Humanitarian Aid Corruption in Regime-Held Syria: How Should the International Donor Community Respond?

In response to the humanitarian disaster caused by Syria’s ongoing civil war, international aid has poured into the country, to the tune of over $40 billion since 2011. Yet 14.6 million people (out of a total Syrian population of approximately 18 million) remain in need of some form of humanitarian assistance. One of the main reasons that so many people remain in need is the Assad regime’s systematic co-optation and corrupt diversion of international aid. The regime has required that foreign donors partner with one of two local Syrian organizations—the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and Syria Trust for Development (founded and run by President Assad’s wife); these government-affiliated organizations can then deliver aid money “out of sight” of the international organizations that sent that money, thereby obstructing aid workers’ ability to ensure that aid is distributed based on need. The government also mandates that all international organizations in Damascus hire local personnel hand-selected by the regime who supervise all programming and select which beneficiaries receive aid. These tools enable the Assad regime to use aid for political purposes, and to corruptly divert tens of billions of aid to politically connected elites, many of whom are responsible for the human rights violations that made humanitarian aid necessary to begin with.

For those whose top priority is to help suffering Syrians, it may be tempting to ignore or downplay the corrupt diversion of humanitarian aid—to view it as the unpleasant but inevitable cost of doing relief work in a country ruled by a despot. But continuing with the status quo is not a viable option. Right now, the aid pouring into Syria is helping the regime much more than it is helping suffering civilians, and it would be irresponsible to ignore this fact. Does this mean the international community should simply suspend humanitarian aid to Syria altogether? That option is also unpalatable. For one thing, it would impose grave costs on Syrian civilians: Even if the regime steals or misdirects up to 90% of incoming humanitarian aid, the 10% that ordinary Syrian civilians currently receive is still better than nothing. Furthermore, a decision to halt aid completely could also send the message that the international community does not think helping Syrian civilians is worth the hassle.  

If neither continuing the current approach to delivering humanitarian aid nor suspending aid altogether is acceptable, what should the international donor community do? There is no good answer to this question, but as the humanitarian crisis in Syria shows no sign of abating, the international community must do what it can to find ways to get aid to the citizens who need it most. There are a few measures that, while imperfect, might be helpful:

  • First, international donors should consider finding ways to funnel aid through local partners that are not affiliated with, or influenced by, the Assad regime. Despite the fact that the Syrian government requires aid organizations partner with SARC or Syria Trust, non-affiliated organizations have been able to sustain covert aid operations even in regime-controlled areas of Syria. International donors should try to funnel more aid to and through these organizations—though doing so will require carefully vetting and due diligence. A considerable downside to this approach, however, is the risk involved: should these local groups gain more attention, they could become more vulnerable to government crackdowns. Therefore, efforts to work around the government must be kept small-scale, targeted, and localized so as not to attract government attention.
  • Second, the international donor community should engage in more extensive negotiations with Syria, Russia, and representatives from SARC, Syria Trust, and other local organizations to address concerns about corruption and misdirection of aid. In these negotiations, which could take place through existing groups like the Humanitarian Task Force or new mechanisms exclusively targeting anticorruption in aid delivery, the international donor community should push for the ability to choose local partners and beneficiaries freely; more field visits to beneficiary areas and newly-integrated former-opposition areas; an independent monitoring and evaluations processes; and reducing administrative presence and approvals for field operations. While negotiating over these matters with the Assad regime might seem pointless, given the regime’s tight grip over the aid distribution system, the international community still has considerable leverage, at least if it shows a united front. Both Syria and Russia (the Assad regime’s principal international supporter) have shallow pockets as of late, and the Syrian regime has been financially struggling due to an economic crisis. The UN and donor countries can emphasize that without significant reforms, they will consider withdrawing of aid altogether. That message, if presented collectively and credibly, may put sufficient pressure on Damascus to allow the adoption of operational standards and procedures for aid delivery that will curtail at least the most egregious forms of corruption.

Reducing corrupt diversion of humanitarian aid in Syria will not be easy. Will the above solutions help? It is certainly worth a serious try. The status quo amounts to little more than pouring money into the pockets of Assad and his cronies, with a pittance reaching the Syrian civilians in most need; the withdrawal of aid altogether would strip Syrians in need of the little aid they are seeing in the first place. The international community should thus take whatever measures it can to redress that state of affairs to help the Syrian people without helping Assad.

1 thought on “Humanitarian Aid Corruption in Regime-Held Syria: How Should the International Donor Community Respond?

  1. Sandy, thank you for sharing this very important piece! I’m still shocked to read that up to 90% of Syrian aid funds are diverted! How much of an impact do you think setting up operational controls will have in reducing this number? Do you know of any donors who have successfully negotiated with Syrian officials on this point thus far?

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