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Accountability challenges for humanitarian aid

An edited transcript of a discussion in the Accountability strand of the Freedom Across Borders conference, London, 6 July 2019.

Participants: Kholoud Mansour, Lund University; Rouba Mhaissen, Sawa for Development and Aid; Salama Mohammed Mubarak, humanitarian practitioner from Yemen; Ruairi Nolan, The Syria Campaign.

Facilitated by Fatima Hashem Morales. Transcript by Zoë Ranson.

Image: Protest greets a United Nations and Syrian Arab Red Crescent aid convoy in besieged Eastern Ghouta, 23 February 2016. Photo via Siege Watch on Twitter.

Fatima Hashem Morales:
Good afternoon everyone, thanks for coming. My name is Fatima and today I’m going to be facilitating this session. We’re going to talk about challenges in aid accountability. And joining me in the panel we have Salama Mohammed Mubarak. She’s a humanitarian practitioner with experience in emergency response and post-conflict programming, especially in Yemen. And we also have Ruairi Nolan, head of programmes at The Syria Campaign, which is a human rights organisation supporting the Syrian cause through campaigning and advocacy work. And we have Rouba Mhaissen, the founder of SAWA for Development and Aid, an organisation working with refugees in Lebanon and forced migrants in the Middle East and Europe. We also have with us Kholoud Mansour. Kholoud is an affiliated researcher with the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Lund, and she’s also a co-founding member of the Syrian Women’s Political Movement.

So, welcome again, and I would like to just start first by thanking everyone for being with us, and I’ll start with you Rouba actually. So, we can talk a little bit about what are the main challenges which SAWA for Development is now facing, mainly in Lebanon, especially given the recent updates of what is happening in Lebanon, and how are you protecting your projects and yourselves, first of all from threats of corruption, and also from the government demands that are mainly focusing on security and terrorism and so on.

Rouba Mhaissen:
Okay, so hi everyone, it’s great to be here, and I want to thank the organisers of this conference for their wonderful work, and the nice line-up of speakers and the really beautifully designed booklet for this conference.

Actually as I said previously, I really can’t believe that it’s 2019, and we are still discussing some of the very same topics that we’ve been talking about. So, sometimes I feel redundant in a lot of things I’ve got to say but I’m very pleased that a lot of you here today are people that I’ve never met before, so I really thank you for being here and taking interest in Syria.

For me, I think as a local Syrian organisation operating in the context of Lebanon which isn’t a very easy context, whether it’s legally, whether it’s structurally, whether it’s politically, I think one of the things that we continuously struggle with as a local organisation is the idea of partnership. Until today, I think, although we have come a long way as Syrian activists, as Syrian organisations, to have our voices more heard, to be more taken seriously as central actors, and a response that is a response to our very own client base. I think a lot of times, we are still very much sidelined from a lot of areas and a lot of places where decision making is happening. And that goes very much from deciding where money is being spent, to deciding how the money on Syria is being spent, to deciding what are the priorities for policy in Syria.

And I just want to give an example that happened a couple of months ago, where one of the directors of one of the biggest Syrian organisations called UOSSM, the Union of Syrian Medical Workers, he went on strike. And he published a very long statement online saying that we, as Syrian doctors, and as Syrian organisations working on medical needs inside Syria and in the region, we have been trying for the last months to influence the priorities of the WHO, the world health organisation, on Syria, inside Syria and in the neighbouring countries, but still the WHO are still choosing to do programmes that do not respond to the real needs on the ground, whether it’s the destruction of medical facilities, or the needs of the medical doctors, or the medical needs in besieged areas. And joining this strike were a lot of aid workers, from a lot of different organisations, that were trying to say the WHO is setting its own priorities, without consulting or even listening to us. We have been trying to get in touch with them, to change these priorities, but they are not listening to us. And, I think that the result of this strike was positive, because their concerns were taken in.

