By Zach Theiler

Hazem Rihawi, a native from Aleppo, Syria, told me of his journey from work as a first responder in Syria to his current home in Washington D.C. Today he advocates for Syrian nonprofits as a coordinator for the D.C. based American Relief Coalition for Syria. Due to his experience working as both a local humanitarian coordinator and as a policy-level advocate in Washington, Hazem holds a unique perspective on how international institutions can support Syrians providing relief and peacebuilding for their own populations.

In Hazem’s eyes the key to successfully supporting Syria lies in empowering local nonprofits. He explained, “Local NGOs are the best frontline. They need to be protected, supported, and maintained. These entities understand the context.”

Unfortunately, the ability for local nonprofits to operate effectively in Syria is severely limited by international sanctions, counterterrorism law, and what Hazem sees as a distrust from grant makers to fund local nonprofits in Syria who prefer to support better-known international organizations.

Humanitarian organizations face a series of well-documented challenges when operating in Syria, the primary of which is sanctions. Syria is a heavily sanctioned country by the U.S., the E.U., and the U.N. In areas that are not under government control there are also sanctions against many non-state armed groups that control territory. Navigating these extensive sanctions regimes requires significant technical expertise – it is a time-consuming process, especially in a conflict zone where time is limited.

Additionally, as a result of the sweeping sanctions regimes, banks often “derisk” their clients and some refrain from doing business in Syria at all. For those that remain, excessive regulations lead to financial transfer delays or freezing Syrian accounts, preventing nonprofits from providing rapid response to populations in need.

“As a Syrian, we struggle with banks,” Hazem commented, “Banks will follow a country’s rules, and, unfortunately for Syrians this is a sweeping thing. Just the name of Syria will stop many money transfers. Banks do not want to risk their relations with governments.”

The chilling effect on bank transfers is even more profound for local Syrian organizations who struggle to win over the trust of international donors, banks, and financial institutions.

Hazem elaborated on this challenge, commenting on the inherent risk involved: “The risk is financial accountability. While INGOs have built their trust with governments for a long period of time, local NGOs cannot present the same profile as INGOs.” The fact is that smaller Syrian NGOs cannot provide the same level of reporting and data as large, established INGOs; though that does not mean they lack accountability. Simpler systems can provide adequate transparency. Local nonprofits possess detailed knowledge of their communities.

Additionally, in conflict zones, some form of interaction with sanctioned organizations is often required, posing additional risks to peacebuilders and humanitarian workers.

In Syria, this meant that for a period most NGOs were required to interact with ISIS. As Hazem explained, “ISIS for a while controlled all fuel inside Syria, and we needed to purchase fuel. What would be our way when the only seller is ISIS? How are you able to satisfy the regulations?” What is the alternative for an NGO if that cannot purchase fuel? In Hazem’s words: “There is none.”

However, Hazem is sensitive to the complications of levying sanctions against terrorist organizations. “Fuel is a dual usage commodity. It can be used for the engines of military equipment and also for electrical generators in hospitals… It is a complicated discussion that often hinders the work for populations in need.”

He elaborated on the need to sanction corrupt governments and the challenges this poses for civilians. “On one hand, we understand and support the goals of these sanctions in curbing the Syrian corrupt [sic] regime’s capability of financially benefiting from the funding that is aimed to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian civilians and rebuild the country. But on the other hand, these sanctions are interpreted in a sweeping way by bureaucratic departments in governments like the U.S. government, which affects Syrian civilians themselves and the NGOs that are doing their best to support them.” There is clearly a difficult balance to strike when sanctioning corrupt governments while not undermining civil society.

To address this challenge, there are often humanitarian activities permitted to nonprofit organizations working in conflict zones, but they are narrowly interpreted. In addition, license applications for these activities are often complicated and time consuming. As a result, research shows that both international and local nonprofits resort to cash-carrying as an alternative to working with banks that often delay essential transfers of funds. This poses increased safety risks for nonprofit staff.

As sanctions expert Alice Debarre notes, “This not only creates security risks for humanitarian actors, it also makes the money harder to trace and increases the risk of extortion and misuse or diversion of funds to finance terrorism, undermining one of the central aims of sanctions measures.”

Understanding and complying with U.S. and U.N. sanctions is difficult for highly professionalized international nonprofits; the challenges are exacerbated for local nonprofits that rely primarily on volunteer labor.

Now based in Washington D.C., Hazem aims to reform both policy and attitudes that hamstring the effectiveness of humanitarian response and peacebuilding in Syria. The greatest challenge in his eyes is the lack of understanding for the local context.

As he stated, “That gap is huge. While people sit here in D.C. and make policies that affect people on the ground in Syria, it is not an easy thing to understand or do. In the field, circumstances are much more complicated than can be solved through a policy.”

The remedy? Improve trust between international institutions and local nonprofits, a task that can be accomplished by building the capacity of local nonprofits to meet the standards set by international organizations.

Hazem elaborated, “The expectation is that local organizations need to act at the same level of professionalism as international organizations. The problem is that this level of professionalism is not seen in local contexts.”

Clearly this is not a quick fix, and it would require international organizations to prioritize capacity building for their local counterparts and for funders to take perceived risks on lesser known organizations. However, Hazem emphasized the necessity to support local actors in conflict zones.

As he explained, “It is actually us [local populations] putting ourselves in harms’ way and then benefiting less [compared to international organizations]. I understand, of course, why accountability is important. But INGOs and donors need to take a risk from time to time to support these local NGOs. Local NGOs do the work.”

To better support effective humanitarian work in Syria, there clearly needs to be a nuanced approach to sanctions reform and attitudes that better empower local nonprofits to operate effectively. For people like Hazem, who have lived through the civil war and seen their home countries desecrated by violence, it is of paramount importance that Syrians are supported by the international community. Through Hazem’s current work in the U.S., he has the unique opportunity to influence decisionmakers on both the limiting effects sanctions have on humanitarian operations, as well as the need to build trust and capacity with Syrian nonprofits who risk their lives to support their country.