“The proper focus of humanitarian ethics,” writes the British academic Hugo Slim in his book on the subject, “should rest on how to be a good humanitarian worker, not on how to avoid being a bad one.” As UN aid workers in Syria know all too well, it is easier said than done. A recent two-year study published by two non-profits, the Syrian Legal Development Programme and the Observatory of Political and Economic Networks, alleges widespread abuse and, in some cases, corruption related to how the UN disburses donor funds in the war-torn country.
Among the report’s claims are that well-known human rights violators linked to the Syrian government have received millions of dollars of UN contracts, and that the UN’s opaque procurement process has only contributed to the problem.
Since 2014, donor countries have spent about $2.5 billion a year on humanitarian projects in Syria. As an impartial entity, the UN is the largest facilitator of such projects, with considerable influence over how donor funds are spent. The report is sure to irk many politicians in donor countries, some of whom, such as the US and UK, will see the names of individuals they have sanctioned listed as beneficiaries of their donations. In fact, the report alleges, nearly a quarter of donor funds disbursed by the UN have gone to individuals or companies under US, EU or UK sanctions. Such an outcome is possible in large part because the UN is not bound by non-UN sanctions, but for the countries holding the purse strings, that justification may not wash.
One particularly egregious example is the award of a contract worth more than $1 million to a company owned by the leader of a Damascus militia believed to be behind the 2013 Tadamon massacre. Another militia commander, Mohammad Said, who leads the predominantly Palestinian Al Quds Brigade, owns a company that has been contracted by the World Health Organisation to repair hospitals in Aleppo, a city the brigade helped the regime to retake in 2016.
But Syria is not an easy place to do business. And when it comes to humanitarian business, profits are considered a necessary evil in the interest of getting aid to where it needs to go: vulnerable Syrians. To achieve this, the UN, whose Syrian operations are based out of Damascus, must work within difficult conditions set out by the regime. For these and other practical reasons, a majority of UN-facilitated spending is in regime-held areas, but this is also where about two thirds of the Syrian population – including millions of vulnerable people – live.
The report’s authors propose some measures to be taken, such as greater transparency in how and why the UN awards contracts, and better vetting systems. But these will only be partial solutions. The harsh realities that drive this situation are ones that the rest of the international community – including countries who want to play a role in developing Syria once the war is over – will have to come to terms with, as the incumbent government is not expected to go anywhere any time soon.
Ultimately, the UN finds itself, the report’s authors note, in a “neutrality trap”: its inability to take sides and, by extension, its inability to flout local laws leaves it open to exploitation by the Syrian regime – namely, regarding with whom it can and cannot do business.
The inverse challenge, however, which is not discussed in the report but is only made clearer by its publication, is a reputational trap. UN agencies, and other humanitarian organisations, cannot ignore negative press and the impressions of donors, even if these factors come to stand in the way of their mandate of helping the greatest number of people possible. Focusing on how to be a good humanitarian worker, it seems, is only getting harder.