EXCLUSIVE: The United Nations is quietly urging its agencies and non-governmental organizations operating in Syria to scale back their multibillion-dollar requests for aid for next year by more than 20 percent, according to an internal document examined by Fox News.
The main reasons: acute donor fatigue, and an inability to actually deliver on the expanding wish list of projects to ease the plight of millions of suffering Syrians. The document also cites bans on delivering aid, either by ISIS militants or, more often, the Bashar Al-Assad dictatorship, that are, it states, now the “main impediment” to U.N. relief activities.
The funding document suggests that, “considering these trends,” relief organizations aim for “a maximum of $2.5 billion,” vs. this year’s $3.2 billion, for what is known as the Syria Humanitarian Relief Plan (HRP), a U.N.-coordinated appeal that would still likely be the world’s largest humanitarian relief operation next year.
Reading between the lines, the document also is an adjustment to a chorus of internal and external complaints about U.N.-led relief efforts in Syria, which also may be reflected in the funding shortfalls that the document tries to address.
It notes, for example, that a reduced funding appeal could lead to “a more thorough and credible selection of projects” for Syria -- where currently, some 390 relief projects with a collective price tag of about $1 billion are not funded at all. That is 74 percent of all the projects in the 2016 appeal, the document notes.
The relief effort could benefit from “stronger evidence that projects approved are those required to implement their strategies and that partners have the capacity to implement such large number of activities and proposed interventions,” the document says.
Coincidentally or not, that aspect of downsizing seems to address tough criticism of the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA, in an internal evaluation earlier this year for having “only a limited understanding of real need in Syria,” due to government blockages of its field inspections. The result: “no systematic and scientific data-gathering on needs within government territory, nor of the impact of the work done to date, or even, arguably, where the majority of assistance has gone.”
The latest funding document notes that the inhumane denials of relief supplies to besieged Syrian communities -- which many NGOs blame on the U.N.’s too-close ties with Assad -- are also “limitations that need to be acknowledged” as part of the scaling-down effort.
All told, the U.N. document estimates that 5.4 million Syrians -- “34 percent of all people in need” in the country, are “out of regular reach.”
The assertion suggests that Assad’s ugly “surrender or starve” strategy toward beleaguered opposition centers -- most savagely being carried out against the beleaguered city of Aleppo -- is tacitly being acknowledged as a success. Certainly, U.N. pleas for the situation to change have made little dent in Assad’s tactics, which are backed by Russian and Iranian military support.
As the document summarizes it: “Given the multiple access and capacity constraints humanitarian actors are facing, it is unclear that greater financial asks could be easily absorbed and implemented by humanitarian actors.”
Beyond that, however, is another bottom line: an admission that a U.N. strategy of annually laying out ever-larger appeals for “greater financial requirements have not led to increased funding.”
Indeed, the overall Humanitarian Relief Plan strategy of a coordinated mega-appeal for Syria, first unveiled by the U.N. in 2013, has been slowly losing ground each year, as the Syrian civil war has expanded in scope and ferocity, and the appeals for more money have grown sharply in magnitude.
The first full-year appeal -- which was launched in explicit partnership with the Assad government, was for $1.4 billion and was 68 percent funded, while the most recent, $3.2 billion plan, had reached only 36 percent funding when the U.N. internal document was published. OCHA’s website says it is now up to 41.2 percent.
(Overall, the U.S. is by far the biggest aid donor to the Syrian crisis, having donated more than $5.9 billion to the country and its neighbors since 2011. In 2017, the U.S. State Department is asking for another $175 million in “economic support funds” for Syria.)
Taking all those facts together, the document notes, in typically sludgy prose, that the U.N.’s top humanitarian coordinators have “requested that the overall envelope” of the 2017 response plan be lowered to “a maximum” of $2.5 billion to “more accurately describe the priority response to assessed needs that can meaningfully be implemented by the humanitarian community.”
The notion that lack of “capacity” -- a nebulous term conveying lack of effective manpower or expertise -- is the problem is strongly disputed by at least some important humanitarian organizations in the region.
They point instead to lack of international political will to enforce basic humanitarian measures, such as the distribution of food and medical supplies to contested areas.
“The reason we are not meeting needs is due to politics and security reasons,” says Ashley Proud, Syria humanitarian director for Mercy Corps, a U.S. based, independent humanitarian organization that spends about $136 million annually to bring relief supplies to some 470,000 Syrians per month.
“It is the lack of decisive political action and the lack of progress on the peace process,” Proud added. “There is no intellectual commitment to changing the situation.”
Mercy Corps has 283 relief workers in Syria, along with a variety of local Syrian partners. It was expelled from the Syrian capital of Damascus -- the U.N.’s main, in-country relief hub -- by the Assad regime in 2014 after refusing to stop cross-border relief operations into opposition territory and still conducts major cross-border relief efforts.
“We are about to launch our own planning process,” Proud said. “We are looking to expand our responsibilities where we can.”
The very notion of any planned or suggested cutbacks to future Syrian appeals, however, is strongly denied, in a blizzard of equally bureaucratic verbiage, by officials with the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA.
“It is premature to talk about an amount for the 2017 appeal,” an OCHA spokesperson told Fox News -- even though such appeals are typically unveiled early in the New Year. “Some numbers have been suggested as a baseline,” the spokesperson added, “to help partners prioritize their most critical programming. But there is no official cap as such.”
Instead, “OCHA and its partners are finalizing a shared understanding of the actual and anticipated needs in Syria, as well as a common strategic framework to address the needs of millions of people in Syria within a very complex operating environment.”
Behind the muffled language is the likelihood, according to non-U.N. aid workers, that the entire U.N. fundraising process for Syria this year will be delayed, while the refugee situation in the entire region grows much worse. One cause is the intensifying Iraqi government military offensive against the ISIS stronghold of Mosul, where more than 1 million residents could become refugees, spilling over, in some cases, into Syria.
A $264 million U.N. “flash appeal” for humanitarian relief for Mosul is so far only 64 percent funded.