In the face of a humanitarian disaster, its sheer scale can inhibit compassion: human psychology is such that we can more readily appreciate the loss of a single life than that of many. Stalin was on to something when he reputedly said that the loss of one life is a tragedy, the loss of a million is a statistic. He would know. Keeping humanitarian disasters front and centre of international and personal attention is vital to maintaining an effective response.
The humanitarian disaster in Syria is all the greater a tragedy because it is man-made, because unlike a natural disaster it is apparently relentless and unrelenting. We all fervently hope that the talks in Geneva in January can bring a halt to hostilities. If so, at least humanitarian access can begin in earnest. Even then, the consequences of the conflict will be with us for many years. Along with its EU partners, the UN and a range of NGOs and Red Cross organisations, Ireland continues to assist in addressing this humanitarian disaster.
Bearing in mind that each statistic is one life ended, displaced, threatened, bereaved or impoverished, let’s look at the big picture.
Out of a population of 22 million, the death toll is approaching 120,000 people. More than 30% are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance and an estimated 4.25 million people are displaced inside Syria, including 235,000 Palestinian refugees. Over 2.5 million people inside Syria have not been reached with any assistance for up to a year. Almost 2.3 million refugees are sheltering in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and elsewhere in North Africa.
The revised UN response plan calls for $5.2 billion dollars for operations in 2013, the largest humanitarian appeal in the UN’s history. About 60% is funded.
Ireland announced last October that it was providing an additional €3 million, bringing our total contribution to €14.011 million, of which €11.361 million in 2013. Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Mr. Joe Costello T.D., made this announcement during his visit to Lebanon. Such visits – like his earlier visit to camps in Jordan and that of Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs & Trade, Eamonn Gilmore T.D. to Nizip refugee camp in Southern Turkey last April – are important for understanding the nature of the problem, for bringing attention to them and for providing Government Ministers and officials with the information and insights to further discussions with partners in the EU and UN.
With this additional contribution, Ireland’s pledge of €4.7 million made at the High Level Donor Pledging Conference for Syria in Kuwait City last January has been exceeded by almost €6.5m to date.
In terms of the delivery of this assistance, Irish Aid has a tremendous depth of experience, whether it is in the rapid delivery of material aid from our prepositioned stocks or funding a range of partners with whom we have close working relations. It’s not just signing cheques: it is about Irish Aid’s years of experience ensuring appropriate, needs-based assistance and effective delivery.
However, expertise aside, it is money that makes humanitarian responses happen. Some €1.15 million has been channelled through Irish NGOs Goal and Concern, in support of their operations. €500,000 was allocated to Oxfam in support of their programmes in Jordan and Lebanon. These programmes focus on emergency food and non-food items, sanitation, suppression of water born diseases and curative health care.
Our aid included €750,000 worth of supplies of non-food items (shelter, blankets, water kits) from our emergency relief stocks held in Dubai, through our Rapid Response Initiative: 45 tonnes of Irish Aid emergency supplies were delivered to UNRWA to the value of €211,000.
Ireland has been a strong supporter of the UN’s Syrian humanitarian response too: €3.45m to the UNHCR; €1.7m to the World Food Programme: €300,000 to the World Health Organisation: €1.2m to UNWRA; €1m to UNICEF and €1.75m to OCHA’s Emergency Response Fund. €100,000 was donated to the International Rescue Committee.
Irish Aid funding of course comes from the Irish taxpayer and it is a great point of pride for all of us representing Ireland abroad that Irish public support for humanitarian relief remains consistently strong, even as we meet our own economic and financial challenges.
The numbing scale of statistics can hide the human tragedy in any disaster, natural or man-made. In the Middle East, there is an additional barrier. In this region, considerations of the turmoil and conflict often focus on the complicated and shifting matrix of geopolitical interests. As the cross-roads of human activity and movement in and between Europe, Asia and Africa, thus it has always been. It is a testament to the relief organisations, to their personnel on the ground, often risking life and limb, and to their donors, whether large or small, that they see past these considerations and look to relieve the human suffering that comes from the clash of interests and ideology.
Humanitarian responses can only do so much to relieve the suffering which is the symptom of underlying conflict. It’s up the peace makers to look past the symptoms and get to the root of the problem. There are enough natural disasters to deal with without man adding to them. We can only hope that the leaders in the Syrian conflict say enough is enough and that some form of a deal is hammered out in Geneva.