On Feb. 17, 2023, C&SN attended the Center for Disaster Philanthropy’s webinar, “A Layered Disaster: Supporting long-term recovery in Turkey and Syria.” In light of the Turkey-Syria earthquake, the webinar discussed the impact on the region, which was already destabilized by one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world. Speakers discussed how the earthquake exacerbated pre-existing challenges and vulnerabilities and shared the latest information on critical needs and gaps on the ground, takeaways for effective funding by donors, and long-term recovery goals for the future. 

Event speakers included: 

Thomas Debass Managing Director, Office of Global Partnerships, Department of State 

Jason Lacsamana – Director of Programs and Partnerships, St. Joseph Community Partnership Fund 

Alex Mahoney Deputy Director for the Office of Middle East, North Africa, and Europe, USAID Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance

Sema Genel Karaosmanoğlu Director, Support to Life, Chair, NEAR Network

The aims of the webinar were to help donors and grantmakers:

  1. Understand the variety of immediate and long-term needs faced by communities in the earthquake-affected area. 
  2. Learn how the current humanitarian crisis affects earthquake response and recovery; and
  3. Increase their knowledge of earthquakes, complex humanitarian emergencies, and ways to support recovery efforts effectively. 

What is the current situation in Syria and Turkey?

At the time of the webinar, search and rescue was ongoing, and bodies were still being pulled from the rubble; the death-toll had been accentuated after the critical 72-hour window for saving lives passed. 

Sema Genel Karaosmanoğlu streamed into the event live from Turkey where she was on the ground coordinating humanitarian relief efforts. She noted that those affected by the earthquake were experiencing significant trauma and that substantial coordination was needed in order to implement the many mechanisms that provide for delivering aid and healthcare services.

She described the situation as a truly “layered disaster,” as the region where she was working in Turkey already struggled with poor infrastructure, integration of a large influx of refugees, and was hard-hit by the pandemic prior to the earthquake. 

Alex Mahoney, spoke about the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) efforts since the earthquake. The first phase included supporting the Turkish government by deploying United States (U.S.) urban search and rescue teams. Next, USAID  sent critical food and shelter support, winter supplies, healthcare services, trauma support, and drinking water to the region. On Feb. 9, USAID authorized 85 million dollars in humanitarian funding to Turkey and Syria. 

What are the gaps in aid on the ground?

The speakers emphasized structural issues as one of the main gaps. As of the webinar date, there were no temporary settlements available, so aid organizations were unable to reach people in need and still needed more time to plan the necessary interventions to provide relief in a more systematic way. Shelter was cited as the biggest priority. However, there was an ongoing need for everything on the ground, including healthcare, protection from the cold, food and clean water, and other essential humanitarian services. 

Considerations for donors and the U.S. philanthropic response:

Jason Lacsamana explained that it is critical to consider how existing inequities, communities experiencing marginalization, and climate change play into funding for disaster response. Other factors to consider are disaster response best practices, due diligence, localization, and balancing immediate response with long-term recovery investments. 

The speakers examined the response from the U.S. private sector, which has been notably low compared to philanthropic participation for past disasters, despite the historical magnitude of this earthquake and its impact on millions of people. 

Thomas Debass expressed that we need a greater response from the private philanthropic community and the American people. However, he specifically thanked the Turkish and Syrian diasporic communities in the U.S. as the “original first responders” for their generous work and organizing from within the U.S. He stated that the U.S. State Department is doing everything they can to provide the information those communities need to continue doing this work. 

When discussing the lower levels of U.S. donations, the speakers covered concerns they have heard from donors about due diligence. In response to this, they spoke of the need for trust-based philanthropy, especially when there is a disaster of this scale and immediate needs on the ground.

C&SN highlights that excessive due diligence by donors and banks often holds-up humanitarian aid delivered by non-government organizations (NGOs). This comes despite robust evidence indicating strong financial governance structures and due diligence mechanisms amongst NGOs, as well as the U.S. Treasury Department’s  official stance that the charitable sector is low-risk for money laundering and terrorist financing.

“A generational effort” will be required to recover from the earthquake, how can people help?

Looking to the future, Jason Lacsamana called the earthquake recovery a “generational effort,” expecting that it will take at least 10 years. 

This will require donors and implementing organizations to strategically allocate their resources and balance immediate needs now with investing in long-term recovery goals in the region. However, it is yet to be seen whether long-term rebuilding will be permitted under U.S. sanctions regimes, as U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control’s (OFAC) earthquake relief-focused General License 23 is only valid for 180 days, expiring on Aug. 8, 2023.

Speakers stressed that cash is best in terms of supporting frontline organizations in Syria and Turkey, as it is the most economical, efficient, and useful way to help groups on the ground supporting relief efforts. Speakers gave resources with lists of organizations responding locally in Syria and Turkey. 

For the private sector, speakers referenced the UN’s Connecting Business Initiative, which has a business guide on how the private sector can engage in relief efforts. 

C&SN notes that international wire transfers to conflict zones are often delayed for NGOs delivering humanitarian aid due to banking fears of breaching national security laws – which emphasizes the need to continue advocating for NGOs financial access, and calls on the USG and the financial sector to continue their efforts to ensure monetary flows in support of earthquake relief can be sent and received without delay. 

Sema Genel Karaosmanoğlu noted that many local organizations, including refugee-led organizations in Turkey, have spearheaded disaster response efforts. She stressed the importance of investing in and supporting organizations already coordinated and working in the region so as to support a locally-led response. The speakers emphasized that local organizations have been vetted and that robust oversight processes and mechanisms are in place to ensure that donations are getting to those in need on the ground.