In 2011, Syrians took to the streets. They first demanded democratic reforms and greater freedoms and subsequently called for the downfall of President Assad’s dictatorial government. As the protest movement gave way to violent conflict and lacking viable opportunities to pursue their goals via the political system in power, many activists who opposed the arming of the revolution established civil society organisations as a vehicle to continue their movement, and to meet the needs of Syrians whose lives had been upturned by the war.
Syrian civil society emerges and makes a mark
Inside Syria post-2011, the space for political opposition is almost non-existent in areas controlled either by the Assad government or by one of the various armed groups. Exiled opposition politics is a non-starter, not least as the Syrian opposition government established in exile in 2013 has since been sidelined, dogged by infighting and lacking popular legitimacy. In the on-going conflict, the civil society organisations provide one of the few available spaces to preserve an inclusive vision for Syria’s future based on pluralism, democratic values and respect for human rights. Through seven years of war, Syrian activists have built up a dynamic civil society scene. Considering its underdevelopment prior to the uprising, it has made significant achievements since 2011. In the absence of state services Syrian organisations have saved the lives or lessened the suffering of millions providing food, medical care, water, education, housing and other essentials. Other Syrian NGOs are committed to a social transformation in the country keeping civic ideals alive in the face of violence, repression and a surge in sectarianism and other particularistic values. Hundreds of grassroots organisations are defending human rights, spreading principles of non-violence, upholding gender equality and the empowerment of women. They strive for peacebuilding and reconciliation, the development of an independent media, the promotion of the rule of law and pluralism through their work among Syrians. Additionally, Syrian human rights organisations have tirelessly documented the massive human rights violations witnessed in the country throughout the protest and conflict at great personal risk. In 2017 and 2018 these efforts started to bear fruit as legal proceedings against alleged Syrian perpetrators of gross human rights violations were brought before European courts. The documentation secured by civil society is and will be an invaluable resource when dealing with Syria’s recent past. Moreover, Syrian NGOs have pushed to keep issues such as the fate of political detainees, women’s participation and forced displacement on the agenda during the political negotiations in Geneva, Sochi and Astana. They have effectively kept the principles for a free, democratic Syria of the 2011’ peaceful uprising alive at a time when the voices and interests of the warring parties command more attention on the international stage. Most of these NGOs, that have sprung up not only in Syria, but also in its neighbouring countries, and in Europe are largely reliant on institutional donor funding from government agencies and private foundations in Europe and the US. Over the past seven years, donors have not only allocated significant sums for the NGOs’ activities but also supported capacity building, networking, know-how and other non-financial assistance. Individual donations from Syrians abroad and from the Gulf Region are especially important for organisations providing relief and services. Besides being vital for Syrian NGOs, the international funding is also a source of moral support and solidarity demonstrating the faith in universal values across borders and a means of amplifying civil society actors’ voices internationally.
Mixed blessings of donor support
But the support of international donors comes with advantages as well as drawbacks. The power hierarchy between fund-providing institutions and fund-seeking NGOs can enhance the imposition of donor-driven agendas leading to NGOs becoming more accountable to their funders rather than to their constituents. Donor policies, laborious application processes and unrealistic donor expectations are undermining the expression of international solidarity in the form of financial support and spread frustrations among Syrian civil society. Deeply rooted structural problems are expected to be solved through a series of short- or medium-term projects with quick and measurable outcomes. “How can we talk about supporting women’s rights in an eight-month project during a time of conflict?” says Mariah al Abdeh, executive director of ‘Women Now’, a Syrian women’s rights organisation with branches in Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. “American funds are always looking for big success, which isn’t realistic at all, and there’s close to zero flexibility. The Europeans are more flexible, and the relationship is more built on mutual respect, but the amount of money is less.” The incompatibility of the funders’ demand for immediate assessable results with a sustainable development process on-site puts a strain on the NGOs’ activities in Syria and thus on the people in need. With austerity policies squeezing domestic spending in Europe, government overseas development agencies also have to deal with cutbacks. Staff reduction does not allow a nuanced distribution of funds to smaller NGOs anymore. This leads to the allocation of small numbers of larger grants to fewer organisations big enough to absorb these sums. Only a small circle of well developed, formally registered organisations are able to satisfy the donors’ requirements, whereas smaller organisations with strong community roots and a commitment to change but lacking in a highly developed administration miss out. Even though terms like ‘empowerment of grassroots actors’ and ‘participation’ are sprinkled liberally through donor strategies, in practice the big players are favoured. Given the availability of funding, civic activism in some cases is also used as a business opportunity. There has been an explosion of newly established organisations operating at mixed levels of usefulness leading to the regrettably widespread perception that NGOs primary interest is paying their own salaries. However, even reliable organisations are forced to adapt to the latest donor trends. In order to obtain the much-needed funds, they are aligning their activities and priorities accordingly rather than following their own assessment of needs on the ground. These developments showcase perfectly the predicament of not profit-oriented actors being pressed into a profit-oriented system. The current system of international financial support being based on the competition for funds and other resources has become a source of division, disagreement and resentment among Syrian NGOs. Complaints of corruption, wasteful spending, nepotism and even assumed political inclinations with regard to received government funds are widespread. Foreign state funding, especially from the US, is commonly viewed with the suspicion of being ‘bought’ by the respective governments or their intelligence agencies.
