7 min read  | Economy, Idlib, Reports

Cross-border aid renewal stalls humanitarian catastrophe, while organizations on the ground test alternatives


July 15, 2022

IDLIB — The United Nations Security Council renewed the mandate for the delivery of cross-border humanitarian aid to Syria at a meeting held on Tuesday, July 12. Under Resolution 2642, aid will continue to pass through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Turkey and Syria’s northwestern Idlib province for six months. For an additional six-month extension, a separate resolution will be necessary. 

The resolution was “disappointing,” said Mohammad Hallaj, the director of the Syrian Response Coordination Group, an Idlib-based humanitarian organization. The Security Council did not succeed in passing a proposal “to extend the mechanism for at least nine months, or until the end of winter, when need will be at its peak, especially in northwestern Syria’s camps,” he told Syria Direct

Deputy Spokesman for the UN Secretary-General, Farhan Haq, said in a briefing on June 12 that renewing the cross-border aid mechanism “enables the UN to continue to save lives and alleviate the suffering of some 4.1 million people in need of aid and protection in northwest Syria.” 

However, the latest resolution sparked discontent among Syrians in the country’s northwest, considering it tantamount to postponing a possible humanitarian disaster rather than finding a sustainable solution to confront it. 

Resolution 2642 expires in January 2023, “the very moment when humanitarian needs peak,” Ambassador Richard Mills, the Deputy United States Representative to the UN, said in the June 12 Security Council meeting. The US, Britain and France abstained from voting on the resolution, while the other 12 member countries voted in favor of it. 

Even if the Security Council successfully renews the resolution for another six months this coming January, that “won’t happen without new concessions,” Hallaj said. “Major international disagreements are clearly impacting the Syrian file.” 

Russia’s attempts to use its veto power to block the renewal of the UN cross-border aid mechanism, which was introduced under Resolution 2165 of 2014, have brought the need to find alternatives to the Security Council resolution to the fore. At the beginning of this year, the World Food Program (WFP) began converting a portion of its aid allocated for camps in northwestern Syria from in-kind food baskets to cash, via electronic vouchers.

Cash instead of food

Since she was displaced from the western Hama countryside to northern Idlib’s al-Karama camps in 2016, Maryam Abdulrahman (a pseudonym), 43, received a monthly WFP food basket. Usually, it was enough for her family’s basic monthly food needs.

This past February, Takaful Al Sham, the local WFP implementing partner in the al-Karama camp cluster, replaced food parcels with $60 electronic vouchers, disbursed monthly to beneficiaries provided the money is spent on food items from designated commercial centers. 

Since in-kind aid was changed to cash, Maryam, the sole breadwinner for her family of five after her husband was struck by a mobility impairment 10 years ago, has not been able to provide basic necessities to cover more than 15 days, she told Syria Direct. As a result, she has had to “get items such as rice, sugar and bulgur from neighbors and my sister living in the Atma camps.” 

WFP, in cooperation with the Global Communities nonprofit and its local partner Takaful Al Sham, began to convert some of its food aid to financial transfers in January. The new policy included about 20 of the al-Karama camps, located south of the northwestern Idlib town of Atma on the border with Turkey. 

Converting in-kind aid to cash aims at “providing a higher degree of flexibility for families to meet their food needs,” according to Amir Sinda, the field coordinator of Takaful Al Sham’s response program. “Approximately 26,500 people, or about 7,000 families, benefit from electronic vouchers,” he told Syria Direct

But a number of beneficiaries, including Maryam, are calling to go back to the food basket system. It “provides the minimum monthly necessities, while the amount allocated through the electronic voucher is not enough to buy the same items and quantities as the food basket,” she explained. 

“Replacing food baskets with cash may be a quick fix, but we have to think about its long-term impact on the market,” said Mohamad Katoub, an expert in humanitarian response and aid worker protection in Syria. “Cash is entering the market without making up for the supply chain provided by the UN,” he added, as the voucher program produces greater market demand, even as the supply remains the same. 

While cash is important as one alternative in the event the cross-border aid mechanism is stopped, “the UN’s role cannot be limited to financing and logistics only,” Katoub told Syria Direct. He noted that “the logistical side is one of several tracks the UN is working on in northwestern Syria.” 

