x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Generosity of Arab donors works best through UN aid

By pledging aid for displaced Syrians, the UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have shown that they are ready to accept an important responsibility.

Thousands of Syrian refugees are counting on donors' generosity. Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images
Thousands of Syrian refugees are counting on donors' generosity. Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

We have come to expect bad news out of Syria.

In the last few weeks alone, the country has seen summary executions, the bombing of a major university, and population displacement on a massive and growing scale.

While briefing the United Nations Security Council last week, the envoy of the UN and the Arab League, Lakhdar Brahimi, described the situation in Syria as "grim". In truth even that doleful sentiment seems inadequate.

Mercifully, last week brought a rare bit of good news. In an impressive show of international solidarity, officials from dozens of countries gathered in Kuwait City and offered tangible financial support for displaced Syrians who are now living throughout the region.

Three countries, however, were well ahead of all the others in generosity. The UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia each pledged a remarkable $300 million (Dh1.1bn).

These are some of the largest contributions that these Arabian Peninsula countries have ever made to the UN aid system, and they are an affirmation of the three states' generosity toward the Syrian people in their time of need.

Importantly, these three donations could also mark the beginning of a new era - one in which the Arabian Peninsula assumes real leadership in the UN's aid efforts around the world.

In the lead-up to this important conference, the UN asked the world's donors in general to provide a record $1.5 billion for humanitarian assistance to displaced Syrians.

However, it was not at all certain as the meeting convened that this money would be forthcoming.

The usual principal donors to UN aid efforts, most notably the United States, the European Union and Japan, had already donated hundreds of millions of dollars in recent months - and not just for Syria, but also to relieve distress and save lives in Mali, Somalia, Myanmar, and a host of other troubled countries.

With competing needs abroad and fiscal constraints at home, it was unclear whether these donors could deliver such a large sum as $1.5 billion for the Syrian people. Fortunately, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait decided to step in to fill the funding gap.

Arabian Peninsula countries have historically shied away from supporting the UN when it comes to matters of foreign aid. They have generally chosen instead to fund small organisations already on the ground where aid is needed, or alternatively to create their own ad hoc programmes.

Efforts of that type are admirable and appreciated by many, but on the other hand they can sometimes complicate the already difficult process of assisting large numbers of displaced and needy people.

By not coordinating with the broader aid community, previous programmes have on some occasions unwittingly duplicated the efforts of other groups, or provided incomplete, one-off services.

This has been the case in countries hosting Syrian refugees in recent months. For example, during recent winter storms that swept through the region, some Syrians found themselves with stacks of blankets and portable heaters, but without any shelter from the rain and snow. In other communities, meanwhile, vital food packages were delivered one month, but not the next. Scores of hospitals and clinics have opened to help injured refugees, but schools for Syrian children in the same areas are still in short supply.

These are the kinds of problems that can occur when diverse donors fail to pool their resources or communicate about whom they are helping and how.

By contrast, a well-coordinated humanitarian response allows each donor to focus on what it does best, while also meeting each beneficiary's basic needs.

By joining and supporting the UN-led response, rather than going it alone, these three countries will help ensure that families get food regularly, that people with medical conditions get their prescription medications on time and that women and children get care from professionals who understand their unique needs.

By contributing so generously to the UN's Syria appeal, the UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are demonstrating a type of leadership that is quiet but powerful: leadership by example.

Their pledges prove that their people and governments care about the well-being of Syrians, and that they believe the UN system is best-placed to assist them.

These messages will resonate around the world and can be expected to encourage more countries to give more generously.

It goes without saying that these pledges must be converted into real donations - and fast. Promises alone feed nobody.

The need for aid is growing every day, and Jordan, Iraq, and other countries are increasingly overwhelmed by a rising tide of refugees. Thousands are now counting on donors' generosity, this is no time to dissemble or delay.

The existing UN-led system for providing aid is certainly not perfect, and we must not pretend that it is. But if it is to be more effective, every country will have to work to improve it and expand it.

With their generous pledges last week, the UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have shown that they are willing to accept this important responsibility.


Michel Gabaudan is the president of Refugees International, a non-profit organisation that accepts no UN or government funding