April 7, 2015, Rachel Pott in Innovations in Humanitarian Aid
It is rare that an uplifting story emerges from Syria. In the midst of an intractable civil war that has been raging for nearly four years, the White Helmets first responders are voluntarily rushing to each bombing and clawing through the rubble to save lives.
Unpaid and armed simply with white construction helmets, the Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, operate in many of the areas that are unreachable to international non-governmental organizations. Numbering over 2200, they have saved 12,500 lives since beginning their work in 2013. Their main priorities are to treat the injured, remove survivors and bodies from the rubble, and extinguish fires, as “each strike [is] like a pinpoint earthquake,” trapping people as much as they kill and maim.
The risk the White Helmets face is colossal, with scores of bombings and missile strikes every day. More than 80 have lost their lives in the line of duty, with a fatality rate of 5%. The indiscriminate and favoured use of barrel bombs – empty fuel barrels or propane tanks filled with up to 2000 pounds of TNT, shrapnel and sometimes oil or chemicals, which are dropped from a plane or helicopter – in populated areas and the tendency to ‘double-tap,’ returning to drop bombs on the rescuers, drastically increases the danger. 
Overall, the conflict’s death toll exceeds 210,000, with no end in sight. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the total is likely even 85,000 higher than that, as both sides attempt to hide their casualties.
The White Helmets’ reputation for non-political humanitarianism – rescuing everyone regardless of gender, age, background, religious or national identity – allows them to work across lines of rival militias, including the Islamic State. In contrast, INGOs are often associated with the West, which can limit their acceptance. This is especially the case in Syria, where an unpredictable and extremely controlling government has highly politicized humanitarian work. Gaining acceptance is a continual challenge that extends beyond on the ground relationship building to countering misinformation in the virtual realm. The Islamic State, for example, posts 90,000 daily messages on social media.
In this light, there is an increased need to support local organizations in times of conflict. A controversial report by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), however, questions the lack of international humanitarian agencies in hard-to-reach emergency regions. Parts of the world have never been in more dire need of aid organisations, this cannot be denied, but as warzones have become more complex and dangerous, some argue, these groups have become more averse to risk.
While opinions differ on whether INGOs have a decreased tolerance to risk, it is unquestionable that the risk is increasing. Humanitarian Outcomes’ Aid Worker Security Report shows that 2013 had a 66% increase in fatal attacks against aid workers from 2012, with 155 deaths, 171 seriously wounded and 134 kidnappings. According to Sanj Srikanthan, emergency field director for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), “northern Syria and parts of Iraq under Islamic State control are the most dangerous, simply because it is hard to negotiate humanitarian access and maintain it with this particular group.” It is where many organizations and individuals draw a red line.
In the current system, there is limited support amongst humanitarian aid organizations for local civil society actors. With their increasing role as first responders, is there more that could be done to incorporate them into the humanitarian sector and provide training and resources? The White Helmets have filled the void, but at an extremely high risk. It is increasingly important to ensure risk is not simply being transferred into local actors, but that from an international standpoint, they are considered equal to staff in international humanitarian organizations.
Before the war they were bakers, tailors, engineers, pharmacists, carpenters, students. While they did not choose for war to be a part of their lives, they chose to take on this role. In the words of one of the White Helmet volunteers, “When you help people to retain their hope, they will never forget what you’ve done for them.”
About Rachel Pott
I have an Honours B.A. in Political Science and Global Studies from Wilfrid Laurier University, with experience working in the human rights sector, freelance writing and education.