Public Commentary / 17 February 2015

What can philanthropy do for Syria?

The war in Syria is now in its fourth year. It has cost over 200,000 lives, put 12 million people in need of humanitarian assistance inside the country (USAID) and displaced 10 million, more than 3 million of whom have fled abroad as refugees. All of this has earned Syria a number of unappealing superlatives: ‘the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era’ (UNHCR); the creator of the ‘worst refugee crisis since the second world war’ (The Economist); and the world’s ‘worst crisis for children’ (UN). With a few notable exceptions, however, western philanthropists have not engaged in Syria. 

The reasons given are many. Because few donors were involved in the country before the conflict began, the country’s vibrant civil society is largely unknown and therefore funders lack knowledge or confidence about potential grantees and ways of operating there. Apart from counterterrorism concerns to do with westerners’ joining Islamist factions (such as the Islamic State (IS) in Syria), the civil war so far has few obvious consequences for Europe or North America, where the largest social justice philanthropies are based. Security is a huge problem within Syria, and even more so for those linked to foreign entities. And international sanctions complicate even the most basic of bank transfers or importation of goods.

Yet, similar types of challenge have been tackled by international philanthropy time and again in previous conflicts – with significant funding being provided to courageous, non-violent civic groups working under extremely dangerous conditions. So a first question is: why are Syrian civic leaders and communities receiving so little interest or support from the world of social justice-oriented philanthropy? A second question is: to what degree can the lack of support be attributed to a lack of quality information and analysis about the situation on the ground, and the opportunities to make a positive difference?

It was to address these issues that the Institute for Integrated Transitions and the Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement at AUC, with the support of the Ford Foundationhosted a roundtable in Barcelona on 23 January on the topic of Effective Philanthropy for Syria: Envisioning an organized philanthropic response to a complete or partial transition out of armed conflict.A full list of participants appears at the end of this article.

The roundtable discussion examined closely two kinds of scenario for Syria: ‘partial transition’ and ‘complete negotiated transition’. The first session looked into the constraints and opportunities for private philanthropy to support communities and civic life in Syrian refugee camps and in areas of relative stability inside the country, whether under regime control (eg Damascus and Latakia) or the control of local groups or entities (eg rebel-held, Kurdish-controlled or IS-controlled areas). The second session took up the broader issue of how philanthropy could support communities and civic initiatives in the context of a potential negotiated transition that could in time end the overall conflict and create the roadmap for a unified rebuilding of state and society.

Over the course of the roundtable, we discovered that the answers to these two kinds of transition scenario are interrelated: what is needed today is to a large degree determined by what will be needed tomorrow – and vice versa. Thus, we have merged the highlights of both sessions into a single list of the most important points that emerged during our discussions.

Analysis of the situation in Syria

Civil society and the state
As local governance structures have disappeared or been weakened in some parts of the country (eg Aleppo governorate), social groups and local associations have sometimes stepped in. While these entities can blur the line between the state and civil society, they have at times been effective, drawing on longstanding community traditions of resourcefulness and creativity. In recent months, civic groups and local religious leaders have also taken the lead – often with little to no international support – in negotiating important local ceasefires in a number of towns and cities and providing services ranging from waste collection to education.

Civic values
In the context of rising extremism, there is a growing consensus among certain Syrian associations and social leaders about the need to mount a larger campaign for civic values – one that involves a commitment to non-violence and a set of non-sectarian norms, much like those that were on display in the early part of the country’s 2011 popular uprising. The need is greater than ever to forge a value-driven counter-narrative to the current sectarian-driven one. In places like Northern Ireland and South Africa, it was community connections and small steps that helped plant the seeds for more peaceful coexistence and inclusive governance practices at a later stage.

Lesser evils
Since most local, non-sectarian organizations need to operate in areas controlled at the point of a gun, they are often forced to make unsavoury choices to ensure survival. This may include entering pacts or otherwise negotiating with the regime or with armed extremist groups. Such decisions should not necessarily be understood as motivated by ideology or supportive of violent methods. More often than not they are driven by need, combined with a strong perception of western indifference to their plight.

