Humanitarian Response to the Crisis in Syria
Chief Executive Officer, Mercy Corps
Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations
Neal Keny-Guyer, chief executive officer of Mercy Corps, discusses the humanitarian response to the crisis in Syria and the effect of the Trump administration's executive order barring Syrian refugees from entering the United States, as part of CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series.
FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the national program and outreach here at CFR.
As a reminder, today’s call is on the record. And the audio and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org, and on our iTunes podcast channel Religion and Foreign Policy.
We’re delighted to have Neal Keny-Guyer with us today to talk about the humanitarian response to the crisis in Syria. Mr. Keny-Guyer has served as chief executive officer of the global humanitarian organization Mercy Corps since 1994. Under his leadership, Mercy Corps has grown into one of the most respected international relief and development agencies in the world with ongoing operations in more than 40 countries, a staff of 4,000 and global revenue of roughly $450 million.
Mr. Keny-Guyer started his career working with at-risk youth in Washington, D.C. and Atlanta. After attending business school, he moved to Thailand to aid Cambodian refugees with UNICEF and CARE. And in 1982, he began his tenure with Save the Children, becoming director of Middle East, North Africa and Europe.
He’s a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on the humanitarian system and of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Neal, thanks very much for being with us today. It would be great if you begin by giving us an overview of your efforts for the humanitarian response to the situation in Syria and, if there’s time, to maybe touch upon the executive order barring refugee resettlement in the United States.
KENY-GUYER: Great. Irina, thank you very much.
And good afternoon to everybody who is on the line. I happen to be in Portland, Oregon right now. And I hope wherever you are you’re having sunnier weather than we are having in Portland.
Let me just start by reminding all of us the scale of the crisis. You know, the crisis in and around Syria remains the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. Roughly, 13 ½ million Syrians are still classified as in need of humanitarian assistance. There are roughly 6.3 million Syrians displaced as internal refugees, IDPs, within their own country. And of course, as we know, there are 4.8 million refugees who have fled Syria mostly to the surrounding countries.
I’m going to address mostly the humanitarian situation inside Syria. And just as a reminder, Mercy Corps has been actively engaged in this crisis since the beginning. We have a team of about 500 staff, 300 of whom operate inside Syria. We provide programs cross-border from Turkey into the northern part of Syria and also cross-border from Lebanon and Jordan into besieged areas and other areas in need and in conflict.
So, with that—and most of our response has been focused on food assistance, on delivering bread, frankly to keep the price of bread lower inside the country using a market-based solution, providing clean water and sanitation, some health care, and then increasingly a focus on agriculture recovery in areas where that’s appropriate and where you can reach it safely.
So let me just maybe a quick update. And I know there are people on the call who are probably more of an expert than I am, so I look forward to having much of what I’ve said being amplified by some of the experts who are on the phone.
But where I would just start to say, in terms of the humanitarian situation right now, is to say, obviously, the areas under siege, that are still under siege, are where safety and security are the poorest inside Syria. And, sadly and unfortunately, we continue to see the utilization of siege tactics by all parties to the conflict.
Let me first maybe highlight kind of eastern Ghouta which is, you know, which is where the government of Syria now has that area roughly under siege. There are occasionally access points for the private sector. There are some tunnels from areas that allow a small amount of assistance to get in, but it is effectively under siege.
There are about 400,000 people who live in that area. And the worry is that you could see there, and there are some warning signs, but you could see there what we saw in eastern Aleppo at the end of last year and for a number of months except that the numbers are much larger in eastern Ghouta than they were in east Aleppo city.
The other, just again to move on around, in Deir ez-Zor, which is an area, a city where the government of Syria is in control, but it is being besieged by ISIS. There are about 90,000 people in that city. There obviously is increased military activity there and around Raqqa city and al-Bab where, again, there could be major offenses. And I’m highlighting this not because of the politics, but because that’s where the humanitarian needs are going to be greatest. And then clearly, there’s still ongoing, despite the ceasefire, there’s still ongoing military activity in kind of northern rural Homs and in rural Hama areas.
And then I would say, finally, an area of great concern that we are providing a lot of assistance to is in Idlib. And the real worry in Idlib is as well that that could become the next Aleppo. Obviously, a lot of the people who fled, particularly from the eastern part of the city of Aleppo, fled to Idlib. You have the major armed factions are in control there. They have roughly split into two groups. And again, I apologize to the experts in the room. You know, one group is roughly the old gathering of Jabhat al-Nusra called Tahrir al-Sham right now. And the other group is Ahrar al-Sham, might be considered more moderate, although both come with Salafist kind of impulses.
But in any case, Ahrar al-Sham is being supported by Turkey. While they did not attend the recent peace discussions, they did not oppose them whereas with Tahrir al-Sham they did actively oppose and they have attacked some of the so-called more moderate groups. The worry there is that those two groups could begin fighting in Idlib at the same time that you see a new offensive from the government of Syria.