True or false, or somewhere in between, these conjectures question the legitimacy and efficacy of the NGOs and may lead to the decrease of trust not only from their funders but also from their constituents. Further such rumours affect the Syrian civil society as a whole since the international donor support is - even though claiming to aim for their unity and coordination - in fact contributing to their fragmentation.
As Syrian NGOs’ technical capacities have improved and their staff has become more familiar with the bureaucratic idiosyncrasies and jargon of the international aid industry they approach their activities in a more managerial and technical manner. This newly obtained professionalization allows for longer-term planning of projects, the capability of paying employees on a regular basis and the permanent maintenance of their activities. However, the increasingly professionalised nature of Syrian civil society also favours well-educated Syrians for leadership positions in NGOs and for participation in international advocacy opportunities. Especially with regard to the lack of Arabic language capacity with international donors English-speaking staff is indispensable, but with this requirement, other segments of Syrian society are potentially marginalised from the field. Adapting to the system of the international aid industry and adhering to donors’ criteria also entails losing some of the revolutionary fervour of the 2011 uprising. Mohammed, who has been working with Syrian civil society in Lebanon since 2012, grew frustrated with writing reports about his NGO’s activities that were more concerned with meeting artificial project targets than with real impact on the ground: “The Syrian cause isn’t just a way to get money from Europe. Screw European funding if it means I have to lie at the expense of people who we’ve turned into numbers to put into a report.” he says.
Politics in a humanitarian space
Recent developments in Syria’s civil society emerged from the ideals of the 2011 uprising. Being rooted in political activism, its inherent goal is the wholesale transformation of Syria’s socio-political structure. However, civil society activities are internationally deemed to be apolitical and non-partisan. International NGO language imposes adherence to norms of neutrality and discourages inflammatory discourse. This may not only not resonate with the Syrian NGOs’ constituents but also conceal the actual political causes of the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria. Mariah al-Abdeh has observed this discrepancy between the international perception of the work of NGOs and the Syrian reality: “The revolution in 2011 created a space for activists. Then, when the revolution turned into a war, activists turned to create small organisations to support the people, but they had political change in their mind,” she says. “Sometimes we’re working on a humanitarian issue, but the roots of the issue are very political, and at times I think all this ‘NGO-isation’ is eating up the political activism. But on the other hand, it’s creating a space. Civil society’s role isn’t to call for the downfall of the regime, but it can be political by expressing people’s demands, talking about change. Working on social issues is political: creating unions or women’s groups will have a political effect, or working against child marriage is political because you’re challenging the armed groups.” In order to regain independence and local accountability, the future funding of Syrian civil society should incorporate locally rooted financial support to mitigate some of the unintended negative repercussions of overreliance on international funds. This approach could also include funds from corporate social responsibility or social enterprises. However, these processes will take time and might even challenge the established structure of international NGO-funding as a whole. In order to counter the power hierarchy of international funders and Syrian beneficiaries and to build a relationship on eye level, Syrian civil society organisations need foremost to find a united voice for their common demands, even if it means to overcome discrepancies among them. But one also needs to keep in mind, that ultimately only a democratic space in peace will allow the values that the Syrian civil society has worked so hard to protect in the political realm to become a reality for Syria.
*Frances Topham Smallwood is a Beirut-based independent researcher with a background in supporting civil society and human rights activism in the Middle East.
 Name changed by the author.