But this is just to underline the fact that until today, a lot of the aid going into Syria and into the region is very much access-based and is extremely politicised. Rather than it being needs-based, rather than it being a bottom-up decision on what the priorities of the local organisations are, unfortunately a lot of the money is not possible to track, so a local organisation, we go and we attend these big conferences in Brussels and in the UN etcetera, and after the Brussels pledges, we try as much a we can, to track whether the pledge numbers—because you know it’s a nice and big circus in Brussels and all the donors, all the countries are going to say, oh we pledge that much, and we pledge that much, but actually the real monies that are being spent are not always meeting these pledges. And even if the numbers meet the pledges, we don’t know how much of it trickles down to the local organisations.

And I always give this example, if ten million dollars was donated by ‘X’ government—let’s say, I’m just giving an example, the UK donates ten million dollars—then there is two million dollars overhead for DFID, we are left with eight million that they give to DFID in the region, and there is a cut of another million etcetera, and by the time it reaches us, there is an open call for a proposal for thirty thousand dollars for local organisations to apply for, and even then, there’s a huge list of things that the organisation needs to have to be able to access this fund.

Half a million Syrians and almost half of our population, like twelve million, are refugees, more than half a million died for us to be able to access the rights and the freedom that people in this country very much take for granted—I mean, I know that I’m preaching to the wrong crowd, because you all here, on a Saturday, and you obviously all believe in this very much—but I think most of the time we underestimate our capacity to hold those in power accountable for what they are doing.

At the end of the day, the money that is being cashed for Syria is taxpayers’ money. It’s money that you guys have paid. It’s money that you should know where it’s being spent, and how it’s being spent. And you can put pressure from where you stand, to continue asking donors to realise that the war in Syria is not over yet. That funding is still needed. But that the system, altogether, that there’s something going wrong in the system, whether it’s all the way from here, all the way to where the money has reached us in Syria.

I just want to go back, very briefly, to the idea of partnership. I know that a lot of you know that as Syrian organisations, we have really been putting our foot down to tell donors that we are equals, we have the right to the same benefits that you get as staff. A lot of the time, if one of our staff dies, even the donors wouldn’t allow us to give funds to their wives, or families, even though they’ve worked that whole month. A lot of times, a lot of benefits for our staff are not allowed. They don’t allow us to take any overhead costs. A lot of the times they are looking at us only as implementing partners, rather than real partners in deciding what are the priorities, and where the money goes. So, remember, since 2012 until today, we are telling people we are Syrians, speak to us, don’t speak about us. We are Syrians, include us. We are Syrians, bring us to these spaces. And I think a lot of you guys, I’ve just met someone who works at UNICEF of Syria, I know a lot of you work at these different organisations, and I think there’s a big role for you guys to play, whether it’s in the context of Syria, Yemen, Sudan or others, to just say trust the locals, work with them, treat them as equal. And, I think I’ll stop here, because I know this is part of a conversation.

Fatima Hashem Morales:
Thank you so much, Rouba. And it’s great actually that you brought up the whole dynamics of INGOs and the UN agencies and all of this. That makes me go to you, Ruari, and basically in 2016, The Syrian Campaign published a report about the United Nations work in Syria, and how they are lacking impartiality and neutrality. And recently also Human Rights Watch released another report, three years later, which confirms that this issue is still going on, and it’s even worse than I think it was in 2016. So, would you like to maybe let us know more about those accountabilities, especially in regard to the UN and the INGOs that are working in Damascus. And what is the role of the international community, or country donors such as the UK, for example, in tackling this, and holding the UN accountable.

Ruairi Nolan:
Sure, well thank you very much for the invite and the chance to join this panel, it’s an honour. The Syria Campaign put out a report in 2016 about the UN that really came out of the experiences of civil society organisations in Syria and the fury they felt about how the UN was operating. It wasn’t being independent, it wasn’t being impartial, and it was actually serving to, in many ways, support the regime and even its war effort, by subsidising so much of what the Syrian regime should have been offering to its citizens. So we had 56 local organisations who signed up to this report, having seen only the executive summary. For fear of it leaking, we couldn’t show the full report, and I do encourage people to go and read it.

