Deciding who to aid in Syria

August 12, 2015
Rezan Hemo
Almost 10 million Syrians are reported to be in need of non-food assistance

The Reluctant Beneficiary Dilemma

‘I am not a person in need of humanitarian assistance’, says the registered and verified ‘recipient’. Despite meeting the criteria qualifying him for inclusion in our food distribution program – with a large (8 member) family and no income for the last two years – Khalil proclaims himself ‘in a good situation financially’.

Cases like that of Khalil* – the potential ‘beneficiary’ in this case – present a daily dilemma for frontline aid workers trying to accurately assess needs in conflict-affected situations.

‘I cannot accept your help’, continues the man, a practicing lawyer before the conflict in Syria, and still a respected figure in his rural Aleppo community. ‘Thank you, but I prefer to support myself’, he explains. As our distribution team is leaving his house, they are approached by Khalil’s wife.  ‘Please’, she says, ‘we are desperate for your help. These days nobody is paying for legal services here’.

This somewhat confusing situation is a surprisingly common occurrence in the field. Dressed in his carefully ironed suit, Khalil spends the working day sitting behind his office desk trying to keep up appearances. Most days, however, he receives no business. This case clearly exemplifies the psychological stigma associated with receiving relief handouts.

Challenges of selecting beneficiaries

The challenging job of aid workers in the field is to make those truly in need of assistance (be it material or otherwise) feel comfortable enough to accept it in a dignified way. This must be balanced with the imperative to not erode individual resilience and communal coping strategies.  Classifying individuals as ‘vulnerable’ runs the potential risk of perpetuating an identity complex of being dependent upon external assistance.

With the limited access for humanitarian actors in Syria, even local organisations are increasingly faced with the challenge of effectively conveying such field realities to the often remotely-based management. For example, it can seem absurd and insensitive to be asking about the household income of a family whose home has just been destroyed by shelling. Identifying need and vulnerability is never easy, especially when it results in a family being either included or excluded from an assistance program.

However, with recipients in Syria so distanced from those coordinating the aid response (perhaps to an even further extent than in most humanitarian situations) there is a need to ensure robust systems are in place that accurately identify and assess humanitarian need – without losing sight of the complexities of individual cases. Moreover, destroyed infrastructure and interrupted market processes means that aid agencies, with only limited resources, must support increasing numbers of people in need.

How Bihar Relief Organisation has responded

In dealing with such challenges in our own work, Bihar Relief Organisation (established in 2011 to respond to the escalating Syria crisis) recognises the importance of maintaining objective and transparently applied criteria. To the extent possible, we use simple criteria standardised across all programs: large family, no regular income, disability or chronic illness etc. We make every effort to ensure that the community is well-informed about the criteria we use. When it is practical to do so, we prefer to have the details posted in locations visible to the whole public. Meanwhile, we periodically consult with the community – including beneficiaries, non-beneficiaries, representatives and elders – in order to gain their feedback and assess local perceptions of the criteria being employed.  One conclusion has been that sometimes (particularly in small villages), it may be sensible to employ blanket distribution, rather than leave just one or two disgruntled families excluded from support.

In addition, we actively facilitate an internal debate amongst our members about people they come across in the field who do not conform to the formal criteria for identifying humanitarian needs. For example, several members raised the concern that, although in employment, main income-providers who were teachers often struggled to cover basic expenses for their families. This was because the government has not adjusted teaching salaries (which in any case are often delayed) to reflect the high prices of the war economy.

As with Khalil, formerly middle-class families sometimes experience a sense of shame and embarrassment in identifying themselves as deserving beneficiaries. Trying to incorporate such observations into the design of future programming is an ongoing process at Bihar.

As a relatively young organisation, we would welcome hearing about how other humanitarian agencies (international and local) manage these challenges in complex settings. Ultimately, how can criteria simultaneously be: easily applicable in the field, adaptable for mixed IDP/host populations and responsive to new influxes and changes in access?

* Khalil is a pseudonym

Rezan Hemo is Field Coordinator for Bihar Relief Organisation, a humanitarian agency established in 2011 to respond to the civil war in Syria.


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