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Running on empty

The World Food Program’s Syrian response is faltering

by James Haines-Young

We were all completely shocked,” says Shams, a Syrian refugee and mother of two from north of Homs province, commenting on December’s announcement by the UN World Food Program (WFP) that it had suspended payments of food aid to Syrian refugees. “It really bothered us because everything we get, we get from the UN,” she explains.

After months of warnings, the WFP simply ran out of money and was forced to delay the payment of vital assistance to 6.35 million Syrians displaced by this nearly four year long conflict. Suddenly, refugees across the region who rely on aid handed out by the international community had to go without this vital lifeline.

[pullquote]Funding troubles for the Syrian crisis appear unlikely to be a short blip, but part of a downward trend[/pullquote]

When one of the world’s largest providers of fundamental emergency aid starts to experience major funding issues — potentially leaving millions of people in six countries without assistance — it causes concern for both refugees and the region as a whole. Unfortunately, funding troubles for the Syrian crisis appear unlikely to be a short blip, but part of a downward trend, which in the coming months and years could also cause problems for many other agencies reacting to the crisis. In October 2011, just seven months after the start of the Syrian crisis, the WFP started an emergency operation inside that country. At the time, the response was localized and relatively small scale, initially only targeting 50,000 individuals for a period of three months with a total budget of $1.9 million. As the conflict rapidly expanded, so did the operation of the WFP: by the start of 2013, they were targeting 1.5 million people; by October 2013, this had increased to 4 million, and on the eve of 2014, 4.25 million Syrians were receiving assistance across the Middle East. Today, nearly 6.3 million Syrians receive food packages or assistance to buy food in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt — a project with a total budget of $2.2 billion.

What the WFP provides

Inside Syria, the WFP has been buying and distributing food directly to roughly 4.25 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) through 27 partner organizations that work in all of Syria’s 14 governorates. However, unlike many of the countries in which the WFP works where food itself is scarce, local markets in many of the host countries for Syrian refugees had the capacity to supply the necessary food; the issue for most refugees was simply paying for it. Therefore the WFP moved from its traditional method of distributing food parcels to a printed voucher system. This allowed people to exchange the vouchers for food of the same value, at a number of shops. 

But by October 2013, the refugee population had swelled so much that the printing, distribution and reconciliation of the printed voucher system had become incredibly inefficient. In its place, the WFP introduced cash cards. The card acts, and looks, the same as any other debit card — it is even issued by MasterCard. The only distinguishing feature is that it has the words ‘humanitarian aid’ written across the top. The WFP credits the account monthly, allowing families to shop as they need throughout the month. As with the voucher system, refugees are still tied to shopping at particular participating stores. However, the main advantage of the cash card over vouchers, for the recipients, is that families can now shop when they want and need to rather than having to receive all their food in two installments when they cash in a printed voucher. It is also more secure as lost cards can be cancelled and refugees need to show proper identification and their UNHCR registration certificate (which has a unique number that is also stamped onto the card) in order to use it to purchase food. According to the WFP, about 88 percent of those the WFP assists outside of Syria and Iraq are now on the cash card system. In parts of Iraq the WFP and partners still provide direct food distribution as, due to the ongoing security situation, the market is unable to provide the food needed. 

[pullquote]”Donors were very generous in the early years of the Syrian crisis but we are nearly in the fourth year now”[/pullquote]

What went wrong

Despite these improvements, the WFP has run into a major problem. At the beginning of December, the WFP announced that it would be suspending operations due to a lack of funding. “Donors were very generous in the early years of the Syrian crisis but we are nearly in the fourth year now. Since August we have been starting to run out of funding and we started warning [donors] when we saw this coming. Despite this, in December we had to cut funding completely,” says Joelle Eid, communications officer for the World Food Program’s Syria response. Luckily, after a mass appeal to the public, as well as private and national donors, the money to cover December was raised and cash cards were recharged on December 9. However, as winter storms and heavy snow hit the region, including Lebanon and Jordan, conditions worsened for many and a huge question mark hung over what would happen after January. 

The WFP has assessed the basic level of subsistence in Lebanon at $30 per person per month. While the cash cards give individual families autonomy on how they use this to feed their family, there are rules about what can be bought. The WFP restricts the money to buying food items, while clothing and cleaning products for example are not permitted. This is enforced through a contract with shopkeepers whereby they agree to a set of terms — including making sure that the rules on what’s purchased are followed and not hiking up prices for refugees — in order to continue being an eligible partner; the WFP and its partners then check up on shops to ensure this is followed. Upon receiving the card, families are given a seminar on nutritional value and how to make the most nutritious food possible with the available budget and ingredients. “I go and buy oil, stock, rice and macaroni,” says Hamda, a Syrian mother of two from Yarmouk who has been in Lebanon nearly two years. Although Hamda says that she has been getting by, she insists that things are far from easy. “Ninety dollars for a month just doesn’t buy anything for three people,” she says, adding that she doesn’t buy any meat as it is expensive and she is very skeptical of the quality and age of the meat on sale in her local shop that takes WFP cash cards. 

Where the issues came from

The WFP relies fully on voluntary donations from national governments, international organizations, companies and private individuals. While private donors made up the 11th largest funding source in 2014, the scale of the organization’s Syria response necessitates donations on a scale that is hard to find outside of direct government funding. The WFP needs approximately $120 million a month in order to adequately provide basic food assistance to 4.25 million people in Syria and 2.1 million outside of Syria. According to Eid, when funds ran dry in December, the WFP was $64 million short of what it needed to fund operations until the end of 2014. After a major emergency funding campaign, which included a social media push with the hashtag #ADollarALifeline, almost 14,000 individuals and private sector donors in 158 countries contributed $1.8 million dollars. A further $52 million of the final $88 million funds raised in December were a direct donation from Saudi Arabia. The World Food Program entered the new year with just $20 million, which had already been earmarked for operations in Syria.