Increased effort and expense

Since Hussam al-Hamoud’s family began to receive assistance through cash vouchers in February, the 35-year-old has found himself forced to pay $20 a month for bread. In the past, he received “a one-kilogram bundle for free, daily,” he told Syria Direct

Because the approved commercial centers for spending the vouchers do not sell bread, al-Hamoud has to “buy it from the ovens and markets at unsubsidized prices, and can’t pay its value from the voucher.” He makes less than $100 a month working in construction, and a bundle of non-subsidized bread in Idlib costs 10 Turkish lira ($0.57 at the current exchange rate of 17.44 TRY to the dollar). 

Instead of a food parcel arriving to where al-Hamoud lives, in northern Idlib’s Nour al-Sham camp, with his wife and three children since being displaced from the northern Hama countryside town of al-Rawda in 2017, he must now travel “more than two kilometers to reach the selling centers,” he said. Sometimes, he gets a ride from civilians who own private vehicles, but sometimes “we have to go on foot.” 

In addition to increased effort, al-Hamoud finds a price difference between the approved centers and Idlib’s markets. One kilogram of long-grain rice sells in the centers for $1.95, while on the market it costs $1.25, he said. The same quantity of sugar sells for $0.95 at the centers that take vouchers, compared to $0.90 in other markets. 

On July 10, Takaful Al Sham posted a photo to its official Facebook page of one of the organization’s members checking the validity of food items available to families through the voucher program. Some commenters on the post asked for the organization to pay attention to unifying prices, “and that they be at least at market price.” 

The WFP-provided food basket in Syria contains five kilograms of sugar, bulgur, rice, red lentils and chickpeas, as well as 15 kilograms of flour, one kilogram of salt and four liters of vegetable oil, Abdulrahman said. She used to sell some of the basket’s contents to buy other things she needed, “such as laundry powder and dish soap.” Under the voucher system, this is no longer an option for her.

Sinda, the Takaful Al Sham field coordinator, said cash vouchers “give beneficiaries the freedom to choose the materials they want at the appropriate quality for them, as well as the freedom to choose the items they want.” 

The organization has contracted with nine stores in Atma, which are “under the supervision of dedicated teams to monitor the exchange process, quality of materials and prices, matching the standards agreed upon with the merchant,” Sinda added. 

Alternatives and solutions

In February, the Green Hands Project, a humanitarian organization providing aid to the Atma camps, announced it would start providing a portion of WFP food aid in the form of “cash-based transfers,” as decided based on a joint feasibility assessment by the WFP and UNICEF in December 2020. The value of the vouchers was set at $60 based on recommendations by the Food Security and Livelihood Cluster and recommendations of the Cash Working Group. 

Adopting cash as an aid mechanism rather than in-kind items “ends the supply chain of receiving ready-made baskets that enter across borders and are then transported and distributed, thus reducing the effort and expense associated with the process,” Sinda said. 

Changing aid to cash is a good mechanism to rely on in the future, in Sinda’s view, since it “also helps revitalize economic activity in the project implementation area through the establishment of many food production and animal raising projects to provide the necessary products.” 

However, “the change in the exchange rate of the currency circulating in Idlib, the Turkish lira, against the US dollar, as well as the increased cost of food items, leads to an increased price of selling items to the beneficiaries,” al-Hallaj, of the Syrian Response Coordination Group, said. That “leads to a decrease in the real value of the cash voucher, and a consequent increase in families’ needs.” 

Al-Hamoud has filed a complaint with the Green Hands Organization, calling “to go back to the food basket system instead of cash, or distributing bread for free,” he said. In a letter he sent to the organization, he explained “the voucher estimated at $60 is not enough to secure the necessary supplies.” His family needs “$100 a month at least to secure the same quantities as the food basket,” he said. 

Despite the recent renewal of the cross-border aid mechanism by the Security Council, which is “the best solution currently, because it ensures the greatest and highest level of involvement by UN agencies and all actors,” according to Katoub, alternative solutions must still be found. “The resolution is highly politicized, and could be lost with the next renewal,” he said. 

Those alternative solutions are “bigger than cash assistance for beneficiaries,” Katoub said. Suspending the cross-border aid resolution would stop 87 percent of the operations carried out through UN agencies, he said, meaning that only 13 percent of the current operations could be implemented in the event the resolution is not renewed.

One of the UN’s important roles is technical support, coordination and “access,” Katoub said. Here, access means “UN coordination with governments and military parties—such as the Turkish government and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham—and humanitarian organizations may not be able to play this role with the same capabilities of the UN.” 

It is not easy, then, to compensate for the role of the UN. Any alternative “requires considerable time and effort to find alternative mechanisms,” Katoub said, especially since any change in the tracks and mechanisms “requires the intervention of governments, and in turn it takes time to confirm and implement changes.” 

 

This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson. 

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