Building community resilience to break the cycle of suffering in Syria
19 August 2022
It has been more than 11 years since one of the world’s most complex and politicized crises first unfolded in the Syrian Arab Republic. The pain and suffering inflicted on the civilian population in these intervening years have been immense, trapping millions of ordinary Syrians in a protracted humanitarian emergency and denying a whole generation of young people their future.
When I was first appointed the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator of Syria three years ago, I had hoped that as the intensity of the conflict appeared to diminish, we would begin to witness a different trajectory than the one we are in today; where the needs are greater than when the crisis first began.
As we prepare to mark World Humanitarian Day today and recognize the community of actors who commit themselves to serving the needs of the vulnerable, it is both striking and saddening to note that over 14 million people in Syria are currently in need of humanitarian assistance. Hunger and food shortages represent a persistent threat for ordinary Syrians, with almost 10 million people living in a state of acute food insecurity in 2022. For over a decade now, Syria has had the largest population of internally displaced people in the world, many of whom have been forced to flee their homes in search of safety and basic services time and time again.
Cascade of crises
The factors driving such extreme levels of needs in Syria over the last 11 years are wide-ranging, but were triggered in the first instance by the crisis that began in 2011 and intensified leading to massive destruction of civilian infrastructure, displacement and loss of life.
Today, the needs of most ordinary Syrians are not driven by conflict, but by a protracted socio-economic crisis that has left 90 per cent of the population living below the poverty line.
This economic deterioration has been compounded by a series of back-to-back crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic collapse in neighboring Lebanon and the ongoing war in Ukraine. The reason the impact of these shocks has been so extreme in Syria is because it lacks the basic public infrastructure and services that enable other countries to respond, adapt and recover from such shocks.
Without this type of resilience, the economic crisis in Syria will inevitably deepen and the complex humanitarian emergency which has already inflicted so much suffering on the civilian population will grow year after year. To break this cycle of suffering, it was clear we needed to do something differently.
Building resilience through early recovery
For the UN team in Syria, this change of direction began with a renewed commitment to listen, learn from and get closer to the communities we serve.
Whether this was speaking to vulnerable families during field visits, listening to colleagues in the field, or discussing with local authorities, these conversations have made it clear that in order to get lives and livelihoods back on track, the people of Syria must have a reliable system of public services, support and infrastructure behind them.
This inclusive, multistakeholder and multi-sector approach - early recovery and resilience programming, has been at the core of the UN team’s work in Syria over the last few years. Through these efforts, we have leveraged our access in the country via our decentralized network of field offices and hubs and the strong presence of national and international NGOs, enabling the UN team to get closer to affected communities and better understand their area-specific needs.
This approach, however, must be balanced with the continuation of life-saving assistance. To address the multifaceted nature of the crisis in Syria, immediate life-saving support must be provided together with other medium-and long-term solutions.
Leveraging the nexus in practice
The UN Joint Programme on Urban and Rural Resilience in Syria is one of the ways that this nexus of resilience building while maintaining emergency assistance has been put into practice in the field.
The programme, which includes six UN agencies, has been piloted in two of the most heavily devastated parts of Syria: Dara’a in the south and Deir Ezzor in the east of the country. Last month, I took a group of donors to visit some of these projects in Deir Ezzor, an area that has suffered from high levels of food insecurity, drought and a loss of agricultural production due to decreased rainfall.
On the rural side of Deir Ezzor, we visited an area known as ‘Sector 5’, where FAO and WFP are running a joint project to rehabilitate the irrigation system and enhance food security. The ripple effects of this type of early recovery intervention were clear to see. With reliable water management systems, farmers were able to restore their agricultural outputs, produce their own food and increase household income from local markets. A year and a half ago, all of the four villages within Sector 5 were entirely reliant on food assistance and emergency handouts, but now that number is only 15 per cent.
In the urban setting as well, early recovery and resilience are already delivering visible results. During my previous three visits to Cinema Fouad Street in central Deir Ezzor, named after the old cinema which used to stand there, every corner of the area was destroyed, not a trace of economic or human activity remained.
On this visit however, thanks to investments from our Joint Programme in healthcare, schools, solar lighting and small businesses, the street was transformed. Restaurants were buzzing, lights were on, life had started to return to the city. To me, this type of intervention signaled something much greater than a simple restoration of infrastructure; it underwrote a confidence in the area and showed how people were using their own resources to return, rebuild and reestablish their lives here.
To build on these successes, we must continue to coalesce all our partners around this early recovery and resilience approach, and ensure that there is sustained funding to meet the basic needs of every person in Syria going forward.
The UN development system reform has already helped strengthen this shared understanding and enabled the UN team in Syria to leverage each agency’s knowledge and capacity in a more coordinated and complementary way.
With this broad coalition of partners, we are determined to support resilience and create more opportunities for the communities across Syria that have suffered so deeply.
By Imran Riza, UN Resident & Humanitarian Coordinator in Syria.
To learn more about the UN's work on the ground, visit: syria.un.org.