Ralf Südhoff heads the Center for Humanitarian Action (CHA), founded in 2018. The task of the German think tank is to analyze and critically discuss humanitarian aid.
Mr. Südhoff, suffering, misery and a despot named Assad who sets the rules – little seems to have changed in Syria over the course of the conflict. What does this mean for humanitarian aid?
Even if you can hardly imagine it, it has become even more difficult to provide help. The need is greater than ever. More than 11 million Syrians depend on aid. Many people who, until recently, hardly made ends meet, fall into poverty. Covid-19, currency collapse, explosive prices – all of this has exacerbated an already dramatic situation for people. And the fact that Assad’s regime has actually won the war doesn’t make things any easier for aid workers.
Anyone who wants to help in Syria can only do so if they cooperate with the government in one way or another. Access to towns and villages is controlled by the guide. In plain language, independent help based solely on the size of people’s needs cannot be provided. At the same time, more than six million people in need are being cared for.
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In other words, compromises with those in power are required. Does the much-invoked neutrality of the helpers not fall by the wayside?
She ends up in a large gray area. Analyzes show that about half of the aid reaches people in need, the other half reaches people in need who are not the most needy. What would be the alternative? You can stop all help for the time being. But then you have to think that through to the end with a government that has bombed hospitals and used chemical weapons against its own people and cannot budge. Then all that remains is to stop all help; the helpers can no longer help millions of people in need.
President Assad determines where aid can be delivered in Syria – and where not. Photo: imago images / Itar Tass
Are there limits to willingness to compromise with the regime?
A central criterion in such conflicts may be whether the aid reaches people in need at all, or whether it can exacerbate the conflict and therefore the need, for example by supplying the army with it.
Communicating with the regime in certain cases – this accusation is repeatedly made against the United Nations. Turn right?
By definition, the UN cannot act against the will of a government. This means that these negotiations are necessary, where the UN should certainly have spoken with one voice earlier. But this also applies to private aid organizations, all of which must register in Damascus. Studies show they face very similar challenges.
Ralf Südhoff heads the Center for Humanitarian Action Photo: CHA
To this day, for almost ten years, very expensive emergency aid is provided almost exclusively in Syria. Is there no alternative?
No. This is often justified by the growing problem of agitation and politicization of aid worldwide, which is even more sensitive to this in development projects. However, in the tenth year of crisis, sustainable emergency aid or the restoration of basic infrastructure can be an alternative, namely replacing emergency aid.
For example, should you give people long-term water transport or repair the water pipes after ten years? Should you keep putting up tents to teach children or rebuild the school? Another gray area. Because the government will use any progress politically. But even after ten years, there is no change in sight in Syria. We must say goodbye to the idea that humanitarian aid should retroactively restore what the international community of states has politically neglected for years in this and other acute conflicts.