1 Dec 2014

Syria’s victims of the mathematics of global aid

What is wrong with us? While people and governments give generously to appeals for the victims of earthquakes and disease, they balk when it comes to those fleeing conflict.

Britain’s Disasters Emergency Committee has raised as much in one month for the victims of Ebola as it did over 18 months for those affected by the war in Syria. The £27m is welcome but it won’t go far, given that 7.6m Syrians have been displaced within their own country and another 3.2m are now refugees.

israa_kawtharIsraa and Kawthar, Aleppo

There’s no question that money is needed to stem the spread of Ebola and care for those who have lost their families but the figures are far smaller – 5,000 dead, 10,000 infected.

It seems egregious to compare suffering but it’s important to understand why this is happening. Today the World Food Programme announced that from today it could no longer provide food vouchers for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Turkey,  Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.

They need $64m for this month alone.

A few weeks ago I was talking to Matthew Hollingworth who heads up the WFP programme inside Syria. He told me that with five major emergencies – Syria, Iraq, Central African Republic, South Sudan and Ebola – the international safety net is so weighed down it risks breaking. There just isn’t enough to go round.

So he was looking at his spreadsheets and distribution plans and working out how and where to cut. He said he had no choice but to reduce the rations of the displaced inside Syria just as winter approaches.

Note that four of those five crises are caused by war not natural disaster. War is the endemic crisis of our age that causes the most death and suffering. We can’t look away.

I’m still haunted by two little girls I met in Aleppo on my last visit. Seven-year-old Israa and her ten-year-old sister Kawthar were keen to show me how clever they were, reciting their numbers in both Arabic and English. But war has prevented Kawthar from going to school for three years and Israa may never go.

Their family has been displaced three times and now they live in a half-built apartment block on a building site.

Do donors see those two girls as somehow less worthy than victims of Ebola or Typhoon Haiyan (which garnered a fantastic £107m in donations from the DEC appeal)? No question that their fate was avoidable – war is an act of man, not an act of God. But a seven-year-old and a ten-year-old? Is it their fault?

Or is the fault with us, the journalists? The pictures of a natural disaster – flooded fields, ruined houses, thousands fleeing – are direct and compelling. The narrative is simple: look, how terrible, they need your help.

But the narrative of war is complex and it’s easy to look away. Why are they fighting, anyway? Aren’t they all as bad as each other? There are no good guys and bad guys, just muddle and pain and suffering.

And two little girls in red tracksuits who live on a bare concrete floor with no walls, where the rain floods in, who don’t go to school and whose food ration may now be cut.

That’s not so complicated, is it?

Follow @lindseyhilsum on Twitter.

Tweets by @lindseyhilsum