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Former USAID Official: U.S. Funding Underground Networks to Help Syrians

Mark Bartolini has led the U.S effort in providing humanitarian aid to Syrians as director of the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, a division of USAID. Before stepping down last week, he made several trips to Syrian refugee camps in Turkey and Jordan.

He spoke to the PBS NewsHour about the challenges of providing aid to internally displaced people (IDPs) within the country as the violence continues.

What does the IDP situation look like in Syria?

The latest figures from the United Nations put internally displaced people within Syria at 2 million to 2.5 million. By scale, this is an extremely large crisis. These people have fled conflict-ridden areas, many going to the north of the country, which is difficult to reach. They have taken shelter in schools, gymnasiums, and other public facilities that are often damaged, empty, and exposed to winter conditions.

There are also large IDP populations around Damascus. The U.S. is providing funding for humanitarian assistance in all of Syria’s 14 governates. Surpassing the daily challenges of simply surviving is the continued threat of violence from the war and the government’s targeting of these areas with bombings, shellings and other attacks.

What has been the U.S. role in helping IDPs?

The United States has made a huge effort to reach these people and help them, particularly during such a harsh winter. U.S.-funded humanitarian assistance partners have been delivering winterization supplies such as plastic sheeting to help fortify buildings from the cold and wind. They’re delivering clothing, blankets, and mattresses to get people off of the floors, and they’re ramping up food aid to these areas.

The United States has also been providing supplies, support, and training to the medical community in Syria. Medical teams have performed over 26,000 surgeries over the last six months with supplies and training from the United States. The Syrian government has purposely targeted hospitals and surgeons, so there is a severe shortage of medical personnel requiring additional training as well as supplies. Underground networks with U.S. funding are delivering everything from medicines and surgical kits to mobile medical X-ray machines and surgical tables. The U.S. is also funding large-scale vaccination efforts which have already reached over 1.5 million children.

The U.S. efforts have been done very quietly — items are not branded and our implementing partners are taking exceptional measures to ensure the safety of their staff and the viability of their programs as the work being carried out is incredibly dangerous. Many journalists I’ve spoken to don’t even know aid they’ve seen delivered is from the United States. It’s unfortunate that most Syrians don’t realize that the U.S. has taken a lead role in providing humanitarian assistance. But it’s clear that the imperative is to take whatever measures necessary to mitigate the terrible humanitarian consequences of this crisis. Despite all the humanitarian assistance being provided by the U.S. and others in the international community, it is falling short of meeting escalating needs and there continue to be large scale gaps, especially in conflict areas.

What are the challenges of delivering aid to IDPs?

Widespread violence and access to affected populations are the two greatest challenges. This is magnified even further by the intransigence of the warring parties, particularly of the regime, to allow for unfettered humanitarian access. The longer the fighting goes on the more acute the humanitarian challenge. Treated water has declined to 35 percent from 85 percent exacerbating the threat of waterborne diseases. Drug production has been significantly destroyed, resulting in shortages that impact everyone, especially those with chronic diseases. Over 50 percent of hospitals have closed. Diesel fuel is in very short supply. This has impacts on everything from hospitals to agriculture, to providing aid. Violence against women and children, trauma — these are just a few of the many challenges humanitarians face in responding to this crisis.

Another major problem is that you never truly know who you’re dealing with. You have to work through many different factions within the opposition and you never know if someone might be passing information to the Assad regime. The government routinely targets hospitals, bakeries and bread lines. Those providing humanitarian assistance need to be extremely cautious — not only for their own security, but also for those they are seeking to assist.

We are trying to coordinate assistance with the newly formed Assistance Coordination Unit of the opposition coalition, and we are hopeful that as they get organized they will help identify needs and assist with access.

Another issue providers are focused on is monitoring the assistance — making sure it gets to those most in need. Some novel methods are being used to ascertain where the aid is going. As virtually everyone has a cell phone these days, bar coding assistance allows the recipient to scan the received aid and the scan is uploaded to a “cloud ” where it can be determined if that aid went to where it was meant to go.

Crowdsourcing, random sample surveys and specially trained monitoring teams are just some of the methods U.S. partners are employing to ensure that the assistance efforts are effective.

How do the challenges of aiding IDPs differ from addressing the needs of the refugee population?

In terms of violence, refugees are often targeted as they flee but once they escape the country they are relatively safe. The type of violence they face will be different — for example, women and children often face violence and trafficking threats in refugee camps. In terms of getting aid to these people, you don’t have access constraints with refugees but resources to establish and fund ongoing services in refugee camps are always a challenge. And refugees can be a significant political burden for governments, potentially even threatening their stability. Syria’s neighbors have largely been very generous in continuing to welcome refugees, but they have repeatedly warned that they have limits.

The refugee population has now grown to 700,000 and could reach a million by the end of the year. That makes the aid effort very expensive. The U.N. launched its largest short term appeal ever $1.5 billion dollars for six months, for both refugees and IDPs.

Is there any cause for hope for these people displaced within their own country?

The trajectory is going the wrong way. At this point, what is desperately needed is an agreement between the parties [rebels and government], but this doesn’t look likely. The one ray of light is President Obama’s continuing commitment to helping the people of Syria as exemplified by his recent announcement of an additional $155 million for humanitarian assistance. The U.S. is continuing to build its capacity to provide more aid. And we are working closely with other donors to improve overall assistance efforts.

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