[Individual articles from the Fall 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]
Access, local capacity, managing tensions with host communities and security—these are just a few of many areas to consider when operating in complex humanitarian environments. MCC’s local partnership approach to its work globally often provides a comparative advantage when responding to crises, particularly in cases such as Syria, where active conflict and issues of security and access make it difficult for other actors, such as international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) involved in direct implementation, from easily coordinating a response. The international community has also formally recognized the need to increase support by donor governments, the United Nations and INGOs to local organizations in an agreement known as the Grand Bargain, launched in 2016 as a commitment to improving the “effectiveness and efficiency” of humanitarian action. While many other INGOs scrambled to find local partners to work with to respond to the Syrian war, MCC already had long-established partnerships in place, some established more than 20 years before the start of the war. While this has enabled MCC to respond to the basic needs of many Syrian households and communities over the past nine years, this opportunity to respond has not been without its own learning and challenges.
Since its work began in Syria in 1991, MCC’s partners have been churches or church agencies whose primary work was in education, support for persons with disabilities and agricultural, social service and humanitarian relief initiatives. What changed with the beginning of the war was not their desire to respond to the needs of their communities, but the needs of those communities. A large part of MCC’s work with its partners in the initial period of the response was to build their capacity and provide training on how to distribute food parcels, non-food items and cash allowances according to international humanitarian principles and standards. For smaller local Syrian groups and organizations, the funds made available for humanitarian response by donor countries and organizations were new and carried with them expectations and accountability mechanisms with which they had no previous experience. With time, many MCC partners have been able to access new sources of donor funding since their response to the conflict began, thanks to having gained proficiency in programming and reporting on humanitarian assistance in a way that meets global best practice standards and donor expectations.
Working with existing partners also dictates, to a certain extent, the locations where MCC’s response will be focused, as MCC’s access is limited to the access partners already have or are able to acquire. This does not mean that the assistance is not targeted to the most vulnerable within a community. However, the fact that the project areas inside Syria during the war have been limited to where MCC’s church partners can operate freely has necessarily left some parts of the country outside of MCC’s ability to respond. This has included besieged areas where access has been difficult for all actors as well as areas under the control of groups with whom MCC and its partners cannot obtain guarantees for safe access. Despite these restrictions, the areas available to MCC partners have nevertheless included a majority of Syria’s governorates and many communities that host internally displaced households from all corners of the country. The depth of knowledge and trust that local partners have in these communities has allowed MCC-supported projects to bridge divides between people of different religious beliefs as well as between displaced and host community households.
International organizations also need to take seriously the security risks that are passed on to local partners in complex operating environments such as Syria. Local partner staff assume significant security risks on top of working to mitigate the risks to those receiving assistance. The choice of distribution locations, whether to distribute cash or in-kind assistance, the specific needs of those with limited mobility, access to areas for monitoring visits—all need to be considered and managed by local staff and volunteers. While international donors require that partners participate in and share information with official aid coordination structures, this can also carry risks when the provision of assistance might include households from areas previously outside of government control. MCC and the donor agencies from which it receives funds for the response in Syria must take seriously the duty of care that comes with working in a volatile context and be willing to allow for necessary exceptions to standard practices. MCC and donor agencies also need to fulfill their duty of care in helping partners build their capacity to manage risk and security effectively.
As MCC continues to respond to short- and longer-term humanitarian needs in Syria, these issues of access, capacity and security will remain and evolve. The lessons of the last nine years of supporting local partners in Syria will inform MCC’s ongoing response in the country. As MCC grows in its understanding of the interplay of access, local partner capacity and security, the experience of the Syria crisis will also help it to more effectively respond to future humanitarian crises in the Middle East and other parts of the world.
Stephanie Dyck is external grants program coordinator for MCC Lebanon and Syria.
Inter-agency Standing Committee. “The Grand Bargain.” Available at https://interagencystandingcommittee.org/grand-bargain.
Pavanello, Sara with Larissa Fast and Eva Svoboda. “Fostering Local Partnerships in Remote Management and High-Threat Settings.” Report commissioned by the Humanitarian Policy Group. July 2018. Available at http://odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/resource-documents/12302.pdf.