In her first major policy speech commemorating USAID’s 60th anniversary, Administrator Samantha Power laid out her bold vision for the future of global development — one that aims to place local partner organizations closer to the center of how the US designs and implements foreign assistance. While some of her predecessors, most notably former Administrator Rajiv Shah, announced a similar overhaul during President Barack Obama’s first term, the initiative was executed unevenly and lacked the broad-based support needed to succeed.
Like Power, Shah set an early, ambitious goal of dramatically increasing funding to local partners by more than fivefold; a decade later, the figures have hardly changed. Then — as now — many donors and implementing partners were advocating for greater partnerships with local NGOs and communities, not only as a matter of principle but also out of a sincerely held belief that bottom-up, community-driven development is a more effective tool of foreign assistance in the democracy, human rights, and governance (DRG) sector than solutions imposed from distant capital cities.
In Syria, local NGOs, civil society organizations, and decentralized governance structures have been at the forefront of development and relief interventions since the beginning of the conflict. This “local turn” in the Syrian context coincided with Shah’s USAID Forward, a 2010 initiative aimed to reform how development is done. USAID’s six-year initiative emphasized the catalytic role of local partnerships toward achieving more impactful results as one of its three pillars. Although Syria was not one of USAID Forward’s target countries, the Syrian example is part of a growing movement in the aid industry, calling to shift more power and resources away from donors and large, international NGOs (INGOs) to local actors, organizations, and institutions.
The prominent role that local partners have played in development and relief programs in Syria during the past decade, and the vast amount of foreign assistance funding allocated, makes for a compelling case study of the transformative power of localized aid.
The US and Germany, Syria’s two largest bilateral donors, have committed well over a billion dollars in politically-oriented programming and billions more on humanitarian assistance since 2011. Unlike development and relief programs during the US-led military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, Western donors and INGOs have largely lacked on-the-ground presence inside Syria. Instead, reflecting a paradigm shift toward what Mark Duffield calls the “bunkerization” of donors and INGOs — characterized as being physically removed from the communities they aim to partner with — Syria’s development and relief programs have been remotely managed from its neighboring countries and, more recently, from Berlin.
This lack of donor and INGO on-the-ground presence due to ongoing violent conflict almost certainly accelerated reliance on local partners in Syria than would have otherwise occurred at the same scale and pace. The prominent role that local partners have played in development and relief programs in Syria during the past decade, and the vast amount of foreign assistance funding allocated, makes for a compelling case study of the transformative power of localized aid — the good, the bad, and the ugly — especially for countries in the midst of conflict.
ORGANIC EMERGENCE OF LOCAL GOVERNANCE STRUCTURES
During recent years of the conflict, four zones of territorial control have effectively emerged in Syria, each posing unique challenges and opportunities for development and relief programs: 1) Hayaat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and its political arm in Idlib and the surrounding countryside in the northwest; 2) Turkish forces and Turkish-backed armed groups and governance structures in pockets of Aleppo, Raqqa, and Hasaka; 3) the Autonomous Administration (AA) and its armed wing, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in northeast Syria; and 4) the Syrian regime in the other 70% of the country. Implementing programs in these environments while the Syrian regime, along with a constellation of state and non-state armed actors, has simultaneously engaged in campaigns of de-development has, to put it mildly, proven challenging.
As Damascus has established a legal and political framework positioning itself at the center of aid distribution, many Western donors have largely maintained a political red line against implementing reconstruction and development activities in areas under Syrian regime control — a position reaffirmed by Washington just last week. The regime’s well-documented co-option of aid poses ethical dilemmas for Western donor states and I/NGOs who, while seeking to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people, also have an obligation not to provide those actors with an opportunity to exploit foreign assistance as a tool to further consolidate control.
Meanwhile, influxes of cash to local partners for development and relief programs have been a mixed bag. On one hand, today there are more than 500 civil society organizations (CSOs) active in Syria, only 18 of which existed before the revolution. Hundreds of local councils have also emerged over the years in areas outside regime control to represent community interests. During this time, local partners in Syria’s civil society, relief, and governance sectors have built their capacity to effectively manage large budgets, ensure compliance, conduct monitoring and evaluation, and, critically, implement activities under some of the most challenging and dangerous circumstances found anywhere.
Local partners have provided basic service delivery, advocated for justice, led peaceful assemblies, rushed into collapsing buildings to save potential lives, established youth and women’s centers, provided psycho-social support to several hundred thousand suffering from trauma, cleared tons of rubble so people can return safely to their homes, and most recently managed a global health pandemic. Navigating their way through a number of challenging circumstances through grit, ingenuity, and by leveraging their social capital, local partners in Syria have proven adept at implementing programs across a variety of sectors.
