is not only Syria’s war”, he told the conference, which was attended by more than 80 representatives from countries, humanitarian agencies and international financial institutions. “Ending it, and the tremendous suffering it continues to cause, is our collective responsibility.”

Many donors maintained the same pledge amounts as previous years, although some increased their funding levels - namely Germany, who pledged a huge $1.99 bn. However, some major donors such as the UK and US cut their contributions significantly despite the heightened need.

Many NGOs and humanitarian organisations expressed disappointment at the decision of some countries to slash their aid to Syria, accusing them of turning their backs on the plight of Syrians at a time when needs in the region are more critical than ever before.

Read also: Protecting Syrian children’s mental health after 10 years of war.

“The crisis is somehow more severe than ever, not only because of the pandemic, but also the economic situation that’s rapidly deteriorating in the region,” said Petra Winiger, head of Caritas Switzerland’s Syria Response. “Even despite 10 years of humanitarian support, we witness a lot of new crises for Syrian refugees in host countries, but then also within Syria for Internally Displaced People (IDPs) and other vulnerable groups. So the need for humanitarian funding is greater than ever.”

Syria is currently facing the worst economic crisis since the conflict began in 2011, with the collapse of the Syrian pound causing food prices to increase by 222 per cent in the past year. Over 90 percent of Syrians are living in poverty, 12.4 million are suffering from food insecurity, and 12.2 million lack regular access to clean water.

The pledged funds will also go to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt, which host millions of Syrians displaced by the conflict. In Lebanon, which hosts the largest proportion of Syrian refugees, nine out of ten Syrians are living in poverty, with the deteriorating economic situation in the country driving up food insecurity and fuelling a rise in child protection risks such as child labour and early marriage.

According to Save the Children, two out of three children in northwest Syria are already without education and the number of children going hungry has surpassed 6 million.

“Although the full impact will take some time to reveal, we expect the cuts to have serious implications for the wider sector,” Ahmed Bayram, Middle East and Eastern Europe media manager for Save the Children, told Geneva Solutions. “Children are facing a year without enough food or education. Access to essential services such as healthcare, protection and life-saving assistance might be hampered by the impact of this disappointing funding outcome.”

International aid and donations to Syria have been on the decline since before the pandemic, but the economic downturn and the impact of Covid-19 has put further pressure on the region. Many NGOs and humanitarian organisations have been forced to restrict their operations both in Syria and in other countries such as Yemen, which has also been hit hard by aid cuts recently.

There are concerns that, as the Covid-19 pandemic continues, the resources available to NGOs may shrink further.

“Due to the Covid pandemic, a lot of attention has been drawn away from the Syria crisis and people are focusing more on internal challenges, and how they can face these challenges related to the pandemic on a national level,” said Winiger. “We anticipate not only a shortfall for appeal pledges but also some challenges to gaining continued support from citizens and other institutions that supported us really greatly throughout the years.”

Funding shortfalls mean many organisations are forced to focus on delivering immediate humanitarian aid rather than addressing long term needs in the region, such as access to education, raising concerns over what further restrictions could mean for the future of millions of Syrians.

“We realise that Covid-19 will have played a part in countries having to slash their commitments,” said Bayram. “But that cannot be an excuse for some of the richest countries in the world to turn their back on children who will go hungry and remain without an education because the world has failed to deliver in this hour of need. We hope donors will step up their contributions before it’s too late for the most vulnerable children.”