$11bn pledged for Syria as UN awaits payments

Governments gathered to make record pledges for Syria, but UN sees little of the money

As thousands of Syrians fled fighting near Aleppo and crowded toward the Turkish border in the early days of February, governments gathered in London to find a way to fund the humanitarian crisis created by five years of war. But amid the headlines of pledged generosity, a key question remains: will donors make good on those promises?

At the end of a day-long event on Thursday – co-hosted by the UK, Germany, Kuwait and Norway – donors pledged more than $11m, the most raised by the international community ‘on a single day for a single crisis’ according to UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon.

Yet, the next challenge will be making good on collections. A pledge is a non-binding agreement and the UN’s humanitarian affairs body, UNOCHA, makes a distinction between promises, actual payments and commitments backed by a contract. In 2013 the UN saw a severe funding shortfall for the Syrian crisis when payments received failed to live up to the promises made.

And sometimes the promises aren't enough either: UN figures suggest that while donors contributed $1.25bn to last year's Syria humanitarian appeal, it was just 43 per cent of what was needed. One of the main objectives for this year’s conference had been to raise $7bn for immediate humanitarian relief: the UN says it will need $7.73bn for its response in Syria in 2016 alone.

As the conflict enters its sixth year, the numbers who need help are huge, with more than 4.5 million people who have fled the country and an estimated 13.5 million people inside the country in urgent need of aid.

“Despite the generosity of some donors, the international community has failed to keep pace with these needs,” said Ban at the event.

What may ultimately be more significant than promised funds is the commitment made by the countries hosting the most refugees - Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan - to open their labour markets to the many working age individuals who now shelter within their borders.

A significant grey economy has developed in refugee camps where many would prefer to work and earn a living, rather than rely on aid, but have faced difficulties in doing so legally. Resolving the legal limbo could help stem the creation of what the Norwegian Refugee Council described in January as an ‘underclass’, spawned by insufficient aid and restrictive government policies around issues that included freedom to work and access to education.

These same host countries have now also committed to get the 1.7 million Syrian refugee children within their borders into school.

“Today’s pledges will enable humanitarian workers to continue reaching millions of people with life-saving aid,” Ban told a news conference. “Syrian and other refugees need the chance to work and provide for their families. Today, let us commit to getting all Syrian children into school, within months, not years. Offering hope is the best way to slow the exodus of educated Syrians and prevent the radicalisation of a lost generation.”

Photo credit: Rob Thom/Crown Copyright