Aiding disaster: How the United Nations’ OCHA helped Assad and hurt Syrians in need

Annie Sparrow writes: Syria, the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, is also the most expensive. OCHA, shorthand for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, is the UN agency tasked with managing such crises, along with determining the global humanitarian budget, more than $20 billion in 2016, and allocating funds received from donor governments. OCHA’s forecast for 2016 is $3.2 billion for Syria alone, where it estimates that 13.5 million people are in need of humanitarian aid. Another $4.8 billion is solicited for the regional cost of putting up some four million refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.

Yet five years into the Syrian crisis, long-festering concerns over OCHA’s lack of neutrality are growing. Characteristic of many agencies of the United Nations, OCHA places a premium on maintaining good relations with the Syrian government, a position fueled by its desire to stay in Damascus. With no end to the conflict in sight, though, it is worth asking whether OCHA’s bottom line is harming the agency’s efforts to alleviate the catastrophic consequences of Damascus’ anti-civilian strategy. Indeed, the 2016 UN plan for Syria provides a real-time illustration of what happens when a UN agency loses sight of humanitarian principles and prioritizes relations with a government intent on violating them.

The UN plan must be understood in the context of Syria’s incredibly complicated humanitarian situation. The most recent estimates place 800,000 civilians under siege, denied access to safe water, food, health care, fuel, and warmth. Of these, more than 600,000 civilians are besieged by the government. An additional 200,000 civilians are held by the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in the city of Deir ez-Zor. OCHA relies on permission from the government to gain access to these people, but the government rarely grants it. Madaya, for example, is less than an hour’s drive from Damascus, yet between July 1, 2015, and January 12, 2016, OCHA could arrange only a single convoy, which contained expired food aid. The last convoy to Duma, where 175,000 civilians have been under siege since November 2012, was on July 2, 2015. Duma is barely ten miles from the Four Seasons in Damascus, where Yacoub El Hillo, OCHA’s resident/humanitarian coordinator, is based. [Continue reading…]

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