[pullquote]”People are more likely to assist with natural disasters like floods, tsunamis or volcanoes.”[/pullquote]

The WFP budget summary at the end of 2014 highlighted that the “WFP received $365.8 million, or 40% of the requirements, for its food assistance programme [inside Syria] in 2014. Late and insufficient resources forced WFP to adjust the composition and size of its GFD food basket [General Food Distribution basket] almost every month, and resulted in lower calorie food baskets than had originally been planned.”

“It’s always different if it’s a man made disaster rather than a natural one,” explains Marc-André Hensel of World Vision, one of the WFP’s partner organizations that manages food aid in the midwestern areas of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. “People are more likely to assist with natural disasters like floods, tsunamis or volcanoes. Syria is this big confusing monster [and] we are all, including the international community, just clueless what to do [about it],” he continued.

Eid is stoic about the current situation, “It’s quite clear now that funding for the region will not be as generous as last year or the year before. The more the conflict is prolonged, the more there are other issues that require donor attention — the Ebola response, for example. Funds are coming in at a slower pace and are less … ‘driven’. This is something we have to get used to and we’re forced to respond as per the status quo. So if we get 70 percent funding, then we can plan for the next period accordingly. There are difficult choices we all have to make.”

Funding gaps have resulted in massive delays in aid (World Food Program)

Funding gaps have resulted in massive delays in aid (World Food Program)

What the WFP is dealing with now

The funding crisis highlights one of the biggest challenges now facing the program: forward planning has become almost impossible. In the early phases of the response, the WFP could plan months in advance, preplanning for acute emergencies and, crucially, ensuring a constant supply of food to Syria and Iraq where physical food parcels are still distributed. In Syria, it can take up to six weeks from purchase to supplying warehouses across Syria before aid reaches the IDPs and refugees, as transport is slow and there can be delays. This means that a funding gap of even a few weeks can cause substantial delays in people receiving food in Syria.

In mid January, the WFP announced its basic needs for the next three months. For the period of January to March 2015, the WFP will require $300 million to distribute 70 percent of the aid it had previously been disbursing. The latest figures show that at the moment the WFP has about $257 million, 86 percent of this funding requirement. While it will endeavor to continue to provide for all 6.35 million refugees they have been assisting with aid, the amount each person will get will have shrunk by at least 30 percent. In Lebanon, this translates as a reduction from $30 per person per month to just $19 per person per month.

The knock-on effect upon refugees is the most pressing issue for the WFP, but funding problems also impact the organization as a whole. Shortages force the WFP to make revisions to the entire organization, from staffing levels to offices. It constantly has to balance operating costs with delivery to make sure that as much as possible goes to helping people on the ground, but if it is forced to cut back staff and centers too much, it risks not being able to respond to the needs of the people it is trying to help. The operational costs of the WFP last year were approximately 5.4 percent of the total budget for the Syria mission, with staff salaries the most significant single cost. 

A more stable solution

Neither Eid nor Hensel believe that a more stable funding situation is possible under the current systems. The way that aid is given means that it is not possible to ensure future funding as it is completely reliant on the generosity of donors, and at a time when many Western nations are undergoing government cutbacks and austerity, foreign aid budgets are a tempting thing to cut. 

[pullquote]The amount [of aid] each person will get will have shrunk by at least 30 percent[/pullquote]

At the start of 2015, the UN formed the Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan (3RP), its latest annual outline of the crisis that brings together the national plans in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and Egypt into a single unified regional response. The 3RP states that there is a need for $5.5 billion to help 3.4 million Syrian people outside of Syria in 2015, as well as 2 million members of the host communities. The 3RP is just one way that agencies, including the WFP, are trying to ensure that the Syrian crisis does not fall off the radar of international donors. While today the WFP is having funding issues, it is by no means the only organization experiencing a more difficult working environment. 

January and beyond 

January’s reduction in cash card payments was not the first cut refugees had seen, although previous shortfalls had been made up in a second payment. Such remuneration seems unlikely in this case. “The prospects are not too good this year,” explains Hensel. Means testing is almost impossible, Hensel points out, in part because the needs and situations of individuals can change on a weekly or even daily basis. 

There are now basically two options for the WFP and partners, like World Vision, in the short term. The first option, as has happened this month, is to reduce the amount paid out to all recipients so that they can continue to give everyone at least something. The second option is to highlight vulnerable groups and then prioritize assistance to these over others. Hensel believes that groups such as children under five, the elderly and the disabled are likely to be prioritized over other groups during the next year. There are also programs underway to identify the most vulnerable areas and groups, although this will take several months to have an effect.

Other organizations are looking for options to fill the gaps. “This is not such a good situation because if per month we’re looking for $30 million, what does $1 million or so mean? It’s a drop in the ocean. [At World Vision,] we have not agreed on any one-off payments because our supporters want something more sustainable, what happens the next month or after that?” says Hensel.

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James Haines-Young

James has spent nearly a decade covering news and politics across the Middle East, including reporting on policy and provision of humanitarian support to the millions of displaced Syrian refugees. He is the foreign editor at The National in Abu Dhabi and was previously the Lebanon and online editor at The Daily Star in Beirut. He has bylines in The Guardian, The Economist, Vice, Mashable and others.

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