And obviously, the insecurity conflict, that increases the humanitarian needs significantly, dramatically in those areas. And that’s the biggest worry for all of us because it makes access very, very difficult from whatever area. It squeezes out and closes down the private sector in many of those areas. The price of bread shoots up, the price of basic goods shoots up, you can’t get medicines and drugs and so forth.
I will say, you know, at least our sense and reports from our team in Syria is that, you know, while there have been pockets and continue to be some awful things happening, you know, the ceasefire in effect in much of the country has given people some, you know, some sense of ease. You’ve been able to see more farmers to access agriculture lands and agriculture fields. You’re seeing more land that is under cultivation in some areas that had seen the worst of conflict. You’re seeing markets come back to life. You see women in markets again. There’s more visits to relatives, more social functions. You see, again, the return of boys playing in front of their houses, girls are able to return to school and play.
Now, obviously, the ceasefire has not been effective everywhere and there are clearly some places where people don’t feel that kind of ease of movement that they are in others. But it has been very welcome.
Meanwhile, because of the numbers and the internal displacement, I think those of us on the humanitarian side, you know, continue to be moving full speed ahead to try to really resupply and restock warehouses to get food supplies into areas that may come under attack again in the future, to where we can, even in besieged areas through the use of hawalas, to get cash in through local organizations, Syrian local organizations that we know and trust and have good accountability so that they can meet the needs of the most vulnerable people there.
Maybe just a quick word on some of the recent peace discussions in Astana and then upcoming in Geneva. Obviously, as everyone read, the results were mixed. From our standpoint, while there were a lot of the fighters that were there and a lot of the politicians, what was clearly missing in Astana was Syrian civil society. And, you know, it has been the Syrian civil society, the community-based organizations, many of you are familiar with the white helmets, but this is on all sides of the conflict, the Syrian Red Crescent, many of these organizations have provided historic relief and service to their people. You know, they’ve been the front lines that we’ve all partnered with in order to provide humanitarian assistance. They are often people who are pushing for a peaceful future. And I think it’s going to be really hard to have progress until at least more of civil society is engaged in the formal discussions in Astana or in Geneva, wherever they do take place.
I know there’s been reference in this country and elsewhere to safe zones. As Mercy Corps, we are not categorically opposed to well-thought-out, thorough proposals for the creation of safe zones. But if they’re not well-thought-out, if you don’t look for the unintended consequences, they actually could make the situation worse.
And in some senses, that sort of northern-center area of the country that the Turkish forces mostly control, the so-called Euphrates Shield area, for people in that area, that has become a de facto safe zone in any case right now.
So let me just stop right there. It clearly continues to be, you know, the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. There are great concerns for the people of Syria. And clearly, there’s no humanitarian solution. The only solutions are political. The only way the humanitarian needs will be fully addressed is when there’s a peaceful settlement and people can go home and begin to rebuild their lives and their society.
So I’ll stop there and look forward to comments and questions.
FASKIANOS: Neal, thanks very much for that. It would be great if we could now turn to the group for their questions and comments.
OPERATOR: Thank you. At this time we will open the floor for questions.
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We are currently holding for questions.
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FASKIANOS: Neal, among the displaced, women and girls are especially vulnerable. How is your organization working to prevent a response of violence against that population?
KENY-GUYER: That’s a great question. And clearly, girls are very, very vulnerable. And the way in which we look at that is obviously by applying a gender lens so that we’re very sensitive in our aid to ensure that, you know, it reaches the intended vulnerable populations, it does so in a way that targets girls, that is culturally sensitive and appropriate.
We work through, often, a lot of good, local community organizations, local religious organizations. And we have a specific accounting. When we get our reports or when our own staff are doing their field checks for accountability to ensure that the aid has reached the, you know, intended population that girls are a particular category that we look at and really insist that they are reached.
We also know that in times of crisis, girls in particular can be exploited. There is greater opportunity for sexual violence. That’s a big part of our programs is to do what we can, one, to ensure that girls don’t get separated from their families, when they do get separated they get to safe places, and are also engaged when an exploitation has happened or a trauma has occurred, where there are programs through which girls can have the psychological needs met in a way that begins to heal and enable them to recover and then get back into society.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our first question will come from Nicole Bibbins Sedaca with Georgetown University.
BIBBINS SEDACA: Thank you so much for your comments. It’s extraordinarily helpful to hear. And thank you for the work that you are doing.
You had mentioned obviously that there is a need for political settlement, which we’re all hoping for. And it seems that Assad’s stock is higher than it has been at other points in light of the U.S. alignment behind ISIS as its primary goal and Russia’s prominence on the scene. Are you hearing any alternatives to him that would be acceptable to others who are stakeholders in this, Russia or Iran or others, or alternative paths other than Assad?
