The Supporting Syria and the Region Conference: Optimism and urgency


February 5, 2016

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On 4 February, world leaders including David Cameron, Angela Merkel and John Kerry gathered in London to discuss the five year long crisis in Syria and neighbouring countries at the Supporting Syria and the Region conference. They pledged money and deliberated on how best to help the people in Syria and the region whose lives have been devastated by the brutal war.

I was at the conference with them, doing my best to represent the brilliant, brave and innovative Mercy Corps teams who work in and around Syria, and speak for the people they serve. I have been pushing leaders to make generous pledges but also wise choices about how to spend the money in the most effective way.

Immediately following the conference, here are my reflections:

Firstly, a lot of money was raised – more than $10bn, the most ever raised in a single day for a single crisis. The pledges include $6bn for 2016 and a further $5bn or so in the coming years. So great are the needs of the Syrian people that these sums nevertheless fall short of what is needed. The UN appeals for Syria and its neighbours for 2016 alone add up to more than $7.7bn.

Secondly, I sense that the conference marked a sea change in how donor governments are approaching the Syrian crisis. There was a strong emphasis on shifting to a more long-term footing – recognising that this is a protracted crisis and that for many Syrians, displacement or exile will tragically be the reality of their lives for more years to come. That means they need to be able to live meaningful lives, not just rely on hand-outs.

There were welcome commitments towards investing in economic development, jobs and education – for Syrians but also for people in neighbouring countries whose communities are straining to support the enormous influx of refugees. Now we need to turn this rhetoric into reality – using the money pledged to make smart investments that will attract more private sector engagement, partnerships and money and, especially, support the small and medium enterprises that are the engine of job creation in the region.

More than at any time before, we heard the strong, clear voice of local civil society organisations. They were vocal in expressing their frustration and anger at the lack of Syrian leadership; they want Syrians to be enabled to take the lead in the rebuilding of their own country and their own futures, something which is becoming increasingly difficult without good governance and leadership.

Finally, it was impossible to ignore the shadow of conflict that hung over the conference. Just the day before, peace talks in Geneva had broken down and as the pledges rolled in, escalating conflict and air strikes in Syria’s north cut off Mercy Corps’ teams from Aleppo City. We have been reaching half a million people a month with vital aid in north Syria but we now fear the onset of a siege of Aleppo. Tens of thousands of civilians are on the move to areas near the Turkish border. The war in Syria is far from over and it has the potential to get yet more brutal and yet more tragic for the innocent people trapped by the violence.

This is a reminder that no amount of money raised in London is enough to end Syria’s suffering. The warring parties must respect international law, cease the targeting of civilians, and provide humanitarian access. The humanitarian situation in Syria is an outrage, it is morally unacceptable and it is the responsibility of those who perpetuate the conflict. The London conference was a positive step forward, particularly for finding ways to help stimulate much-needed economic growth and jobs. But while we look ahead with optimism to a future of prosperity for the region, we must urgently dial up the pressure on political leaders to bring an end to the war.