BEIRUT: As Syria’s bloody civil war enters its fourth year, funding for the region’s 2.5 million refugees is drying up, forcing the U.N. and NGOs to make cuts to crucial support programs.
The number of Syrians pouring over the country’s borders into Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq is swelling as the violence shows little sign of abating. But financial aid from Western and Gulf countries has not risen to meet the need, sparking fears of creeping donor fatigue.
In 2013, the United Nations refugee body (UNHCR) – which coordinates the regional Syria response for over 100 NGOs – received 68 percent of $1.5 billion pledged by donor countries, including the United States and the U.K. To meet the growing numbers of displaced in 2014, a UNHCR-led appeal asked donors for $4.2 billion. So far, of that figure, it has received just 14 percent.
“The lack of funding this year has definitely had a huge impact,” a UNHCR official said, speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the issue. “We have to just focus on providing life-saving assistance and accept that, without more money, there will always be people whom we cannot reach.”
For the Danish Refugee Council, the largest implementing partner for UNHCR in Lebanon, the funding shortfall has forced them to assess what programs can be adapted to reach more people with limited resources.
“We have definitely started looking at ways that we can meet the needs of an ever-growing number of refugees with proportionally smaller funding,” said Rachel Routley, the DRC’s press officer in the country.
In 2014, the charity has begun focusing on community-based initiatives, which offer refugees a safe space where they can access a host of services in one place – from psychosocial support to job training. While she emphasized that the DRC would not be stopping outreach programs to the most vulnerable, “activities which were previously held in several different areas, are now consolidated in one community center.”
Looking ahead to the rest of the year and into 2015, the organization is “very concerned that if the numbers continue to rise and the funding continues to shrink – or not rise as the same rate – which is almost inevitable, it will have severe implications for what we can achieve,” Routley said.
As the funding crisis bites, the experience of the DRC in Lebanon is being mirrored across the region.
In Jordan, cash flow problems are so severe that UNHCR is being forced to borrow from funding allocated for future projects to help those in need now.
The UNHCR’s most critical project in Jordan is their cash assistance program for the most vulnerable, press spokesperson Aoife McDonnell said, which helps the 80 percent of families living outside formal camps to buy food and other basic goods.
“We are not reaching the number of families that we really need to. Money [through the cash assistance program] should be going to people who live outside the [Zaatari] camp in really tough circumstances, living in basements and tented settlements and desperately trying to keep their heads above water. But the lack of funding has kept us from really supporting all those people.”
In Turkey, meanwhile, only 6 percent of money pledged to help thousands living in sprawling tented communities on the border has been received – the lowest figure in the region.
Despite the cutbacks NGOs have been forced to make, Steven Zyck, a research fellow at the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute in London said that while financial aid may decline, the importance of the region both politically and economically would ensure that some level of funding continued.
“The most affected countries, particularly Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, are strategically important countries for the U.S., EU, NATO and others, and Western powers as well as Arab Gulf states are not going to allow them to deal with this crisis alone,” he said.
Nonetheless, Gulf states have been particularly slow in giving their pledged contributions for Syria this year. Gulf countries were responsible for more than a quarter of all pledges to the UNHCR’s regional fund for 2014, amounting to around $700 million, but so far only Saudi Arabia has paid any of their promised aid.
“Thus far, Kuwait does not appear to have provided any of the $500 million it pledged, and the same holds true for the $60 million pledged by each the UAE and Qatar. With its own problems at home, Bahrain has yet to make a single recorded contribution to the Syria crisis,” Zyck told The Daily Star.
The UAE and Qatari international development offices could not be reached for comment.
The cutbacks are sounding alarms within the charity community of creeping donor fatigue, and NGO officials say that Syria will only capture the world’s interest for a limited time. Other crises will draw funds, as the general public grows tired of the daily cycle of violence in Syria.
“Donor fatigue is definitely coming,” said Colin Lee, country director of International Medical Corps in Lebanon. “The [2013 typhoon in the] Philippines was just one example of donor priorities focused on other crises, and meanwhile, there is no good news coming from Geneva II [peace conference], so I’m sure people will get tired of it.”
With these fears in mind, Save the Children released a haunting YouTube video last week ahead of the three-year anniversary of the conflict, aimed at reminding the general public of the ongoing plight of Syrians.
The one-and-a-half minute video features a girl in London marking her birthday, using the popular “one second per day” video format. The images slowly become darker as chaos and panic develops around her, and Britain is shown falling into a Syria-style war. The girl and her family are forced to flee their home.
The slick video quickly went viral: it has been seen over 25 million times since its release last Tuesday. Conor O’Loughlin from Save the Children told The Daily Star that since its release, the Syria page on the organization’s website has overtaken their homepage as the most viewed. Crucially, however, while he said the organization was “hopeful” that the video’s success would prompt a spike in donations, it is currently too soon to tell.
“The video is supposed to remind people that just because Syria has fallen off the radar of individuals and nations, this crisis has not gone away,” the charity’s media manager for Lebanon, Marion Mckeone, said.
“We need to constantly remind international donors that there still isn’t enough money to help everybody. Syrians are in urgent need of greater support, and the international community has a responsibility to step up.”