Humanitarian Aid to Syria: A Mismatch Between Principles and Expectations

According to multiple recent stories in the New York Times, Syrian rebels are complaining that the humanitarian aid being funneled into the country is not reaching those in need in rebel-held areas. Instead, the lion’s share is benefiting those in the territories held by President Assad and the rebels are interpreting this as de facto support of Western humanitarian donors for the incumbent regime. Needless to say, this interpretation has led to rising anger towards the West.

Is this sentiment reasonable?

I don’t think so and here’s why: the organizations providing the humanitarian aid do not aim to provide an equal and simultaneous distribution of aid to all those in need.

Most of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that provide humanitarian aid aim to behave apolitically, which involves the impartial, neutral, and independent delivery of aid. In other words, humanitarian NGOs aim to allocate aid on the basis of need and without discrimination (impartiality); they aim to avoid deliberately favouring any side in a political dispute (neutrality); and the organizations aim to act autonomously from political, economic or other objectives (independence).

A commitment to remaining apolitical is crucial for humanitarian NGOs since it is the only behavior that will be tolerated by the states in which they are looking to distribute aid. Sovereignty is still considered an inviolable principle in international relations, therefore, in order for humanitarian NGOs to gain access to a population, they must be invited into the country by the regime in power. Gaining such an invitation requires that the NGOs stay out of domestic politics: in other words, that they remain apolitical.

Since humanitarian NGOs are “guests” of the state, they must confine their activities within whatever boundaries the state draws around them. To violate that boundary means risking expulsion from the state thereby being denied the opportunity to provide any aid whatsoever.  The fear of expulsion is a strong motivator for NGOs to toe the line drawn by the state. Fundamentally, however, respecting these limits presents an impediment to providing an equal distribution of aid to all the populations in need.

Furthermore, even if humanitarian NGOs weren’t constrained by the state, no state, let alone NGO, has the logistical capacity to deliver aid to everyone, everywhere in a given country at the same time.

Now, I am in no way saying that the delivery of aid cannot be improved. It can. And, that is a goal that all donors (states) and deliverers (NGOs) should work towards. What I am saying is that the criticisms and derision by the Syrian rebels are not wholly warranted.

The rebels make a powerful point in noting that by providing aid where the state wants the humanitarians to do so (to the Assad-held areas) is, in fact, a beneficial resource transfer to the regime. However, the point still stands, that to expect humanitarians to deliver aid equally and simultaneously undermines their commitments to delivering aid apolitically. Ultimately, the rebels are demanding a service that was never promised and is not feasible. For this reason, I believe that the scorn that the rebels are directing at the West in general is misplaced.

Stephanie Soiffer

Ph.D. Candidate

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