For our recent panel, held in partnership with the International Medical Corps (IMC), we brought together experts from around the Arab region to discuss the Arab philanthropic and civic sector’s response to the devastating Syria-Turkey earthquakes and how the sector can help vulnerable communities heal in the aftermath.
Moderator Yasmin Kayali, Social Impact Leader and Co-founder of the NGO Basmeh & Zeitooneh, guided the conversation between our distinguished panelists: Fadi Al-Dairi, Co-founder & Country Director for Hand in Hand for Aid & Development (HIHFAD); Erdem Ayçiçek, Head of Programs at MSYD-ASRA; Wafaa Sadek, the organization’s Country Director for Syria; and Firdavs Ogoev, the IMC’s Country Director for Turkey
If you missed this urgent and enlightening discussion, here are the key takeaways:
- Each panelist shared both their organizational experiences and personal observations regarding the immediate impact of the earthquake on the affected communities in Syria. The panelists agreed that in the wake of the breakdown of infrastructure and government capacity for basic service provision, local CSOs and INGOs played a critical role in the emergency response to the earthquakes. Cooperation with government was essential for the delivery of services and getting access to hard-to-reach communities. But the disaster also highlighted the limited capacity of Syrian local organizations compared to the readiness of Turkish organizations to deal with emergencies.
- Everyone stressed that the earthquakes have exacerbated the destitution and powerlessness gripping vulnerable populations in Syria and Turkey. Communities living in Northwestern Syria were already suffering from a protracted refugee crisis that started with the outbreak of the civil war in 2011. In Turkey, over 3 million were displaced when the earthquakes hit. Sadek quoted a beneficiary of support from the IMC Syria Country Office: “Those who died in the earthquake had survived the dire conditions and extreme despair, while those who have survived have been sentenced to death.”
- According to Ayçiçek, whose humanitarian aid organization supports refugees in Turkey, the most affected were children and people with disabilities, two groups that suffered disproportionately from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and psychological trauma.
- A discussion on the most pressing priorities in the wake of the earthquakes underscored a collapse in basic service provision, rising hunger, lack of access to basic healthcare, and alarming levels of mental health issues in both countries. “It is difficult to prioritize in a context where there is no water, electricity, and the health infrastructure is destroyed. The gaps are immense,” said Sadek, adding that it is important to conduct proper needs assessment in all sectors. She noted that IMC’s response has focused on addressing immediate health care needs by organizing mobile medical units for primary and emergency healthcare, distributing medicines and medical supplies, providing mental health support, and implementing WASH, nutrition, gender-based violence, and child protection programs, most of them were organized with local partners. The IMC, which has been operating in Syria since 2008, is worried about the rise of cholera and meningitis in affected areas, she added.
- When the discussion turned to the potential role Arab philanthropy can play in Syria’s early recovery, Al-Dairi said investment in livelihoods is key to recovery, especially job creation and boosting local economic empowerment. “The foundation is there, and it can be revived with the right investments,” he said, pointing to the advanced levels of industrial and agriculture activity the country enjoyed before the civil war.
- Other panelists stressed the importance of political stability as a precondition for economic recovery, noting that measures such as sanctions imposed in government-controlled areas complicate the work of INGOs and discourage investment.
- Shifting from humanitarian relief assistance to long-term structural solutions in Syria is critically important, the panel said. The main stumbling block, they agreed, is the politicization of aid, much of which in Syria is driven by the tensions between the northwestern region and government-controlled areas. One result is the difficulty of getting much-needed aid to vulnerable communities in the emergency response – a problem that will likely stall the country’s reconstruction and rebuilding. The panelists called for the donor community and Arab philanthropists to adopt a humanitarian lens that would give more clarity regarding the sheer scale of the lengthy humanitarian crisis affecting all Syrians.
- Another challenge is the skewing of official development assistance (ODA) and funding towards government initiatives, with a fraction of funding going to INGOs and local organizations that are working directly with communities.
- There was a consensus that there is a big role for Arab philanthropy to play in supporting long-term solutions given the pervasive funding gaps coupled with the limited investment of traditional donors in certain causes. For instance, services and capacity building for people with disabilities is an underinvested area, suggested Ayçiçek.
- At the same time, Arab philanthropy better understands the region’s cultural and social norms, meaning it can support more context-relevant solutions. Child marriage in Syria, for example, is a problem that cannot be tackled through short project solutions. This issue needs long-term programmatic interventions that take into account the social norms and cultures. That is something Arab philanthropy is best placed to do, as well as designing solutions that are sensitive to gender and culture, said Al-Dairi.
- Ogoev underscored the importance of complementing and strengthening local coordination structures. “Arab philanthropy can invest in already existing infrastructure and organizations,” he said. Al-Dairi concurred, saying philanthropic efforts need to focus on empowering local CSOs and supporting their role in rebuilding Syria and Turkey. “Investing directly in local capacities is important. There are many capable local organizations with amazing ideas that can only be funded by a philanthropist who thinks the same way.” But, right now, that link between local NGOs and Arab philanthropists is missing.
Want to keep the conversation going? Watch the whole panel here.