But what we covered there is how UN was operating in a system at a time when you had probably one million people living under siege, and you had the UN operating an aid system where it was allowing the regime to dictate access and cut off access to those who needed aid most. So that tended to be people who were living in areas outside the government’s control, they were living under bombardment, they were living with hospitals being attacked, lack of medical facilities.

And so the UN’s role, in that regard, was actually allowing this, and was turning down a host of requests from different groups to get aid in. And our analysis of the situation with the UN obviously felt it was in a situation where it was wanting to provide aid to Syria, but needing to do so with the permission of the government. And above all, what it therefore prioritised was keeping good relations with the regime. That was its number one priority, and that dictated how it ran its programme.

And one of the things for us that’s significant is that this really went right back to the very start. That went right back to 2011, in Daraa, where there was a need to get aid in to the community there, and the regime at that point started trying to stop aid deliveries. At that point, the UN took the decision to accept that, accept those limitations on how they could operate. And that really continues to this day.

So, as you mentioned, Human Rights Watch brought out a report just in the last couple of weeks. The context has changed a little bit, so, there are some things that are a bit different. So, when we did out report, the issue of sieges, was a particularly important one. That’s not the same now, but that same underlying problem remains of the UN being unwilling to really show any kind of backbone and confront the regime, because at all stages it has prioritised access. And, even to the extent that the UN pushed back on the whole of Syria approach that allowed aid to come in across the border, it only did that after insisting on a UN Security Council resolution, and now there’s talk of more of the aid being channelled again back all through Damascus, which would only reinforce these problems of regime control over the aid system.

And the other thing I would say in terms of how the context has changed from 2016 to now, the Human Rights report also covers the impact in terms of reconstruction. So, we were looking at humanitarian aid, but those same problems will exist with reconstruction if the Syrian regime is allowed to control the reconstruction process, with direct reconstruction to happen in areas where it’s politically useful for it to happen, as opposed to where the need is greatest.

And it applies to the UN, but it also applies to humanitarian organisations, and in terms of other recent publications, Haid Haid of Chatham House has just this week, I think, had another publication out, about recommendations for international organisations in terms of what they can do for setting red lines for when they will and will not deliver aid. And I think there are some very good suggestions in there, but I do think the system will continue to function the way it is until the point that the international community and the UN insist on standing up to the regime and not accepting all of the constrictions on their operations.

Fatima Hashem Morales:
Thank you very much. And actually, I just want to emphasise one very interesting point that Human Rights Watch tackled, is how the Syrian regime now is treating areas that have been regained by the regime, so for example, there was a difference in how they were treating Harasta and Douma. And, as most of you more probably know, Harasta and Douma were besieged by the Syrian regime, and they regained control last year, but because Harasta has more a population that is coming from back from Damascus to live in Harasta, so there is more aid going into Harasta, while Douma, because people stayed there, and they were controlled by the opposition, so they’ve been punished, in a way.

Which actually brings me to you, Kholoud, to talk about your co-authored paper about humanitarianism, state sovereignity and authoritarian regime maintenance in the Syrian war. And maybe you can also explain to us more, with more nuances, about how the regime is using aid, and politicising it, and regaining power using this money, and this kind of control.

Kholoud Mansour:
Thank you very much. It is very humbling, actually, to be in the same room with very passionate people, who are still interested in Syria, and still interested to listen to us even though, as Rouba mentioned that we are all always frustrated by repeating exactly the same things we’ve been saying for the last eight years.

To understand aid and accountability, it is very important also, to understand the politics of aid, which does have different players, and when we talk about humanitarian aid, we need to know that it is very political and it is not purely humanitarian. Even in one of the evaluation reports of the UN, it is said that humanitarian action has been substituting for a political solution in Syria.

We need to always consider this in every conflict, especially that humanitarian aid is always driven by different agendas, different politics, and different aspirations of the donor governments. So it is very difficult to talk about the humanitarian aid without addressing the politics of it.

