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Syrian refugees get water at a camp in Azraq, Jordan.

Syrian refugees get water at a camp in Azraq, Jordan.

Rainer Jensen/dpa/picture-alliance/Newscom

Three reasons humanitarian aid fails

*For our full coverage of AAAS 2016, check out our meeting page.

WASHINGTON, D.C.—In 2008, Indiana University, Bloomington, geographer Elizabeth Dunn went to Georgia on a Fulbright grant to conduct a yearlong research project on food and agriculture. By the time she arrived, however, armed conflict between Georgia and Russia had driven many of her subjectslocal farming familiesinto large resettlement camps near the border of South Ossetia. After a year living near a 2500-resident camp, during which she took nearly 800 pages of “obsessive, single-spaced typed notes,” she decided to spend the next several summers living with the residents there. Her research focus turned to how the refugees rebuilt their lives using humanitarian aid from government agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). What surprised Dunn was that much of the aid was not helpful, and that at times, the ad hoc way in which it was delivered even harmed the families who were supposed to benefit from it, Dunn reported in a panel this week at the AAAS (publisher of Science) meeting in Washington, D.C. With the population of displaced people now at 60 million worldwide, Dunn says the problems she saw in Georgia are typical of many refugee relief efforts, including the current Syrian crisis. In an interview with Science, she lays out three lessons on humanitarian aid from the perspectives of those who receive it, and she explains why such aid often fails.

Make a plan, and communicate it

Because aid agencies, (NGOs), and other humanitarian groups often compete with each other for funding, they don’t always tell each otherand refugeeswhat they’re doing. That includes what kind of aid they plan to deliver and when, Dunn says. With no coordinated plan, and no plan for communicating it to the people receiving aid, agencies force refugees and the displaced into an awkward position: They can’t make any plans using their own resources. “They can’t see the meetings, they don’t see the World Humanitarian Summit, they just see the white trucks that blaze into camp and then blaze back out again,” Dunn says. In the camp in Georgia, for example, people were often afraid leave the camp to look for work or supplies in a nearby town, because they were afraid they would miss an aid delivery.  

Treat refugees and displaced people as individuals

When the media talk about the mass migration of refugees, it tends to describe them as “one giant moving mass of people, like a river or a flood,” Dunn says. But an architect from Damascus or a computer programmer from Aleppo will need very different aid from someone who used to be a rural farmer or wedding singer. When government agencies or NGOs hand out in-kind assistancesuch as these standardized housing kits recently designed by IKEAthey can effectively deny people the ability to combine their own skills and resources with aid to “come up with the solution that’s right for them,” she says. In the aftermath of the Georgia-Russia conflict, for example, “there was a big push” in Georgia to immediately roll out a multimillion-dollar breastfeeding support program. The reason? Breastfeeding has been an important need in other places receiving development aid, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There, the water is polluted with pathogens like cholera, and it’s very hard to get infant formula. In Georgia, “it was a crazy use of money,” Dunn says, because there was no water shortage and formula was readily available. As she was reading through the breastfeeding grant proposal, Dunn says, she noticed that it was identical to one that had been put together for the central African nation.  They had simply replaced the word “Congo” with the word “Georgia,” she says.  

No more used teddy bears

“There’s an idea that that refugees should take anything, whether or not it’s appropriate,” Dunn says. The Georgian camp, for example, frequently received large boxes full of used stuffed animals, despite the fact that average age of the residents in the camp was 54. Rather than providing health care tailored to geriatric people, however, aid efforts were often focused on psychosocial treatment and toys for traumatized children. “Don’t start me on the damn teddy bears,” Dunn says. Moving on to the current Syrian refugee crisis, she says that providing means of communicating and gathering information, such as cell phone towers and charging stations, should be a first priority. Not only can aid workers do “a much better job” of announcing aid if they have everybody’s cell phone numbers, but they can also figure out what refugees need using the exact same tools.