Working together in Syria – report release and seminar

On June 15 EBA in collaboration with the German Institute for Development Evaluation, DEval, held a seminar on ”How can humanitarian and development aid work together? The case of Syria”.

The EBA report 2018:02 Building bridges between international humanitarian and development responses to forced migration, authored by a team of researchers from DEval (Alexander Kocks, Ruben Wedel, Hanne Roggemann and Helge Roxin) laid the basis for the discussion. In their presentation of the report the authors illustrated some of the main challenges of linking humanitarian assistance and development cooperation, delineating what they call the ”Humanitarian-Development Gap”.

This gap can be expressed along five different dimensions in which humanitarian and development work are structurally different. To take an example. The authors identify that there is an objectives gap. While the objective of humanitarian assistance is to save lives and alleviate human suffering, the objective of development cooperation is to alleviate poverty. Taking these objectives at face value, operations within respective fields are bound to be structured rather differently. And although it is often said that interventions aiming to bridge the humanitarian/development nexus should define common goals, it is a fact that no one seems to be able to define what such a common goal would look like.

There is a similar principles gap underlying humanitarian and development work. While humanitarian work rests firmly on aspects such as impartiality and neutrality, development work is guided by what is called development effectiveness. Their application can have dramatically different outcomes. An example being how gender dimensions can, or cannot, be addressed.

The authors from DEval had further identified seven sub-gaps which they used as a frame of reference to assess to what extent these gaps had been bridged in the context of the Syria crisis. The analysis was based on existing documentation. Please refer to the report for more details of what they found and what their recommendations were.

The presentation of the report was followed by a panel discussion featuring humanitarian consultant James Darcy, Syrian consultant and researcher Kholoud Mansour director of Humanitarian Assistance at Sida Göran Holmqvist and DEval’s director Jörg Faust. There was a rich discussion covering many aspects of both the report itself and more broadly of integrating humanitarian and development work.

For example, the importance of context was discussed and the fact that the prospects for providing humanitarian aid are often highly politicized. Understanding existing power structures is thus an important aspect. So is managing risks. Risk management is one important dimension linking humanitarian and development work. It was further noted that aid often becomes too much a matter of process and too little content. In this respect the importance of involving local and national stakeholders was emphasized. The report had identified short-comings in this respect both in terms of what kind of capacity building was offered (in contrast to what was demanded) and the engagement of local actors in drawing up strategies or making plans in support of Syrian development efforts.

This brings this Blog to a final reflection somewhat beyond the seminar itself. Whereas ownership is a key dimension in regular development work, it may be more difficult to apply in humanitarian work. At least in the case of Syria, it seems to have been largely sidestepped. One may of course argue that it is difficult to find a representative partner in Syria, and that ownership is extremely difficult to define in a context like Syria. But, as noted in the seminar, nobody is neutral in a conflict like Syria, what is more important is to know where you stand.

Perhaps this calls for greater reflection around how ”ownership“ a key concept for development work – can be operationalized in the context of conflicts. And, perhaps, this should be the topic for a future EBA study!?