As evidenced by the number of active civil society organizations, NGOs, and local governance structures, the rapid growth of these sectors suggests that associational life in post-2011 Syria is vibrant. Writing in the early months of the revolution before the regime imprisoned and subsequently killed him, the late public intellectual Omar Aziz provided the framework for a participatory governance system based on mutual aid and anti-authoritarianism. To embody the revolutionary spirit, Aziz envisioned that local councils would act as conveners for dialogue, that they reflect Syria’s diverse demography, and that they consult with the community in all decision-making processes. In this way, Aziz reimagined the role of governance as a locally-led, horizontal, and inclusive system where citizens work collaboratively to advance the general welfare. It’s a shining example of a sustainable local solution, one based on justice and liberation from oppression and, critically, one which arose organically during the revolution.
Aziz’s framework informed Western donor support for local governance structures in opposition-held areas. Before HTS’s 2019 consolidation of territorial control and coercion of local councils to fall under their purview, Western donor support for local councils was a key component of foreign assistance, and many local councils were widely respected for representing community interests. In Saraqeb, for example, more than half of the town’s residents turned out to eight polling stations in 2017 to directly elect members to its local council, with civil society playing an integral role in mobilizing support for those elections. When fighting erupted among armed groups, civil society and the Saraqeb Local Council worked together to ensure the town maintained its neutrality, and the mounting public pressure against HTS caused them to temporarily withdraw fighters from the city.
Turning to the northeast, when Raqqa was liberated in October 2017 after more than three years under the Islamic State’s brutal occupation, the city was left in ruins. The Islamic State planted thousands of antipersonnel mines to minimize freedom of movement, turned schools into training centers for fighters, soccer stadiums into prisons, and playgrounds into execution sites. To retake the city, the Global Coalition dropped an estimated ten thousand bombs over four months, leaving it “completely destroyed and devastated.”
Navigating their way through a number of challenging circumstances through grit, ingenuity, and by leveraging their social capital, local partners in Syria have proven adept at implementing programs across a variety of sectors.
Once again, Syria’s local partners and community stakeholders stepped up in the absence of robust international support and were at the forefront of implementation. The Early Recovery Team/Community Recovery Group (ERT/CRG), supported by USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives, had prepared for Raqqa’s liberation in the months preceding the Islamic State’s defeat. Syrian engineers and other local technical specialists supported “hard recovery activities,” such as upgrading physical infrastructure, restoring electricity and water services, paving roads, digging canal paths, and clearing rubble from public spaces. They also supported “soft recovery activities,” such as providing support to the education sector after the Islamic State imposed its own set of extremist curriculum on Raqqa’s children. ERT/CRG’s renovation of Al-Naeem Square, a popular central roundabout in Raqqa that became an infamous site where the Islamic State staged public executions of civilians for even minor infractions, helped the area regain a sense of normalcy and reinvigorated local businesses and nightlife. Keeping with best practices on community-driven development, ERT/CRG engaged in consultation processes with residents to identify and prioritize community needs.
Civil society organizations, such as GAV for Relief and Development, have also been at the forefront of community dialogue in the face of growing social fragmentation. Operating on a shoestring budget, last year they began implementing a coexistence project to deepen knowledge of Syria’s diverse ethnic, religious, and cultural mosaic. The Syrian conflict has created new cleavages and exacerbated others; despite living in close proximity, members of different communal and confessional groups have limited their interactions as caricatures of “the other” have proliferated. To address these issues, GAV facilitated public events to bring diverse communities together and celebrate one another’s culture, using unconventional means such as culinary diplomacy.
“NGOIZATION” OF CHANGE AGENTS
Sadly, the Syrian conflict has not been immune to the darker side of development. The vast amounts of money invested in local partners by donor countries, and local partners’ gradual reliance on foreign donors to sustain programs, led to adverse consequences. Foreign funding has paradoxically weakened many of the sectors they aimed to strengthen, most notably civil society. One of the main reasons for this, he argues, is the “NGOization” of Syrian civil society organizations.
Donor emphasis on building the capacity of nascent Syrian organizations so they can more effectively manage the often-burdensome donor reporting requirements has helped to “professionalize” them. Concerned with their survival, civil society organizations have adjusted their focus to meet donor priorities, including institutional capacity building. To secure future funding, civil society organizations have increasingly portrayed themselves as apolitical and, in the process, many grassroots activists have become less outspoken about injustices and grown disconnected from their communities.
