Helen Clark: Keynote Speech at Side Event on “How to Support Bottom-Up Community Resilience in Syria”

Jan 23, 2017

The Syrian conflict is approaching its seventh year, and continues to devastate the country and its people. Credits @UNDP

Today’s discussion on How to Support Bottom-Up Community Resilience in Syria comes at an important moment in the international community’s response to the Syria crisis. Tomorrow the Regional Refugee & Resilience Plan 2017-2018 (3RP) will be launched, and a high-level panel will take place on the humanitarian and resilience context inside Syria. Supporting the resilience of people within Syria is integral to the overall response to needs inside the country. The role played by civil society will be absolutely vital for the success of the HRP and for peace and recovery processes.

Why supporting resilience inside Syria is important

The Syrian conflict is approaching its seventh year, and continues to devastate the country and its people. The loss of lives, livelihoods, and hope has been staggering. In 2010, the country was on the brink of achieving most of its Millennium Development Goals and targets. Since the conflict began, however, Syria is estimated to have lost more than three decades of human development progress. As of 2015, Syria’s Human Development Index ranking had slipped to the bottom ten per cent of countries globally.

Since 2013, UNDP has been advocating for more investment in supporting the resilience of Syrians inside Syria. No political solution was in sight, humanitarian needs were growing exponentially, and funding was flat-lining. A new approach was needed – one which could support the remarkable resilience and strength which Syrians demonstrate every day in the face of crisis.

Our message is clear: resilience can be enhanced. Many opportunities exist to support Syrians to build or rebuild livelihoods, access basic services, and have hope for the future. This approach complements humanitarian relief responses, and seeks to build the capacities of people, communities, and institutions in ways which will also contribute to longer-term recovery when that is possible.

This approach is also relevant to responses to other protracted crises where significant development reversals are occurring. We must all work to stop the erosion of development gains wherever we can.

Two factors are important in making this approach work:

  • ensuring stronger and more diverse partnerships – especially with civil society; and
  • having multi-year, hybrid funding commitments across the humanitarian and emergency development aspects of the response.

UNDP’s resilience-building programme and working with civil society in Syria

UNDP’s two-year country programme for Syria 2016-2017 is a resilience-building programme which focuses on infrastructure rehabilitation, livelihoods, capacity-building support for partners, and social cohesion.

In 2016 alone, and building on the previous year, our work impacted on over 2.2 million people in Syria – directly and indirectly. For example:

  • 29,000 jobs, including for female-headed households and for people with disabilities, were created in nine governorates, and
  • 56,000 tons of debris and 212,000 tons of solid waste were removed from affected neighborhoods in places like Homs, Maaloula, and, now, in Aleppo.

Last year alone, UNDP in Syria had over 100 livelihoods projects benefitting nearly 60,000 beneficiaries. All of these were implemented through civil society organizations, including faith-based organizations. We also supported training for more than fifty of these on project management and early recovery principles. We engaged civil society organisations on developing and rolling out community-level social cohesion activities. An example was the Peace Lens project, which trained youth in several governorates in documentary film making to promote peace in local communities.

Beyond UNDP’s engagement with civil society, and in addition to civil society being integral to the consultation process on the new HRP, civil society organizations make up 25 of the 33 implementing partners of the Early Recovery and Livelihoods Sector in the Syria Humanitarian Response Plan which is currently under consultation.

UNDP’s bottom-up approach to resilience works with civil society as a partner

Civil society is a vital partner of UNDP’s work around the world, including in countries in crisis. We believe that civil society engagement should:

  • challenge the status quo when needed;
  • elevate the voices and aspirations of those unheard; and
  • help build more peaceful, just, and inclusive societies.

Since 2013, UNDP’s resilience work in Syria has taken the form of area-based, participatory planning with local communities. Our main partners in this work are local committees comprised of community leaders, IDPs, religious leaders, representatives of civil society and NGOs, and others in the areas in which we work. This approach involves deep stakeholder engagement and ownership, which we believe helps strengthen social cohesion. Civil society is playing a central role in building resilience in Syria, and it will need to play an even greater role in policy and advocacy in the future.

Civil society and reconciliation

In May last year, UNDP convened donor partners who are supporting reconciliation activities inside Syria, and completed an inventory of these activities across the country.

We found hundreds of activities which civil society actors considered to be reconciliation activities, like conflict resolution and community dialogue, and others which contribute to reconciliation, like creating livelihoods and rehabilitating basic services. These activities, however, tended not to be linked horizontally to each other, nor to be linked vertically to higher level dialogue or political negotiation processes.

Closer links are needed between the UN and civil society in Syria to build resilience, prevent further fraying of the social fabric, help the most affected to cope and recover, and engage in early reconciliation and social cohesion activities.

The UN system is just completing a process to inform its readiness to act in the event that there is a political agreement to end the conflict. This work is focusing initially on activities for the first weeks and months after an agreement. UNDP co-chairs this process through the UN Syria Interagency Taskforce (IATF), and wants to engage civil society in this work.

Critical questions on civil society and resilience

In conclusion, I raise three sets of issues for consideration in the discussion which will follow:

  • First, civil society plays a range of roles, during and after times of crisis. Organisations tend to proliferate in these settings in response to calls for proposals from donors. With the availability of and increased access to donor funding, they may come to be perceived as service providers on behalf of donors at the expense of their critical roles as civic actors and activists. What is the best balance to strike here?
  • Second, there is the issue of supporting and empowering civil society to help post-crisis recovery efforts, while at the same time ensuring that local institutions of governance can be rebuilt or emerge. Longer term provision of education and health, and of municipal services like water, waste management, and debris removal, needs institutional foundations. Yet a balance is difficult to strike in highly polilticised contexts like those of Syria. This is a highly relevant issue for UNDP and other international organizations whose governing bodies are composed of Member States.
  • Third, can civil society actions on community level social cohesion and reconciliation become more effective and impactful by strengthening networks among actors, and linking their work vertically to Track One or Track Two peace processes - for example, to the work of the Office of the Special Envoy for Syria? There are lessons to be learned from other crisis and post-crisis contexts in this respect.

Later today, UNDP will launch a report on lessons learned on post-crisis recovery in other settings, which we hope will inform planning by all actors who intend to support Syrian recovery. We look forward to robust discussion today and tomorrow on how best to support the Syrian people - both while the crisis continues and when longer-term recovery is possible. We firmly believe that civil society’s contribution is indispensable to these efforts.

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