We additionally, we have also a different layer, that is within the UN agencies, within the international system itself, where they have the legacy of tensions and competition between the agencies, which also obstructs holding UN agencies and holding the international system accountable. They have this tension and competition between the UN agencies themselves, mainly OCHA and UNHCR, between the World Bank and UNDP, and between the UN agencies and the international organisations. And this something that has been there since the establishment of the UN agencies.

And this is something for the donors, to hold the UN agencies accountable as there is a huge amount of money that is being channelled through the UN agencies. For donors, they feel more secure, as this, for them, is the only avenue that they can channel this amount of money through. And even when donor governments know that the UN agencies cannot be held accountable, even when they are not satisfied with their performance, they will not change anything. This is the safer option, in front of the taxpayers, it’s like a protection mechanism, somehow, for the donor governments.

Even when donor governments do make promises, they never hold themselves accountable towards these promises. For example, in one study in 2016, on humanitarian funding flow to Syrian local humanitarian organisations, between partnership and sub-contracting, we analysed the data from 2014, and we found out that 75% of the implementation of the work was done by the Syrian organisations. However, they were only getting less than 1% from the direct fund. We can see this contrast, which is not only discrepancy but, as many say, sadly also hypocrisy.

One recent report on the grand bargain in 2016 that promotes localisation shows that those who signed the grand bargain are not committing to what they said.
This again takes us back to the politics of aid, because for example in Syria more than 50% of the humanitarian fund is channelled through the UN agencies. Hence, it is always about, who makes the decisions in the UN, or the international humanitarian system: Who makes the decisions? Who implements those decisions? And who pays for those decisions? So, just to have a little bit of background about the bigger picture.

Now, back to Syria, and I would refer to this old co-authored study, where we linked between humanitarianism, state sovereignty, and regime authoritarian maintenance. This is not new of course, however we tried to analyse the data, and tried to see how much is going from the UN agencies and from the donor governments, to the regime cronies, through procurement contracts and other kinds of contracts. There are companies and individuals who are under EU sanctions, yet they are receiving money from UN agencies. This was resource mobilisation for the regime to sustain itself. And this is also a big question for the UN agencies and for the donor governments, whether they are on the side of people they want to serve, or they care more about their presence in the country. Many reports show that the UN operating in Damascus did actually discredit all the humanitarian principles, and that the humanitarian aid helped the regime to survive for many years.

Fatima Hashem Morales:
Thank you so much. That was very interesting. It would be actually also interesting to hear from Salama about this. Probably there are a lot of similarities between the contexts of humanitarian war and humanitarian aid between Syria and Yemen. If you can elaborate more about the challenges that are faced by local organisations that are based in Yemen, and in front of INGO and UN, and also, in terms of accountability, and what are the requirements, huge requirements, from small and local NGOs, while as we are hearing, the big agencies are just let go on with whatever they do.

Salama Mohammed Mubarak:
First thank you for the invitation, it has been a very informative morning for me. And as these colleages were speaking, I was like, yes, yes, yes, because almost everything is duplicated, it’s exactly the same thing. If I just remove the word Syria and add Yemen, the sentences can still stay the same, with a little bit of difference in the particulars, because the humanitarian sector is still treating the countries receiving the aid as people we are giving charity to, and I think it’s that understanding between us doing conferences and talking about grand bargains and commitments, and then going back into hearing, ‘I’m giving you this, you should be happy with it, and you should not question me.’

And I think that is wha is repeated from one country to another, with different details. Just maybe one thing to highlight about Yemen, is that when we speak about Yemen, we speak about two regimes, and not two powers, because we have two ministries of health, two ministries of planning, two ministries of whatever, you name it. And we have two completely parallel governments.

And what’s happening, and what I’ve been hearing so far about Syria, is duplicated in two ways, if you speak about it in the Yemen context. So, talking about local NGO and involving them, I was part of the accountability training, and we rolled out this amazing training to all the partners, saying this is our commitment going forward. And that was in 2016, and the clusters, and the partners, and the UN, and the NGOs, they all wrote these amazing statements, saying this is what we’re going to do in Yemen. But did that move from being a tokenistic tick-a-box approach, to actually happening? It didn’t.

