Neal Keny-Guyer on Syria humanitarian crisis at the National Press Club

Jordan, Lebanon, Syria

October 8, 2013

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  • Mercy Corps CEO Neal-Keny Guyer spoke about what the international must do to address the humanitarian crisis in and around Syria. Photo: Michael Ventura for Mercy Corps

Today Mercy Corps CEO Neal Keny-Guyer addressed the venerable Washington, DC-based National Press Club on the crisis in Syria and its far-reaching regional impacts. He provided four clear recommendations for the global community to improve the overall humanitarian response.

Watch the video and read his remarks below.

Beyond Syria's Chemical Weapons:
A Humanitarian Time Bomb

If you picked up this fact sheet on your way in, you’ll see a photograph of Mustafa. He is 12 years old, and you’ll notice his shock of white hair. Mustafa fled his home in Aleppo, Syria, under intense shelling and fighting. Shortly after he arrived in Lebanon, his hair began to turn white from the stress and trauma of his ordeal.

It’s just one painful story among millions playing out in what is becoming an increasingly hopeless situation.

The Syrian humanitarian crisis is the most complex in my lifetime. Syria has become a ticking humanitarian time bomb with catastrophic consequences.

The numbers are staggering: 2.1 million Syrian refugees fleeing conflict to neighboring countries, primarily Jordan and Lebanon. More than half of them are children. Inside Syria, it’s now estimated that nearly 5 million have been displaced and are in urgent need of emergency assistance. If you think in terms of the population of the United States, that translates to 100 million Americans forced out of their homes and towns and seeking shelter elsewhere. The equivalent of 100 million Americans! Can we even fathom this?

And it’s going from bad to worse: The United Nations estimates that the number of refugees will grow to 3.5 million by year’s end.

The sheer number of people is not the only challenge: Water is scarce and increasingly polluted. Food insecurity, especially among children, is growing. Winter is coming.

Mercy Corps has been working hard to help meet immediate humanitarian needs. Syria by far is our largest global program, and we have directly reached 2 million war-ravaged Syrians.

We’ve drilled water wells, built water-treatment plants and laid miles of pipe to meet the growing demand for clean water and sanitation in both Jordan and Lebanon. In urban communities where refugees are living, we are rehabilitating apartments — patching leaky roofs, fixing broken windows, making dilapidated kitchens usable. And we’re providing families with clothes, mattresses and other household essentials. At the same time, we are working hard to prevent hunger and malnutrition, especially among children.

Read the latest updates on our work in Jordan and Lebanon ▸

Speaking of children, more than one million refugees are children. Imagine the lost potential of this next generation. Imagine if these children receive little education. Imagine if they have no dreams or hope! We know from past experience that when meaning and direction are absent, children and youth may turn to violence or be tempted by extremist views. We cannot allow this to happen! We and others are working hard to give these children hope.

If we in America and in the West are remembered for anything during this crisis, let us be remembered for helping kids, for giving them safe places to play, for providing education, for treating their trauma, and for giving them hope for a better future.

Learn more about how we're protecting Syria's children ▸

It’s not just Syrians who are suffering. Tensions are rising as refugees continue to flood cities and towns in the host countries, overwhelming infrastructure and services and competing for jobs, further straining fragile economies and tapping into scarce resources, most notably water. Syrian refugees comprise 20 percent of the population of Lebanon — similarly, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey all host unsustainably large refugee populations.

Moreover, politics and operational insecurity are making it very difficult for humanitarian groups to deliver aid inside Syria.

Worse still, there is no end in sight. Given its current trajectory, this humanitarian crisis threatens the stability of the entire region.

Indeed, we are facing the most complex humanitarian crisis of our time:

  • The speed of the refugee exodus is the worst we’ve seen since the Rwandan genocide — and the funding pledged is grossly inadequate.
  • The combination of politics, sectarianism and extremism is destabilizing the entire region, on a much larger scale than the Balkans war back in the 1990s.
  • The global community is falling short — in our responsibility to protect the innocent, to push hard for peace, and in the absence of peace, to meet the massive humanitarian needs of those affected by war, both inside and outside of Syria.

Against this backdrop, it’s time for the global humanitarian community to up its game. If we don't, the consequences could be catastrophic.

Based on a lifetime in this business and our experience in and around Syria, I want to offer four recommendations.

First, the international community needs to step up and meet the UN request for $4.4 billion. Some countries, including the U.S. and Great Britain, have stepped up in significant ways. Others — especially the emerging powers — could do so much more. This is a new world, and it is time that more countries step up to their global responsibilities.

Second, the international community, including the United States, needs to allocate more flexible funding for aid efforts. Again, this is not a short-term emergency; this is a three-year-plus protracted crisis. When we look at donor funding streams, the bulk of the money is coming from emergency assistance accounts and cannot be used for longer term initiatives that make the aid effort more efficient and effective.

That means that we’re spending too much money on delivering water and trucking waste, when we should also invest more in water and sanitation infrastructure to help local communities meet the larger scale of services. That means that we’re spending too much money to distribute free food, when we should also invest more in creating jobs so that people can earn a living and buy their own food in the local market — which would have the beneficial side-effect of stimulating the local economy, rather than undermining it with giveaways. We should also invest more in education and job training for youth who are unemployed, and who would otherwise be idle and susceptible to extremists. We should also invest more in new health clinics to meet the increased need for medical care.

For aid to be effective, we need to assess local needs to ensure we are complementing and bolstering the efforts of host communities.

Third, we must support all of Syria’s neighbors — both politically and financially — and help them manage the strain of hosting millions of new residents.

Fourth, we must support the United Nations call for all parties to respect the UN’s guiding principles of humanitarian emergency assistance and for greater humanitarian access. At Mercy Corps, we stress the importance of delivering such assistance on the basis of need, devoid of any political prejudices and aims.

In sum, we need funding that matches the gravity of the world’s greatest humanitarian challenge, which is Syria. We need new and emerging powers to step up to their global responsibilities. We need flexible, nimble funding that responds to a protracted crisis. And we need greater humanitarian access and a commitment to humanitarian principles. Of course, we ultimately need a political solution.

The global humanitarian system is not perfect. But it is far preferable to the kind of fragmented, ad-hoc and politically biased response which is impacting the Syrian humanitarian crisis today.

I’d like to close with one final thought. It struck me that after years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a series of devastating natural disasters such as the earthquake in Haiti and the tsunami in Japan — and now a budget battle that has shut down our federal government — we as a country may have lost our appetite to get involved in another crisis abroad, even as humanitarians. We are being tested, but I know that ramping up a bigger humanitarian response is both the right thing to do and it is the smart thing to do.

It’s the right thing to do because as Americans we are committed to easing the suffering of those most in need — even when the politics are complicated. As Ronald Reagan said, a hungry child knows no politics — and I can tell you that a hungry child knows no borders. There is a humanitarian imperative that we meet the needs of people on all sides of this conflict.

It’s the smart thing to do because no one wants an unstable Middle East. The better job we do taking care of people, the better the prospects for a safe Syria where people can expect a better future for their kids. That means a more peaceful and stable region. And that means a better, safer world for all of us.