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As Syria Refugee Crisis Grows, Donors Lose Interest

The U.N. on Thursday said the number of Syrian refugees, such as Um Ahmed, 27, who fled her home in Hama, Syria, recently surpassed 4 million, Darzanoun, Lebanon, June 20, 2015.
The U.N. on Thursday said the number of Syrian refugees, such as Um Ahmed, 27, who fled her home in Hama, Syria, recently surpassed 4 million, Darzanoun, Lebanon, June 20, 2015.

Surrounded by the shirts, leggings and assorted outfits that help provide for her family, Mojfa smiles brightly. She knows she sought help just in time.

Mofja fled the dangers of Syria’s Aleppo for the Beirut neighborhood of Shatila and has opened a clothes shop after training and funding from local organization Basmeh & Zeitooneh.

“The grant raised me up, and meant I could provide for my own needs,” says the mother of seven. “Plenty of women have ended up on the streets and this is a great way to escape poverty.”

But fellow refugees who launched businesses to follow in the footsteps of Mojfa have been sorely disappointed, as the pilot program was not renewed due to a lack of funds.

With the Syrian crisis running into its fourth year, and the United Nations announcing Thursday that the number of Syrian refugees recently surpassed 4 million, depleted aid is becoming an all too common situation.

“This is part of a long-spanning trend where donors pay extensive attention and dedicate a massive amount of resource to a major crisis for three to four years,” said Steven Zyck, a research associate with the Overseas Development Group’s humanitarian policy group. “Then funds decline, often dramatically, when there is no improvement in the underlying causes.

"Unfortunately," he added, "we are seeing such a sense of pessimism around Syria that donors are moving on.”

Meanwhile, like many other aid agencies hit by dwindling donations, Basmeh & Zeitooneh must seek new ways to meet refugee needs.

Meeting local needs

Set up by Syrians three years ago, Basmeh & Zeitooneh was launched in Shatila — a Palestinian camp and densely-packed, poverty-stricken slum — to provide services neglected by other humanitarian groups.

A success story, the grassroots organization expanded to five centers across Lebanon, offering assistance to people like Mojfa and more than 3,600 families in Shatila alone.

But that assistance, which is not just offered to Syrian refugees, is under threat.

Having cut the program that helped Mojfa and 40 others set up businesses, as well as drastically reducing a program offering medical support to refugees in the last few months, it is now looking to cyberspace for answers.

Using crowdsourcing website Zoomal, the aim is to raise $120,000 in order to fund half of its 10 remaining programs, which offer everything from psychological support to vocational training.

A Basmeh & Zeitooneh official who asked not to be named said the campaign aims to diversify their donor base, which has consisted mainly of grants from international organizations.

“People have gotten bored of the conflict and are less willing to fund projects,” she said. “The campaign is trying to secure more independent sources of funding, so that ideally we would not rely on the donor bodies and grantmakers, which means that donor fatigue affects us directly.”

The use of crowdfunding to help with the fallout of the Syrian crisis is not unique to Basmeh & Zeitooneh, whose name translates into English as "a smile and an olive."

Other humanitarian groups, such as the Syria Civil Defense, a search and rescue workers' group also known as "the White Helmets," have launched a campaign with the aim of raising $100,000.

But, like Basmeh & Zeitooneh, their fundraising campaign, with two weeks left to go, remains well short of its target.

Acknowledging that crowdsourcing alone cannot bridge the growing gap in funding, Basmeh & Zeitooneh's representative says her organization is “exploring new ways of accessing funding.”

She also said that short- and medium-term nature of most current funding campaigns can itself prove an obstacle to the timely delivery of aid in straitened circumstances.

Meanwhile, she hopes the NGO will one day be able to look to the U.N. for grant requests that its relatively small size and newcomer status have so far hindered.

A global issue

Though her clothes business helps greatly, Mojfa still looks to the U.N. for assistance when it comes to supporting her family.

But her experience with the World Food Program (WFP) — a U.N. body that relies purely on donations — reflects how deep the problem goes.

Despite a series of high-publicity appeals, and events such as Kuwait’s pledging conference in March, the U.N. has received only about one quarter of the $7.4 billion in funding it needs to adequately respond to the crisis this year alone.

“I have food coupons, but every time I go to get food, the amount gets cut,” said Mojfa.

Like 800,000 other refugees in Lebanon alone, the monthly funding she receives for WFP food dropped from $27 to $19 in January, and to $13.50 in July.

WFP spokeswoman Joelle Eid said lack of funds for refugees could be “absolutely disastrous,” with 14 percent of refugees in Lebanon having already taken their children out of school following January’s reduction.

Since December, funding for 400,000 refugees deemed least vulnerable has been completely cut as part of an effort to prioritize aid, bringing the overall total of WFP food aid recipients in the region to an estimated 1.6 million.

Despite the belt-tightening, WFP’s Syria program remains in dire straits — $139 million is required to continue until September, after which time it may have to cut food aid entirely across the region.

And like the smaller NGOs who look to WFP for support, it too has to find new ways of fundraising.

Long-term funding

Claudia von Roehl, WFP’s director at the government partnerships division, says although funding for WFP increased by 25 percent globally from last year, a growing number of major international crises had drawn donor money elsewhere.

In response, she said efforts are being made to lobby governments — the biggest donors — into providing cash on a longer-term basis.

“We need to work more on the area of predictable and multi-year funds,” she said.

Despite the Australian government’s recent adoption of a funding model that accommodates WFP's needs for predictable, multi-year government funding, securing national commitments is no easy task.

“Government partners understand the benefits and would like to do this, but when you have 100 different donors who participate through programs [in] 100 different ways, with 100 different [types of parliamentary budget approval], it’s difficult," she said.

The way forward

According to Zyck, to better weather funding shortages, aid organizations must improve at planning ahead and targeting their recipients.

He also said that the gap between big organizations like the U.N. and the likes of Basmeh & Zeitooneh have to be bridged to best cope with the current shortfall.

“We have a very imperfect system and need to create additional funding windows that allow large donors in the U.N. to fund local NGOs,” he said. “Additionally, larger donors would be wise to keep an eye on the response of such NGOs to the current crisis.

“They need to continue working with them and learning from them, and helping them create small-scale innovations that can be replicated over time,” he added.

But while humanitarian agencies of all sizes seek new ways of securing funding, it is the victims of the Syrian war who will ultimately continue to suffer.

Basmeh & Zeitooneh’s spokeswoman warned that further cuts would have a “severe daily impact.”

Meanwhile, Charbel El-Khoury, who works for Italian NGO Intersos as a food security project manager in Lebanon alongside the WFP, put the worsening situation in stark terms.

“It has become a matter of bitter acceptance [for refugees],” he said. “But come the beginning of winter, it will be hell.”