Transforming How We Respond to a Crisis Like Syria

As an alliance of international NGOs, InterAction espouses the value of working together during humanitarian crises. It is for this reason that for the past two years we have played an integral role in developing what is called a “transformative agenda." This agenda is an update to the guidance of how we work together within humanitarian responses, clarifying issues of leadership, coordination and strategy. The underlying driver of our intended transformation is to ensure that when the next crisis occurs, not only will the policies and procedures that humanitarians follow be clearer, but our mindset will be more conducive to working more collaboratively.

The humanitarians represented on the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) intentionally planned for a crisis of such magnitude that the success or failure of our response would hinge on our ability to coordinate. We even labeled the crisis – a Level 3. For those not familiar with the IASC, it was created by a UN General Assembly resolution in 1992, with the goal of strengthening humanitarian responses. What we did not realize as we were debating and discussing potential response protocols was that a Level 3 crisis was already gaining momentum in Syria. The Syria uprising began in March 2011 and by the time it was officially declared a Level 3 crisis in January 2013, 60,000 people had been killed,  2 million were displaced internally or had sought refuge in neighboring countries, and a further 4 million needed urgent humanitarian assistance. Last month, a team from InterAction went to the region to examine the connections between the refugee response and those displaced in Syria. We also looked at the status of NGO coordination structures and reviewed how measures drawn up to respond to a Level 3 crisis had been implemented. What we found were some amazing examples of humanitarian teams working together as best they could within the constraints of a difficult security situation, funding shortfalls and access issues.  We also found that too many of us are stuck in a “day-after” planning mode. The list of plans include the day after Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad falls; the day after cross-border work is authorized; the day after there is more access to/from Damascus. The expectation that there is a ‘day after,’  when operational constraints are resolved, both ignores the current analysis that the situation in Syria will get worse before it gets better, and avoids dealing with what we know is likely to happen tomorrow, next week or even next month. We should be planning for what we know.  Given the reality on the ground in Syria, we recognize that there are constraints. We know that we will not be able to do enough; our individual capacity is insufficient. For us to collectively do all we can within current limits, we have to work differently.  In order to ensure a coordinated response, we must ask ourselves some hard questions. Is the response based on needs and is it strategic enough in the face of current constraints? Are we being proactive, analyzing risks, constraints and trends and developing creative solutions, or are we just reactive in our approach?  Is there strong effective leadership, and are we willing to follow? Are we transparent and honest about our limitations and making the hard decisions that come as a result?   The people affected by the Syria humanitarian crisis need us at our best – flexible, creative, principled, collaborative. Transformed.  

Patty McIlreavy is the Senior Director for Humanitarian Policy at InterAction.