Resilience through Humanitarian Assistance: Agriculture in the Syria Conflict

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Global Communities has been responding to the Syrian conflict since 2013. In that time, we have sought to address food insecurity with solutions that can potentially bridge an emergency response with more long-term, postconflict recovery.

Between 2014 and March 2018 we provided agricultural assistance as well as livestock and livelihoods support to a population of more than 83,000 individuals in opposition-held northwest Syria. Building on these experiences, we believe it is useful to share our perspectives, as well as those of other organizations working in this space, in an effort to answer this complex question: by thinking longer term, how can humanitarian assistance more effectively help vulnerable communities? In this case, we consider the specific challenge of providing humanitarian support to sustain local agricultural capacities in north-west Syria, even as the uncertainties and difficulties associated with the conflict continue.

Global Communities’ decision to pursue a resilience approach in Syria through agriculture emerged directly from our core competencies and past experience. Global Communities is a sustainable development organization focused on community-based development which has developed expertise in humanitarian assistance, rather than the other way around. Our approach has never been to focus on handouts or immediate assistance, but always to approach humanitarian efforts with a long-term, development lens. And with our background in community-based development, we seek to work as closely as possible with people in the communities affected by crises and take our cues from them. We consider the resilience element first, then relief second.

When we began working on the Syria crisis, humanitarian groups were relying heavily on food kits, but with agriculture playing such a large role in the country’s economy historically, we looked to see how we could work with what remained of the system to help communities help themselves. We recognized that conflict evolves: not all parts of Syria are at war at all times, and the front line shifts, so there are areas where, with the right approach, it is possible to get permission to work and access to communities.

Humanitarian activities are guided by the principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence. Humanitarian initiatives traditionally do not seek to strengthen structures or systems, as this could undermine the principle of independence. As a result, adherence to these principles, while crucial, may lead many humanitarian assistance providers to do little to maintain social or economic capacities that existed before the crisis or conflict. Bridging this need for neutrality and impartiality with strengthening a sector is a core challenge that we address in this volume.

Overall, this volume’s objective is to share with program designers, implementers, donors, policymakers and other interested parties, recommendations, considerations and questions on how to build on Syria’s own capacities by maintaining and strengthening its agricultural resilience, with an eye to eventual resolution of the conflict.

Informing this volume is the content gathered during interviews with more than 50 key informants from 20 different organizations working on Syrian agriculture. These interviews were gathered from organizations and individuals working in opposition-held areas of northwestern Syria, not within the Syrian government-held areas nor the north-east, whose experiences will be different. The experiences of respondent organizations and individuals rely on self-reported information that has not been independently verified.

The volume is broken down into these sections:

1. Agriculture in Syria – a brief history of agriculture in Syria and the impact of the conflict

2. Humanitarian Assistance and Agriculture – an overview of the issues facing humanitarian assistance organizations approaching the agriculture sector

3. Case Studies: Agriculture and Resilience in Syria - examples of Global Communities’ work in agriculture in Syria

4. Agriculture in a Conflict Zone: Lessons Learned from Practical Implementation – from implementers and donors in agriculture in Syria

5. Conclusion – steps forward for implementing and expanding agricultural programming in Syria