So, we all have this amazing report. If you open any website by any agency operating in Yemen, you will read amazing stories. But what is happening on the ground, that is a very different approach.

And the fact that in the same country, we’re speaking about donors at meetings in Geneva talking about four billion dollars and more for Yemen, and in the same news report, you will find another sentence saying, ten million people might be at risk of famine, or might die of hunger between now and the end of the year. And being someone, as a Yemeni citizen, reading both, you feel your head spinning. Because it’s not that you’re accusing everyone getting the money of being corrupt, it’s just saying, if people are still dying of cholera, still dying of famine, we still don’t have money, we still don’t have water, we still have all these issues—can you please tell me, where this money is going?

And, so far, that has been a call from local NGOs, and we hear it more and more. Even from the public. There was a campaign that started recently in Arabic, it was a hashtag saying ‘where’s the money.’ Simply, just tell us, where is the money. And, the only response we heard from the UN was another hashtag saying ‘check out our results.’ And ‘check out our results’ was pictures of them feeding babies, and giving water, but that’s not what we want, we want a level deeper, of you telling us exactly.

It might be actually used, I’m not saying that it’s all going in corruption. It might have been actually used, but it’s just that superiority of still the humanitarian agencies seeing the people receiving aid as the last people to be accountable towards.

If we talk about accountability towards donors, that is happening, because if it is not happening, the money is not going to flow, so that is happening. But with the local NGOs, we’re still treating them as contractors. Here’s your money, do this. Don’t ask us. I’ve been talking and I’ve been working a lot with local NGOs that don’t even know from the agencies they are implementing for, what’s happening with the rest of the fund? So, if the fund was ten million and I’m given five thousand, and if I go back and ask, okay, this is my part, I’ll do it, but what’s happening to the rest? Not even in closed rooms, these questions are not answered. I was sitting in a meeting with local NGOs and a UN official in Yemen in 2017, and the local NGOs asked, okay, when they knew that this UN official was coming, okay, you’re the person who’s signed the grand bargain, you’re the person to ask. And they asked clearly, what is happening and how come this is not channelled more through us? So simply he said, ‘oh yeah, man, it’s difficult… access issues… it’s complicated… corruption… we cannot do it.’ And that cannot be the answer, to brush it off. And we cannot continue taking that as an answer.

If we take an example of the humanitarian needs overview, and you mentioned that in your talk, if you read the document it talks about consultations. I was in those consultations, and how that happened was that you would go sit in a room with different clusters, two or three hundred people, and you were given a set of indicators. If you’re asked to choose between an apple and an orange, you’re not choosing a fruit, you’re choosing between two options that are given to you. And that is how those consultations went.

It’s like okay, this is the WHO health indicators, this is the food indicators, this is the whatever indicators. And when people came back in those meetings saying, you know what, we think in the health sector, maybe we shouldn’t do this, maybe we can do that, we think—they went no, no, no. This is the list of things, and if you want to add to it, add it under comments. And I’ve been in the room, on the other side, with my UN hat on, and I’ve seen where those comments go. So, it’s having those, that parallel non-balance of power between both.

And maybe just the last thing that I will touch on is that the risks, if we continue going the way we are, I think the humanitarian agencies do not understand that this will lead to them losing the access that they have now. They are complaining now about lack of access, but if you continue pushing away the people, they will be your problem. Your problem will no longer be the Houthi, or the government, or the Saudis, the problem will be that if you are coming with a truck to my village, giving to a number of people, and I don’t know how you selected them, when you selected them, why are they getting this assistance, then people might start pushing back on that. And that is what we are starting to see on a smaller scale. And maybe the other thing is that the main consequence for me, is that this is leading to a lack of understanding of what the need. We’re still operating in a context that ‘I’m telling you what you need, take it and say thank you.’ And that’s it.

Fatima Hashem Morales:
Thank you, so much, actually. Very helpful, and annoying at the same time. I think we’re going to open up for some questions. We have around ten minutes.