Education gaps
Millions of Syrian refugee children are receiving poorly delivered education, or little to no education at all, as there is no unified approach to the issue: every host country has adopted a different system. The education programmes that do exist in refugee communities tend to operate under the banner of ‘emergency education’, and do not guarantee students valid accreditation. Few models make quality education their primary objective – and rather than employing or training Syrians to teach, locals are frequently being hired for the posts that exist. Concerns of a ‘lost generation’ are not overstated: in Lebanon, there are 1.6 million Syrian refugees but not nearly enough school places available.

The war economy
The current economy in much of Syria is dependent on the continuation of armed conflict. The war, as such, has become the main source of income for many communities due to the destruction of the traditional economy. This has created a negative spiral that can only become worse as the conflict continues. Hence, a strategy is needed to deconstruct war dependence and restore a peace economy – one that relies on livelihoods gained through non-violent, sustainable economic activities.

Humanitarian aid
There is a strong case to be made for doing more to assist refugees and engage in much-needed humanitarian work. Yet, humanitarian efforts alone will not solve the biggest problem facing Syria: the armed conflict itself. The underlying logic is as simple as it is compelling: all human outcomes will improve if the conflict ends; and all will be worse if it does not. However, this does not mean that humanitarian aid is irrelevant to peacebuilding. Provided it serves to empower local civic groups, it too can improve peace negotiations, identify rehabilitation needs, and help shape a future national vision.

Opportunities for philanthropic support 

Mapping priorities
There already exist numerous mapping reports about Syrian civil society, some of which are unavailable except to the commissioning donor. Yet, a snapshot of civil society may be less important than insight into the deeper dynamics and processes that are affecting, or alternatively being shaped by, civil society. Likewise, new mappings are needed to document the cultural heritage sites and artefacts at greatest risk in the current war; identify leading diaspora actors and activities; and audit what global philanthropy is already funding in Syria.

Actor accreditation
One of the big obstacles philanthropists face in Syria’s war stems from a feeling of uncertainty about whom to trust. One way to mitigate this is by funding the creation of a certification programme (with full participation by Syrian groups) that would clearly identify which civil society associations are committed to non-violence and inclusive values. As things stand, most Syrian associations and civic leaders are being wrongly slotted into the false binary of ‘opponents’ or ‘supporters’ of the regime or extremist groups – in either case with an assumption of being armed, sectarian or both. A trusted accreditation programme (perhaps run by a community foundation) would help to clarify this complex picture and enable urgently needed philanthropic investments to reach the actors most likely to bring an end to the war.

Social companies
In the face of the restricted space for Syrian NGOs and sanctions affecting them, an alternative route to civil society may be through investment in (and promotion of) companies with public good (or social) objectives. These are attractive for their basis in a sustainable business model and the ability to operate without undue government intervention. A focus on social entrepreneurship could be particularly worthwhile in Syria, which has always had a strong trading history and entrepreneurial culture. This would also contribute to the goal of creating alternative forms of income generation to reverse the war economy.

Positive stories project
There remains an upbeat narrative about ‘what Syria was like before the war’ – albeit in light of the savage violence of the last few years, Syrians know there is no turning back the clock. However, there are many stories of successful civic actions taking place within the conflict, even in the most divided cities and regions. But what is missing is a large storytelling project to capture some of the extraordinary examples of everyday heroism happening at ground level. Local civic leaders are brokering ceasefires; ‘White Helmet’ volunteer rescue workers are saving lives in the worst zones of combat; networks of educators are reaching agreement on consensual school curricula, and much more. These stories need to be documented and then widely publicized through media and other channels to show an entirely different face of the Syrian war.

