Making humanitarian assistance sustainable: put women in charge

[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.]

“I am not useless,” Mona relayed to the project coordinator (pseudonym used for security purposes). “I learned in this job that I can do many things for my children, and myself, without needing any help.” As the sole head of her household, Mona had few opportunities to support her family. After taking part in a sustainable humanitarian assistance project in Syria, Mona is now able to confidently provide for her children.

As the crisis in Syria continues into its ninth year, the MCC Lebanon and Syria team aims meet the high level of humanitarian need that continues to exist in the country in a sustainable way. Though active fighting has recently decreased in most areas of Syria, 11.7 million people remain in need. Food security continues to be a main concern, as the crisis has severely disrupted the economy and people’s economic well-being. As 6.5 million people remain food insecure, MCC identifies access to food as a significant concern.

Addressing access to food in a crisis setting can be approached from many angles. After evaluating a large food assistance project in Syria, MCC found that ensuring access to food frees income to be used for other basic services, such as medical needs and school uniforms. When families lack food, they are forced to resort to coping strategies such as restricting themselves to one daily meal. As access to basic services and goods decreases, the severity of coping strategies increases. Displaced families and female-headed households are most at risk of resorting to severe coping strategies, as they lack security and stability.

War has devastating effects on individuals, families, communities and nations. Men are often recruited to fight or forced to flee, while women are left to care for their families. The number of single female-headed households in Syria has greatly increased since the Syrian crisis began. This has caused young women to take on responsibilities and tasks vital for community survival, giving them power and responsibility that they did not previously possess. Targeting women in humanitarian assistance interventions targets entire families, enhancing Syrian society overall. That is why an MCC partner, the Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue (FDCD), created a project with these women in mind.

Women gained not only confidence and new skills, but an income that they can carry with them now that the project is over.

FDCD is a non-governmental organization (NGO) based in Beirut, Lebanon, with a long history of countering violent extremism, interfaith dialogue, peacebuilding and emergency response. FDCD’s extensive network of partners and friends in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region allows it to accomplish meaningful work. Volunteers are based throughout Lebanon and Syria: this network of volunteers allows FDCD to directly implement projects within Syria. MCC thus partnered with FDCD to create a pilot project aimed at serving households headed by single women, addressing a humanitarian need while paired with a long-term focus on sustainable humanitarian assistance. From this emerged a small five-month project to provide training in food processing and business skills for Syrian Women.

At the heart of this project was the question, “How do we make humanitarian assistance as sustainable as possible?” FDCD, with the help of MCC, restructured a previous food assistance-focused project to equip female-headed households with skills to produce something deeply needed in Syrian communities: food.

FDCD selected two locations for the project, with ten participants and one local coordinator per location. One trainer for both locations provided consistency in project implementation, traveling between the project sites to provide training in business skills. All project participants came from households led by single women, with children and other family members for whom they were solely responsible. When designing the project, the local coordinators spoke with women to determine an ideal start and end time for the work day, ensuring the project provided participants with the much-needed flexibility of working during the hours their children were at school. This project design eliminated the need for women to pay for childcare or force them to leave their children home alone.

The ten women gathered in their respective centers five days a week to attend classes in business skills and marketing, while also learning the art of mouneh. Mouneh is a process of canning food to last for a long period of time. The business training skills involved classes on everything from how to market one’s products, how to set prices and best sanitation practices. Women gained not only confidence and new skills, but an income that they could carry with them upon the project’s completion. Thus, the project was successful in making humanitarian assistance more sustainable, a success that can in turn inform future MCC programming.

When families lack food, they resort to coping strategies such as restricting themselves to one daily meal. As access to basic services and goods decreases, the severity of coping strategies increases. Displaced families and female-headed households are most at risk of resorting to severe coping strategies, as they lack security and stability.

Though the project centered solely on equipping women with livelihoods skills, three different outcomes emerged. The first outcome was that the twenty women in the project learned how to produce mouneh, thus equipping them with a concrete skill to support their families. At the conclusion of the project, 23% of the women even reported finding formal training or contracts. The second outcome was increased food security for 300 Syrian families during the harsh winter months, as once the women learned how to make mouneh, FDCD distributed four kilograms of mouneh products to 300 vulnerable families during the early winter months. Lastly, the project contributed to social cohesion in Syria, as all the women participating in the project were internally displaced people, coming from diverse backgrounds and regions in Syria. Project coordinators reported that, as women gathered daily to learn from and teach each other, the barriers between them slowly faded into the background. As the crisis in Syria continues, the MCC Lebanon and Syria team and our partners in Syria are looking for new ways to provide humanitarian assistance in a sustainable way. Project design does not need to be limited to one goal or outcome. Conflict settings are complex: addressing women’s livelihoods in those settings will inevitably also be complex and challenging. Meeting basic needs through humanitarian assistance in turn raises questions about how women leading households on their own might be equipped to meet more of their families’ needs. Going forward, MCC can build on lessons learned from this project as it seeks to expand its sustainable humanitarian efforts in Syria.

Hayley Schultz participated in MCC’s Serving and Learning Together program in 2018-2019 as the peace and disaster response assistant for a local partner, the Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue.

Stevenson, Wendell. “Remembrance of Tastes Past: Syria’s Disappearing Food Culture.” The Guardian. December 7, 2016. Available at

Syrian Humanitarian Needs Overview. UNOCHA.

The Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue:

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