Brian Slocock:
As I understand it, with respect to Syria, one of the things that is hanging over all this, is the fact that the Security Council resolution authorising cross-border delivery of aid is coming up for renewal, and that the expectation is that Russia will block the renewal. I wondered if people could give some indication of what is the status of that, what the indications are, and how it should feature in campaigning?

Fatima Hashem Morales:
Are you talking about the UN resolution that was in 2014, about cross border, or?

Rouba Mhaissen:
It’s a scare that we have every year, about the renewal of this Security Council resolution, and Russia threatens to veto it. In the past years, we have done campaigns leading up to the moment of the vote. Thankfully it has been renewed in the previous years. I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, Ibrahim?

Ibrahim Olabi:
So, 2265, the cross-border Security Council resolution is important, because it gives a legal basis. But, as we all know, international law is subject to interpretation, and those who interpret it are the states. If the political will is there, and we’ve drafted a legal memo that we’ve sent to donors, that even if it doesn’t get renewed, there is a legal argument if you want to adopt it, that allows you to continue aid across borders. Which was the case prior to 2014. Prior to the resolution there was humanitarian aid going in. So again, the issue is, even if it doesn’t get renewed, if the UK, which is a permanent member of the Security Council—so we’re lucky to be living in a country where that country has a seat—it can do so. So, yes, some of us might lobby for renewal, but others should work on the parallel track.

So, has it been renewed, or is it coming up?

It renews every year, so I think it’s September? December?

David Taylor:
I’m David Taylor from Labour Campaign for International Development. Thanks so much for having us here, and the great contributions you all made. I just wanted to bring up another aspect of aid and accountability, and see what your views of it were. I used to work for Oxfam, on the government relations team, and as a number of you are obviously probably aware, Oxfam made the decision, before I joined actually, to deliver aid within Syria. And as a consequence, didn’t speak out publicly during the conflict. And I know other NGOs made a similar decision.

There is something called Crisis Action, you might be aware of, a sort of coalition, I’ve seen them do fantastic work. My fear—and I can’t point to a specific example—my fear was that some of the NGOs decided, like Oxfam, to not to speak out publicly, were sort of holding Crisis Action back from being more vocal. And, actually it stems from seeing, certainly in Oxfam, the shift in position from the support of intervention in Kosovo, to actively lobbying for the Responsibility to Protect in 2005, to where they are now, where they are not really supportive of this kind of thing.

I think it may be okay to make that decision—well, maybe not, personally, I wouldn’t have done it—but if an NGO is goint to make a decision to deliver aid, they need to be able to differentiate, and not stop those who do want to speak out, and do want to put pressure on people, on the Security Council, or whoever, to take action to stop dictators in this way. I just wondered if that’s something that you’ve come across yourself, and if you had reflections on that? I may not be right, but my sense is that we’ve got to be able to support those who do want to speak out.

Ruairi Nolan:
Quickly, just one response. There were some groups, for example, Mercy Corps, who then did stop their operations in Damascus, because they insisted on having access elsewhere. They drew a red line, and stuck to that.

And so I think that’s what humanitarian agencies if they do operate there are facing is that, are they going to prioritise getting access and keeping their programmes going, or are they going to set red lines. I think the problem for humanitarian organisations is, there are so many of them, and they sort of compete, and trying to get them to act in a unified way is really, really difficult. If the UN can’t even act in a unified way, and draw red lines, then it’s hard to see how humanitarian organisations will. Although obviously, I would hope that they would, but that’s the challenge, with the way they compete.

I was just going to say, as well, the regime has lots of different ways to apply pressure. That can be at the top level of an organisation, at a political level, and then even down to the level of people delivering programmes through control over access to visas as well, so it’s not just that these decisions are taken at a leadership level, it’s sort of, multiple ways they can put pressure on.

