BEIRUT -- As the Syrian refugee crisis worsens in neighboring countries, the backlog of undelivered funds from donor countries, including the United States, is starting to severely strain aid agencies' ability to deliver basic services, the United Nations says.
Pledges from major international donors to ease the Syrian humanitarian crisis remain high, but so far most countries have failed to actually deliver the promised totals, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at a press conference earlier this week.
"We have raised just 40 per cent of the $4.4 billion needed for Syria and neighboring countries for this year,” Ban said in a statement on Tuesday that was largely overshadowed by a new U.N. report into the use of chemical weapons inside Syria. “I call on Governments to help us meet this unprecedented crisis while still meeting their commitments to other emergencies.”
The failure of donor countries to fulfill pledges is a significant, and depressingly common, problem in humanitarian crises, aid officials say. Promises of funds are typically made with great fanfare, but the delivery of the money can take months or years, if it ever happens.
"A lot of times you'll have a donor conference and individual nations will pledge a certain amount, but then the donors will just go on and give very little or nothing at all," said Shannon Scribner, humanitarian policy manager for Oxfam America. "Sometimes it's for good reason, like in Afghanistan, where there wasn't the capacity to spend the money, so donors would withhold funds. ... But in the case of Syria, you have aid organizations that are in place and ready to provide assistance to refugees, and their appeals aren't being met."
An interactive report recently produced by the Guardian newspaper, using data supplied by the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, illustrated just how severe the lack of pledge fulfillment has become: Of the top donor countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates, only the government of Kuwait has managed to disburse more than half of the funds it has pledged for the Syrian disaster. The U.A.E., which has pledged $310 million, has sent just 10 percent of it, and the U.K. has sent only 24.5 percent of the $460 million it has promised. The U.S., which is the largest donor country by far, has sent a little less than half the $820 million it has promised.
American officials say that the U.N.'s tracking data are outdated and don't include an additional $2 million in delivered funds, and that the actual total pledged is more than $1 billion.
Some other countries, particularly those in the Gulf region, often give money outside the U.N.'s fundraising system, experts say, so their contributions wouldn't always be tabulated by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
In its own report, released on Thursday, Oxfam concluded that while some of the raw numbers from countries like the U.S. may be impressive, the contributions as a ratio of a country's total economy often don't amount to much.
By this measure, which Oxfam calls a "fair share" standard, the two countries plunging the most money in the form of weapons and other tools of war into the fight inside Syria -- Qatar and Russia -- are doing the least to help the outside humanitarian crisis: Both have pledged only 3 percent of their "fair share" amount.
France, another major player in Syria's politics, is "struggling to reach half of its fair share," giving just 47 percent of that, the report says. The United States contributes a somewhat better 63 percent of what might be expected of it.
"I find it sadly ironic that you have countries like Russia and Qatar giving billions in arms, but they are giving very little in terms of humanitarian needs," Scribner said.
Meanwhile, these funding delays are having a major impact in countries where refugee numbers have recently skyrocketed, and financial shortfalls sometimes mean that refugee services must be temporarily cut off or curtailed for needy communities.
In Lebanon, for instance, where some 700,000 Syrians have been registered with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees -- and many hundreds of thousands more are believed to be in the country undocumented -- the funds delivered amount to only 27 percent of the necessary and promised amounts, according to Melissa Fleming, a UNHCR spokeswoman in Geneva.
Facing a massive influx of refugees in recent months, especially in the wake of reports that the U.S. was considering cruise missile strikes against Syria, aid organizations in Lebanon say they may be forced to cut down on food distributions at the start of October, unless more money can be raised.
There are another half-million refugees each in Jordan and Turkey, and 200,000 in Iraq, according to U.N. figures.