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Christian Aid: Civil-society groups in Syria need more support

20 September 2019

Organisations are being squeezed, interviews suggest

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Displaced Syrians at the Souran Crossing in Hama Province, on Sunday

Displaced Syrians at the Souran Crossing in Hama Province, on Sunday

THE Western media have largely ignored the work of Syrian civil-society activists, who have been a “silver lining on a very dark cloud” during the eight-year civil war, a new report says.

The report, Syrian Civil Society: A closing door, was published by Christian Aid on Friday. It argues that the door will “slam shut” on the country’s nascent civil-society organisations (CSOs) unless international donors lend their support.

CSO participants have described how concerns about the misuse or diversion of funds in extremist-controlled areas had resulted in an end to funding.

It was “very frightening and disturbing to see how quickly the international community can lose faith that things can change”, one interviewee in the report says, before warning that the “dawn” sought in Syria may take decades to arrive.

The report highlights that an estimated 75 per cent of all aid delivered inside Syria is done by Syrian CSOs and yet under one per cent of funding goes directly to them. Of 15 Syrian charities that provided people for interview, only two existed before 2011, and the report sketches the evolution of civil society from the pre-uprising years, when it “scarcely existed”, to its blooming in the early days of the uprising, and its “squeezing” in the years that followed.

This squeezing is attributed to both the Syrian government and armed groups.

“Our work will step on the toes of any controlling authority that doesn’t . . . agree with the concept of a pluralistic democracy; so sadly, in the government areas, we’ve run up against that issue; in the opposition area with various armed groups we’ve sometimes run into that issue; and with Kurdish groups, I’m sad to say, we’ve also run into that issue,” one person interviewed in the report says.

Interviewees also speak of the negative aspects of international funding for Syrian CSOs, describing a process of “NGO-isation”, the administrative burden of due- diligence processes related to counter-terrorist legislation, and the subsuming of priorities to those determined by international funders.

Among the recommendations are that international donors consider how to manage the risks of funding in opposition-held areas, and shift their focus to smaller projects that can take place “under the radar”.

The report is described by Christian Aid as a “testament to the fortitude of the women and men who, against incredible odds, internal and external, have built up a powerful, albeit imperfect, civil society in Syria”, and an attempt to offer “a truer view of Syrian civil society, giving a voice to people who have often been mentioned only as a footnote to atrocities, as aid workers killed in a shelling, or vilified as terrorists in the narratives of the government and its allies”.

Despite the crushing of much of their work, those interviewed showed “resilience and hopefulness”, the report says.

“People now just bury their thoughts, their beliefs, their ideology — but just for now, I believe, not for ever,” one observes.

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