As has happened in other areas of limited statehood, such as in Palestine, vast amounts of foreign assistance have created new forms of dependencies, power structures, and limited the types of non-violent resistance capable of emerging. Donor emphasis to “develop civil society organizational capacity and effectiveness,” is not unique to Syria or the Middle East region. This trend follows USAID Forward’s institutional reform and corresponds with the Global North’s commitment to incorporate capacity building directly into partnerships with local organizations in the Global South. No matter how well-intentioned the donor commitment, a focus on capacity building has, at least in the short-term, almost certainty contributed to Syria’s NGOization problem.
Notably, although local Syrian partners have been on the frontlines of an estimated 75% of the distribution of goods and services, less than one percent of funding has gone directly to local partners, largely a result of burdensome donor requirements and the emphasis on building their organizational capacity first. Instead, donors have primarily awarded grants and contracts directly to larger INGOs, who then identify and work through local partners to implement the development and relief programs on-the-ground.
To position themselves to be more competitive against other INGOs for future funding opportunities, INGOs have offered significantly higher salaries than most local partners can afford to maintain their high-performing staff members — luring many away from grassroots organizations. As a CEO of a large Syrian NGO told me in Gaziantep last month, leaving a grassroots position with a precarious $400 monthly stipend for a more stable $6,000 monthly salary, replete with frequent trips to Geneva, Berlin, and Washington, hardly becomes a serious choice for many — even when they recognize that they then become a part of the “NGOization” problem.
After making the transition from a grassroots NGO to an INGO, many of those highly sought-after staff members act as key interlocutors between donors, INGOs, and local partners. Although most have used their insider knowledge of both local dynamics and donor compliance to advocate for and support project ideas submitted by change agents from diverse backgrounds, more than just a handful of INGO staff members have been accused of playing the role of kingmaker through making sub-awards to preferred local partners. This has contributed to the perception among many activists of an “aid mafia” that reproduces many of the social and class inequalities it aims to diminish. In conjunction with adjudicated claims of corruption, the perception of an “aid mafia” has resulted in Syrian civil society organizations and NGOs losing a measure of credibility inside Syria in recent years.
Finally, tasked with implementing on-the-ground programs to advance short-term foreign policy interests, donors often feel pressured to demonstrate return on investment as they position for future funding cycles. Local partners are thus restricted in the scope of their activities to directly address donors’ short-term interests. While Syrian-based civil society organizations may have drastically different views about which activities to prioritize, and despite the Global North’s commitment to give primacy to “the local,” many partners report feeling disempowered and excluded from meaningful program design. Instead, partners are often provided with the objectives donors want to address. In Gaziantep, a sense of exasperation among local partners has led to the widespread use of the phrase “that’s what the donor wants,” [heek bedu al-donor] a refrain often invoked by passionate staff whenever an innovative concept is shot down for not addressing one of the donor’s pre-identified problems — even if it is an issue that a significant number of residents identify as impeding the community’s ability to function and peacefully regulate itself.
A BALANCING ACT
Local partners have been at the forefront of the distribution of goods and services in Syria for the past decade. Although not one of USAID Forward’s target countries, Syria provides important lessons for the donor community as they aim to advance Power’s vision to localize foreign assistance, especially in fragile and conflict-affected states.
Many local partners have done remarkable work — from clearing Raqqa’s tons of rubble to helping children recover from trauma in Idlib’s displacement camps to placing everything on the line to advocate for a free and democratic future. They have proven adept at implementing programs across multiple sectors under some of the most challenging circumstances found anywhere. However well-intentioned, foreign assistance funding’s focus on organizational capacity building has also come at a cost. It has contributed to Syria’s NGOization problem, inadvertently creating new forms of dependencies, power structures, and limiting the types of non-violent resistance capable of emerging.
By positioning local partners at the helm of implementation, foreign assistance in Syria has been magnitudes more efficient. After all, residents understand how to navigate local dynamics and complexities in their communities far better than outsiders and have proven capable of delivering much-needed goods and services under challenging circumstances. While it is now widely considered a best practice among donors to give primacy to “the local,” it is still the Global North who sets the priorities.
Only by meaningfully including local partners in program design, one informed by and grounded in local perception data — will those activities be more effective. In practice, this means that donors should see their role more as conveners for dialogue, engaging and connecting stakeholders at all levels. And it is here where Power’s bold vision can gain the most traction and have the greatest impact. Donors like USAID should be encouraging innovative solutions to problems that residents themselves identify as impeding the community’s ability to function — not from externally imposed actors with pre-identified short-term objectives that are detached from the realities on the ground. This won’t solve the Syrian conflict, but these locally-driven activities can at least improve daily conditions and create greater space for the type of dialogue that millions have and continue to sacrifice so much for during the past decade.
Paul J. McKinney has worked on foreign assistance programs in Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Yemen for the past five years. He is a US Army veteran and graduate of Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.