I wanted to jump in, just to say that a lot of the time UN organisations, or other organisations, they tell local organisations don’t use the word revolution, use the word crisis. Now, they are banning the words forced return, or return, they want them to use durable solutions, thing like that. They want to completely depoliticise whatever work that they are doing. These organisations have all chosen to depoliticise. Even now, a lot of them are operating out of Damascus. Even in the durable solution platform that’s been created, the NRC, Oxfam, and others, they’re completely now saying that it’s absolutely safe for people to go back, that things are okay inside Syria. It’s because they want their staff to get visas, they want money to flow in.

And now even there’s an emergence of a new Syrian civil society that we’ve never see before. It’s the organisations that these organisations are going to partner with, because obviously, they can’t partner with organisations that have been vocal about human rights violations, or that have been political in one way or another.

The UNHCR doesn’t get to choose who their staff are going to be in Syria. I mean, their offices are almost an intelligence hub. It’s odd, a lot of like, I don’t know whose husband is employed, or whose cousin. It’s a lot of corruption going on.

The Syrian regime will not allow the Syrian civil society that we know to operate in its region. So we have to be pragmatic and understand that, okay then, we need to think of alternative ways. What do we do with twelve or sixteen million Syrians inside Syria? They need to access food, or water, they need to access sanitation, they need to access all of these services. The regime will not allow organisations that are vocal on human rights to operate in there. The UNHCR and NRC and Oxfam are operating, okay, how can we do alliances with people working in these organisations, that believe in the same things that we believe in? How can we, in practical terms, push the donor governments that are funding the UN, to tell them, can you show us transparency and how people are employed? Can you ensure that the funds are being shared based on means, not based on access, or based on where the regime choosing, so that the punished areas are not replicated?

And this is where sometimes I feel a lot of my activist friends are elitist in what they think accountability is. So everybody wants to work on impunity and war crimes—I’m not undermining these things! But don’t look at aid and development as just humanitarian, there’s also a huge justice element there. Who’s going to run for elections in fifteen years if everyone is illiterate? Who’s going be political in fifteen years if they don’t have a decent standard of living?

So we have to realise that aid is extremely politicised, but it’s also a matter of justice and accountability in that sense. We need also the human rights lawyers and activists to do that.

And—one last word, sorry—even though some of the people inside Syria, like Syrian civil society inside Syria, they didn’t take as much of the response we wanted them to take from the revolution, but today they are the only people allowed to work inside Syria, so how can we rebuild these bridges and build with them a collaboration as strategic partners, because we don’t have any more access inside Syria? How can we become a bit more pragmatic?

Fatima Hashem Morales:
Thank you. I would just like to hear your comment, Kholoud, and close with it.

Kholoud Mansour:
I’ll respond to some of what has been said. And it’s true, for example in 2013, there were eight international organisations operating in Damascus, and they were all obliged to sign, and after in 2014 and 2015, the number increased a little bit, but then they were all obliged to sign something that they would not have any cross-border operations.

This is something again that takes us back to aid, state sovereignty, and authoritarian regime. Having previously worked for the UN in Syria, we need to understand the bigger picture prior to 2011. If you work with the UN, if you know the system from inside, if you work in Syria, if you are Syrian yourself, you would know that these patterns were in place even when Syria was dealing with the Iraqi refugees.

And again, this does not happen only in Syria, as you said, if you just replace the name of the country in conflict. For example in Afghanistan, the research says that between 40-60% of the fund actually goes back to donor countries, in procurement and consultancies. In some cases, up to 90%, and this is shocking.

And again, it’s Syria, it’s Yemen, it’s Sudan, and so forth. I don’t know when the UN or the international community would actually learn the lessons. We want to be speaking about transparency and accountability. There must be a restructuring for the whole international humanitarian system where you can track the funds: donor by donor, organisation by organisation, programme by programme, project by project, activity by activity—I don’t know how more we can narrow this down—just to see, how much is actually received by the end users. I don’t like to use the word beneficiaries. How much is received, and how to track, and by having this unified system, you can have the transparency, you can have accountability, you can actually learn from the lessons, and not to continue in the same vicious cycle, and the same mistakes.

Fatima Hashem Morales:
Thank you so much. We don’t want to hold you any longer.