The World Humanitarian Summit kicked off this week with an estimated five thousand international organizations and companies set to convene in Istanbul. A key focus of this year's conference is Syria's ongoing civil war and how aid and services can be more effectively delivered. A recent report conducted by Local2Global explains that while local in-country organizations in Syria and throughout the region are responsible for 75 percent of the delivery of humanitarian services including immediate food, shelter as well as sustainable development such as education, health and livelihoods, they received only 0.3 percent of direct financing and 9.3 percent of indirect funding through sub-contracts since the conflict began. Given this strong reliance on local organizations to deliver key services and aid, the most significant question that must be addressed during this year's Summit is how to most effectively provide adequate resources and financing to local organizations as the main designers and implementers of both humanitarian relief and development projects inside Syria and for refugees. While many agree that more support for local organizations is needed, little has been done to change the status-quo.
The reasons for the lack of direct financing to local organizations stems from several issues, including a bias within the international aid and development community, which overvalues global standardized frameworks that often fail to address the importance of localized design and adaptation. This places the majority of funding in the hands of large international organizations, private sector contractors and NGOs who design projects and then, when needed, outsource and sub-contract to local in-country organizations. However, these sub-contracts do not treat local organizations as equal partners and often leave them out of the project design process completely. Sub-contracts often provide local organizations with very little funding, sometimes not including salaries, and a maximum of six months to one-year with which to achieve the outcomes and requirements for the project. This places enormous strain on local organizations and prevents them from building a strong foundation for success moving forward.
As long-term projects and action-plans are established, more investment must go into financing locally designed solutions and projects that ensures ownership is placed back into local communities. When projects are designed by international organizations without the input and buy-in of local in-country organizations, even if projects are well funded, they often lack local ownership and are typically mismatched with the needs of the local community thus hindering sustainability. With a deep understanding of direct local needs and the ability to reach those most in-need, local organizations are uniquely positioned to design and shape highly impactful programs, as well as adjust and pivot, based on changing local conditions. For example, as livelihoods are being addressed for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, many international organizations have placed significant resources into agricultural employment projects. However, these livelihood projects do not produce sufficient jobs and are not cost-efficient, requiring large amounts of funding to pay for infrastructure, land and water. Local organizations by contrast have placed far more emphasis on supporting micro-business development through small loans and grants, allowing refugees to create businesses that address direct local community needs.
Despite the lack of support and financing in the last six years, local organizations have been highly resourceful in raising funds from the Syrian diaspora, as well as local private sector businesses. This initial financial support from the diaspora and private sector has empowered them to initiate pilot projects to test the viability of programs before launching them on a larger scale. Organizations such as Basmeh and Zeitooneh, based in Lebanon, were able to raise money from diaspora and local businesses for an informal education pilot project for refugees with Bridge Academy. The success of their pilot attracted funding from international donors such as the UK's Department for International Development (DfID) so that it could be built out further. Examples like this should be an indicator for how international organizations can play a role in facilitating the scaling of these local designs where needed.
The WHS presents an opportunity to shift the conversation and encourage the international development community to actively support local organizations. Amidst a protracted crisis, financing locally designed programs is one piece of a much larger issue in the Middle East. Identifying better ways of tackling existing and emerging development challenges is complex, and there are no silver bullets. However, many potential answers to questions around the strategic use of aid, and visions for impact are on the ground already, and have simply not been carefully considered in the international aid community. We should invest in the communities and organizations that continue to live and work on the front lines of the regional conflicts we are addressing.