Harasta in the governorate of Rural Damascus, Syria. Harasta in the governorate of Rural Damascus, Syria. Photo credit: Ammar Saboh/ICRC
Empowering local NGOs: the story of Syria Relief
by Mazen Alhousseiny May 2021

Despite the gravity of the crisis in Syria, the international humanitarian system has failed to address the humanitarian consequences of the conflict. This forced non-humanitarian actors in Syria to form community-based organisations to collect donations from their social networks in order to support those affected by the conflict. With the engagement and commitment of Syrians in the diaspora, these initiatives expanded, and new humanitarian volunteers, whether expatriates or Syrians still in the country, felt the need to register and legalise their commitment. Syria Relief is one of these newly formed NGOs.

Syria Relief operated initially through local knowledge and local contacts to deliver emergency aid, including tents and food for displaced people. However, according to its chairman and co-founder, Dr Ayman Jundi, ‘We realised that the conflict would be a protracted one, and that humanitarian needs would soon be spiralling. So we decided to set up an organisation that can formally and transparently raise the funds necessary to deliver aid to vulnerable communities in hard-to-reach areas, which would include emergency medical care as well as skills and capacity building for medical staff inside Syria’.

At the beginning of the response, newly formed Syrian-led NGOs operated on a small scale armed with limited knowledge and collecting funds through the limited channels available to them, buying essential items for families from local supermarkets and distributing them through volunteers. Few international organisations were active in the response, but the number began to increase from mid-2014 following UN Resolution 2165, which allowed cross-border operations into non-government areas without Syrian government approval. More funds became available from institutional donors, either directly to INGOs/UN agencies or through the Country-Based Pooled Fund (CBPF) managed by OCHA.

Syria Relief started working with INGOs in 2013. One of its first international partners was Save the Children. Funding from Save the Children covered distribution costs (mostly food assistance and other commodities), and basic training on topics such as safeguarding, cash and voucher programming and communications. This vital partnership changed the way Syria Relief operated, from a newly formed charity with a passion for philanthropy as its main resource and motivation to a more systematic operation working to international standards and in line with donor compliance requirements.

The capacity development process

In April 2014, Save the Children set up a special unit to organise and develop its partnership activities, comprising dedicated staff from each function and department within Save the Children International, including monitoring, evaluation and learning, logistics, finance, safety and security and HR. All were local staff, led by an expatriate. This structure encouraged local partners to be more open and increased trust in the relationship. Training expanded to cover operational management skills, stress management, monitoring and evaluation, project and asset management, first aid, distribution, psychological first aid, Hostile Environment Awareness Training (HEAT) and finance. Focused on individual rather than organisational development, the training expanded the horizons of Syria Relief’s staff, resulting in higher standards and a clearer understanding of the contractual commitments and technical requirements of partnering with INGOs and UN agencies.

In 2015, the partnership unit led the development of a unified organisational capacity assessment tool (OCAT) for INGOs working in cross-border operations from Turkey. The user-friendly tool was designed to simplify the complicated process of assessing the capabilities of local NGOs by reducing the need for repeated assessments for each partnership between a local NGO and an INGO. The tool has also encouraged local NGOs to conduct self-assessments on their organisations, increasing awareness of their own capacities and how to improve them. The unit also designed special stand-alone proposals focused on developing partners’ capacity at an organisational level, using grants and funding from institutional donors including the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the IKEA Foundation.

Through multi-year grants between 2016 and 2019, Save the Children coached local partners on the OCAT process and encouraged them to use it as a self-assessment tool, with the results reflected in Organisational Capacity Development (OCD) strategies aimed at addressing institutional gaps. Each partner, including Syria Relief, was asked to design concept notes for small grants to meet organisational needs identified through the OCA and in OCD plans. SCI provided coaching and mentorship to help local partners look beyond project implementation capacities and focus on developing the foundations for sustainable operations.

In Syria Relief’s case, funding was used to develop the capacity of field staff in Syria who had no access to professional training due to cross-border travel restrictions, enhance its systems to match institutional donors’ compliance requirements and strategic planning. The first grant was used to hire a qualified consultant to train the NGO’s senior country-based management team on USAID rules and regulations, with a view to reviewing and modifying operational policies and procedures to match its strict requirements. Syria Relief also used the grant to develop its monitoring, evaluation, accountability and learning (MEAL) capacity in line with the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability (CHS). The second grant funded training for field staff inside Syria on these new policies and procedures, ensuring that they were adopted and adhered to.

