Funders Have Dropped the Ball in a Big Way on Syria. Is That Starting to Change?

The civil war in Syria stands as one of the worst humanitarian crises of recent decades, with nearly 200,000 people dead since 2011 and nearly six million people displaced from their homes, generating a refugee crisis nearly unmatched in recent decades. 

Now things are getting even worse as ISIS rampages through Syria's Kurdish regions, creating yet another wave of refugees. As Thompson Reuters reports today of the latest twist in this emergency:

More than a million Syrian refugees in Turkey may go without food, medicine and shelter unless there is an increase in international funding, the U.N. refugee agency said on Wednesday.

You'd think that human suffering on this scale would have triggered a major response from U.S. foundations and major donors, the same folks who have recently mobilized to contain the Ebola outbreak, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. 

You'd be wrong. 

Most top U.S. funders haven't lifted a finger to help Syria's suffering legions, and the no-shows include most corporate funders. That's been true even as relief organizations have screamed for help to cope with a vast exodus of people out of Syria needing food, shelter, and medicine.

Sure, there may not be much that American philanthropy can do to resolve the civil war in Syria, but alleviating its effects is hardly rocket science. In fact, it's as easy as writing checks to outfits like Mercy Corps, which are already on the ground and begging for those checks. 

There are some exceptions, of course. The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, a funder unusually attuned to human misery, has been a leader here, allocating $1.2 million so far for Syrian-related work, including a $750,000 grant to the International Medical Corps to address the health needs of refugees in Turkey. 

The Gates Foundation gave a grant to Mercy Corps last fall for nearly half a million dollars for its work with Syrian refugees, specifically on water and sanitation issues—a pittance compared to its $50 million give on Ebola, but still the second largest grant we could identify by any funder for Syria work. 

As you might expect, the Open Society Foundations has also been on the case, giving at least $1 million through a number of grants in recent years related to Syria. 

Some smaller foundations have stepped up with donations to organizations working with Syrian refugees. 

Among corporate funders, the UPS Foundation has stood out for its efforts, drawing on its vast logistical network to partner with UNICEF to ship emergency aid for Syrian refugees. The non-U.S. IKEA Foundation has become the largest private funder of the UNHCR, aiding its work to house Syrian refugees. 

All these efforts, though, don't add up to very much help relative to the size of the Syrian crisis. That inaction is notable not just in comparison to Ebola, but other humanitarian disasters, like the Asian tsunami or the earthquake in Haiti. 

The reasons for this are relatively obvious: Foundations generally don't do a good job with disaster philanthropy given how both their money and staff tend to be tied up in ongoing program work. And the complexities of conflict in the Middle East—indeed, conflicts in general—tend to scare off many philanthropists. We've seen something similar around other humanitarian crises, such as in the Congo. In retrospect, the response to Darfur stands as an outlier and, anyway, even that infamous genocidal war didn't draw in many major foundations. 

Just maybe, though, funders will get their acts together around Syria, especially as the refugees crisis worsens further with the rise of ISIS. 

At the Clinton Global Initiative last month, there was a call to support Syrian refugees in Jordan in particular. Nearly 650,000 Syrians living in Jordan are registered as refugees and the Zaatari refugee camp is among the largest in the world.

Jordan has welcomed Syrian refugees, but the strain on the country’s infrastructure is becoming untenable. King Abdullah II of Jordan said, “How much can we do by ourselves? We are asking the international community to watch our backs.” CGI, along with Global Impact, answered by creating the new Syrian Refugee and Resiliency Fund.

The fund aims to raise at least $1 million over the next year to help support refugees in Syria and other countries impacted by the ongoing crisis. Other important goals include alleviating pressure on Jordan’s government and public resources, easing tensions in the area, and closing funding gaps related to the refugee crisis in education, health care, and economic development.

Since the fund is brand new, Global Impact is still working on establishing its governance, financial platform, and tracking and reporting measures. However, Global Impact has already set up a microsite that can receive contributions. The site is also fully mobile with a text-to-give option.

The plan right now is to distribute regular funds on a quarterly basis, and emergency funds within one week. If all goes as planned, Global Impact plans to revisit and revise the fund’s strategies in September 2015.

On a related note, other commitments made to the area include:

  • Vestas and EP Global Energy’s commitment to Winds for Prosperity. The companies will provide wind energy solutions to help power refugee camps. The project is expected to be fully operational in 2015.
  • Medical device maker Medtronic also made a commitment to enhance cardio, neuro, and spine surgery services in Jordan through increased staff, the provision of medical equipment, and the offering of medical fellowships. Medtronic will also begin renovations of Al Bashir Hospital’s triage area.
  • International Medical Corps plans to expand its public health services and help scale up local health organizations not only in Syria, but in Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey as well.
  • Pilosio, an Italian company specializing in temporary structures committed to deploying transitional school structures that will serve up to 100 children. The company plans to expand the project to create 10 schools in Jordan and Turkey.

All in all, it looks like some pretty heavy hitters have King Abdullah II’s back.

Now what we need is a lot more of the same to help all the refugees in Turkey and Iraq.