U.N. shifts focus to development, but can it work?

This Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013 photo shows Syrian women checking in at the U.N. refugee agency's registration center in Zahleh, in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. The number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon has surpassed 1 million, the U.N. refugee agency said Thursday, April 3, 2014, calling it a "devastating milestone" for the tiny Arab country with about 4.5 million people of its own. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo, File)

BEIRUT: A titanic “shift in focus” in the United Nations’ response to the Syrian crisis is occurring, leading aid agencies to incorporate more development-focused projects into their humanitarian work as they settle in for the long haul.

But the new emphasis on development and instilling “resilience” – the NGO buzzword du jour – has led some to question whether basic services addressing the still enormous humanitarian needs in the region will suffer, particularly as agencies continue to struggle to meet their funding requirements.

At a meeting of 22 U.N. agencies in the Jordanian capital of Amman last November, Sima Bahous, assistant secretary-general and chair of the Regional United Nations Development Group, argued “not only for expanding the scope of the collective U.N. response, but for making a conceptual shift in its focus as well.”

The conclusion was that the U.N. would “launch a collective ‘development response’ to the Syria crisis to complement ongoing humanitarian efforts.” This would involve strengthening the capacity of municipalities, enabling citizens to better engage with local governments, generating employment opportunities, helping countries recover from downward economic trends and improving infrastructure and basic services.

If those sound like huge, sweeping aims, that’s because they are – but many argue it’s the only way to deal with the immense regional fallout of a conflict likely to last a decade.

This is particularly true in tiny Lebanon, where the 1 millionth official refugee was registered Thursday (the unofficial number is known to be much higher), swelling the population by a quarter and putting an unprecedented strain on infrastructure, the economy and the country’s social fabric.

A report by the World Bank, the U.N. and the Lebanese government released last summer concluded that the surge in demand for public services would raise public expenditure by $1.1 billion between 2012 and 2014 at a time when revenues are falling. The influx of refugees was predicted to force 170,000 Lebanese into poverty and worsen the situation for the current 1 million poor.

“The good news is that more and more donors in the international community are starting to come on board in terms of providing more balanced support that includes not just Syrian refugees but also Lebanese communities and institutions,” Shombi Sharp, the country director for the United Nations Development Program, told The Daily Star.

The UNDP is leading the charge in the new development- and resilience-focused approach, which is centered around the idea of capacity-building – i.e., helping existing institutions, systems and national structures to function better with the long-term aim of sustainability and self-sufficiency. Such projects are usually implemented in a postconflict setting.

But these aims, at least superficially, are in direct opposition with the main purpose of humanitarian aid: short-term relief for individuals, normally in an emergency situation.

With no sign of a slow-up in the influx of refugees, and security in the country having deteriorated rapidly over the last few months after a spate of car bombs, Lebanon could hardly be described as postconflict. Further, the immediate humanitarian needs of many refugees, from food and shelter to proper sanitation and health care, are still far from being fully met. So what’s behind the shift in focus?

“It’s important ... to recognize that the high cost and intensive humanitarian response will not be able to continue forever,” Sharp said. “It’s expensive, and actually the resilience [development] approach can help relieve many of those same pressures.”

“Aid can only help so much and also donor interest may peter out. There is a fear of both of these things. We are sure that the international community is committed to supporting the Syrian refugees, but resources are finite.”

Sharp calls UNDP’s Lebanon Host Community Support Program, which launched early last year and does what it says on the tin, “the other side of the coin to UNHCR and other humanitarian actors.” Working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the program will target host communities in the worst-off parts of Lebanon, which are home to 86 percent of all refugees and 68 percent of Lebanon’s poorest.

The idea is that by building the capacity and resilience of host communities, both Lebanese and Syrians will see a long-term benefit.

For Mercy Corps, a development-focused NGO, this is exactly what aid agencies in Lebanon should focus on.

“For example, a town’s population has doubled due to the presence of Syrians,” explained George Antoun, Mercy Corps’ country director. “Is it better to keep trucking water to them for a year or fix the water network so they can get their own water?”

“This second solution serves both populations, but is it humanitarian or development aid? Some would consider it the latter, we consider it both. It also reduces tensions between communities.”

It’s hard to see what the downside to all this could be, but Jonathan Whittall, a humanitarian analyst at Medecins Sans Frontieres who recently launched a vocal online attack on the trend, said it risked undermining the ability of aid agencies to save lives.

“I don’t see development projects themselves as a problem,” he said, “I think what’s a problem is when you have an emergency setting and humanitarian actors get bogged down in also dealing with development responses.”

In Lebanon, where Whittall is based, he believes that “humanitarian agencies are not failing exactly, but they are falling short.”

“This is partly linked to an international community that is trying to do too much and at the end of the day is not doing anything very well ... The basics of humanitarian aid get diluted,” he added.

“This [new] plan for U.N. agencies, some of whom have a core humanitarian role, is a classic example of looking at development instead of scaling up basic health care access and other emergency responses.”

“If you see someone drowning you don’t start a project to build a jetty.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 04, 2014, on page 2.




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