The third grant supported Syria Relief in developing its first holistic strategy for the forthcoming three years. The plan has significantly helped Syria Relief as an organisation to design its own path, rather than being donor-driven or overly influenced by continual changes to the context. The final grant within the scope of capacity development was used to establish Syria Relief’s own organisational development unit in order to mentor and support local community-based organisations (CBOs) and civil society organisations (CSOs), as well as continuing training for Syria-based staff on more advanced skills, such as management and reporting.

Syria Relief’s localisation approach

Over the last two years, Syria Relief has achieved promising results in terms of its aim of greater localisation. For Syria Relief, developing local organisations, strengthening grassroots CBOs and enhancing the capacity of local NGOs is one of the goals defined in its first strategic plan. Syria Relief is now not just a beneficiary of training and capacity enhancement activities, but is also transferring these skills, experiences and best practices to other NGOs and CBOs. Organisational development activities in 2019 and 2020 targeting local and international NGOs covered individual capacity enhancement (i.e. training on managerial and operational topics such as project management, partnership management, proposal development, report writing and management skills), technical training (i.e. hostile environment awareness training (HEST) and Sphere), organisational capacity enhancement (i.e. development of policies and procedures, systems for finance, supply chain, project management), and consultations and workshops on change management and the future of Syrian NGOs working from Turkey. These activities benefited approximately 40 NGOs and CBOs, assisting 450 aid workers from the Syrian context. With dual levels of support (individual and organisational), Syria Relief aims to ensure a strong and healthy operational response for the vulnerable individuals who rely on those NGOs.

Syria Relief is integrating capacity development with advocacy for more localised responses through the networks and fora it is a member of. The organisation is an active participant in national, regional and global networks such as the Syrian NGO Alliance (SNA), the North West Syria (NWS) NGO Forum and the Syrian Networks League (SNL) in Turkey, the Syria INGO Regional Forum (SIRF) in Jordan, the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA), the Network for Empowered Aid Response (NEAR) and the Grand Bargain. Through these memberships, Syria Relief advocates for the rights of vulnerable Syrians, while implementing partnership principles and ensuring that localisation is pursued within the Syrian context.

We have worked closely with other organisations committed to localisation and local empowerment to establish a platform to advocate for the importance to local NGOs of partnership principles and capacity development. As chair of the platform, Syria Relief has worked hard to ensure its sustainability, and that its recommendations are adopted by the Humanitarian Country Team through embedding the platform within a working group under the NGO Forum. Syria Relief has also been chosen by ICVA and NEAR/IRC to be part of their revision committees providing feedback on products to measure, promote and encourage localisation, such as ICVA’s Localisation in Humanitarian Leadership Report and IRC’s Collaborative Strategy and Program Design Guide. In addition, Syria Relief was selected by the Grand Bargain localisation workstream to co-lead the Syria country dialogue and facilitate the participation of Syrian NGOs in the process and the writing of the report.

Our current responsibility is to help maintain a strong civil society in Syria that can help in the rebuilding of the country once the conflict ends. To that end, Syria Relief is working on strengthening the capacity of local CBOs, civil services directorates and grassroots charities, engaging directly with them to enhance localisation.  The approach is comprised of two integrated pillars:

Pillar 1: Syria Relief provides ongoing capacity-strengthening support to local NGOs via its organisational development unit, allowing it to share knowledge and experience in three areas (technical, operational and organisational) through training, coaching, mentoring and consultancy support. The main aim of this pillar is to develop the capacity of these organisations and enable them to diversify funding streams, in addition to fulfilling the main roles of NGOs during the reconstruction phase in post-conflict countries. 

Pillar 2: Syria Relief ensures that local NGOs’ voices are heard and respected through participating in national, regional and global forums and highlighting the need for localisation, reflecting the progress made by INGOs, the UN and donors working in targeted contexts; and developing research showing the impact of localisation in targeted contexts.

This approach aims to share the lessons and best practices Syria Relief has accrued through working with its partners, similar to Save the Children’s approach to working with Syria Relief previously. 

Mazen Alhousseiny was working as the Organisational Development Manager with Syria Relief at the time of writing. He supported the capacity-strengthening of Syria Relief as well as other Syrian CBOs.