National vision
Getting out the message about positive civil society successes is important, but insufficient to help Syria turn the tide. There also needs to exist a citizen-produced national vision describing the kind of country ordinary Syrians aim to rebuild and the institutional set-up that will allow for a peaceful future coexistence, based on a set of shared cultural norms and values. This is needed not only to inspire the Syrian population about a better future worthy of their collective pursuit, but also for foreign governments and markets.

Dialogue and preparedness
Negotiation is the optimal path for ending Syria’s war. The sheer number of powerful, armed actors makes it unlikely that the conflict will end by other means. And a negotiated end to the conflict is more likely to usher in a stable peace than one arising through military victory – no matter who the victor is. Consequently, the most promising dialogue processes – whether local, regional or international – unquestionably merit philanthropic attention. In addition, the civil society representatives involved in these processes currently require more training and support to be successful in their role as bridge-builders. They also need the knowledge to enable them, when the time comes, to move without delay on a wide range of complex policy issues – from refugee returns to police reform to constitution making.

Creating a Syria fund
Private philanthropy’s response to the Syrian civil war has lacked organization. It is more typical for donors to coordinate during a post-conflict transition period, as in post-apartheid South Africa or during the rebuilding of Europe after WW11. However, a Syria-focused fund now – which could help direct resources to crucial  people and causes such as children’s education and citizen dialogue – could also serve as a platform for ongoing analysis and information sharing. To have the greatest chance of success, private philanthropy could also partner on selected initiatives with bilateral and multilateral actors. Pooling resources will help mitigate the risks and legitimacy gaps that all of these donors would face if acting alone, and will also avoid discontinuities as donors incrementally come and go.

Philanthropy has a wealth of lessons to draw from when it comes to funding actors and projects capable of helping to end wars and ushering in post-conflict transitions. In this context, philanthropists committed to helping Syrian civil society could establish some operational guideposts, allowing tried-and-true standards to be more widely disseminated. These could include: a focus on citizen empowerment; the use of small grants for especially risky investments; and a cross-cutting ethos of trust (matched by a commitment to core funding), flexibility (matched by open evaluation methods) and continuity (matched by a practice of longer grant periods).

*  * *

At the roundtable’s end, many of the participants commented that it was one of the most productive meetings about the Syrian crisis that they had attended – a result that surprised us in light of the grimness of the war, but one due in no small measure to the Syrian experts and representatives who attended. All of us feel hopeful that a long-overdue focus on Syria can soon emerge in the philanthropy sector. It is late, but not too late.

Meeting participants

Anne-Sophie Schaeffer  Euro-Mediterranean Foundation of Support to Human Rights Defenders
Anthea Zervos  Open Society Foundations
Avila Kilmurray  Global Fund for Community Foundations
Barbara Ibrahim  John D Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement, AUC
Bassma Kodmani  Arab Reform Initiative
Cale Salih  Institute for Integrated Transitions
David Gardner  Financial Times
Emma Playfair  Alexandria Trust
Erik Mohns  Berghof Foundation
Esther Hughes  Global Dialogue
Hilary Pennington  Ford Foundation
Julie Broome  Sigrid Rausing Trust
Karen Colvard  Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation
Maha abu Shama  Sigrid Rausing Trust
Marieke Bosman  Asfari Foundation
Mark Freeman  Institute for Integrated Transitions
Massa Mufti  ABNI (Association for Building and Nurturing Initiatives); SONBOLA for Education & Development
Matthias Boss  Swisspeace Foundation
Mohamed Elfayoumy  Political adviser (Egypt)
Peter Harling  International Crisis Group
Rasha Arous  UNHCR
Raya Barazanji  United States Institute of Peace
Rikki Koda  Wing International (charitable fund)
Rim Turkmani  Madani
Sevdalina Rukanova  European Foundation Centre
Sirwan Kajjo  Syrian journalist
Tariq Cheema  World Congress of Muslim Philanthropists
Tini van Goor  HIVOS

Originally published in Alliance Magazine.

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