KENY-GUYER: I am not at this moment. Although having said that, I think almost every proposal that is on the table presumes, some in a longer time period, some in a shorter timeframe, that the current leader, Assad, would have to go. And a lot of the discussion is around under what terms and how long would that process be. And I think that’s necessary to be on the table in order to get as many of the opposition groups to the peace table as is possible, you know, particularly as the kind of coalition among Turkey and Russia and Iran has emerged and right now obviously is stronger than any of the supporters of the other side. But there is still the recognition that, you know, this will be at the heart of any settlement and that pathway by which Assad would leave is clearly part of the discussions, even if it’s not the lead point.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Thank you.
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Our next question will come from Mona Yacoubian with USAID.
FASKIANOS: Mona Yacoubian.
YACOUBIAN: Yes, hi. Thanks. It’s Mona Yacoubian. Thank you very much for your comments.
My question concerns Mercy Corps’ strategy as Syria enters soon the seventh year of conflict. I think we’ll hit the six-year anniversary next month. Can you talk a little bit more about how you’re thinking about resilience? You’ve touched on marketplaces and some agriculture work, but how are you thinking about livelihoods? And also, are you doing work in the area of education? Thank you.
KENY-GUYER: Mona, thank you for the question. And it gives me the opportunity to remind everyone that the U.S. government has been the largest provider of humanitarian assistance for Syrians of any donor in the world. And Mercy Corps has certainly benefited greatly from that partnership. And I think USAID should be called out for the incredible work that its team has done there and the willingness to take some risk to support a number of us in, you know, quite difficult circumstances in terms of providing humanitarian assistance.
You know, we would love to be doing more in terms of livelihoods. And I think there’s not a conversation that we have with our principal donors and partners, including the U.S. government, in which we’re not trying to push more and more toward livelihoods, toward thinking long term.
You know, clearly we’ve been able to show on the agriculture front that you can do that and do it in a way that enhances food security inside Syria, you can support the small farmers. We think there are also opportunities in certain towns that are relatively stable now where you can support small businesses.
I also think this sort of push toward cash in the hands of needy and vulnerable people is a way to support the local private sector. Again, I think that helps build resilience in these times.
And then the final thing is, we are part of discussions, particularly in Jordan, where, you know, we’re working with the Jordanian government, our donor partners and seeing, are there, you know, skills that are going to be necessary for recovery that we can begin to now put, you know, begin to build a workforce, particularly among young people. And we all know how young the population of Syria is, you know, 50 percent of the population is under 25. And so in Jordan, in Lebanon in particular, and also in Turkey, can we begin to build those kind of skills that will be necessary for recovery and maybe even begin to set up some businesses, some manufacturing facilities in economic zones in northern Jordan that, you know, one day, as one would say, inshallah, there will be peace, that you could then, those manufacturing facilities and businesses, could move into Syria and would be the bulwark of recovery. But it’s a fantastic question.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
YACOUBIAN: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from John Denker with United Religions Initiative.
DENKER: Yeah. What are the conditions that would make for a good safe zone or a viable safe zone, you might say? And also, what is the situation with the Shia and Christian communities in Syria?
KENY-GUYER: Again, it’s a good question. You know, the issue of safe zones is a complicated one. And I’d be happy, you know, afterward to send you a paper on it, it’s a little longer, and summarizing some of the upsides and downsides and pros and cons.
You know, the first and most important question of a safe zone, you know, do all parties agree to it? And if they don’t agree to it and people end up there, what happens if someone violates it? And, you know, who’s going to enforce it and how will that be enforced? And has one thought through the real unintended consequences of that?
Secondly, I think you’ve got to think, you know, if you declare one area a safe zone, you build the impression that everywhere else is not safe and you can have a, you know, a chaotic movement of people into that zone. That’s a very vulnerable time for them. And again, if it’s not clear on who’s enforcing a safe zone, if you get a lot of people moved into those arenas, you start providing humanitarian assistance, if the terms of the safe zone are shaky, you know, those people could become very vulnerable to conflict that targets them in that area.
And there are also, you know, good reasons to think of safe zones and, you know, humanitarian quarters and so forth. It’s just that, you know, they need to be well-thought-out before it’s implemented. That’s the main point.
You know, the whole question of Shiites and Christians, you know, it’s a difficult one. And obviously, you know, minority groups in Syria have felt very alarmed by, you know, sort of radicalism on certain sides. Many of the Christian groups have felt safer, not all, but many, even if they were supportive of a change in government and would love to have seen a more open and freer society, I think they have felt more secure and protected in the Syrian government right now and have found themselves in a very tough situation. You know, and that would be the same for the Alawite groups, clearly, who are supporting the government within that.
But again, it’s not, you know, it’s not uniform as a lot of folks on the phone will say. There are many of these groups were also part of the, you know, of the civil society that stood, that engaged in some of the initial peaceful protests and demonstrations and really would want to see a more open and just society.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Thank you.
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Our next question will come from Stephen Rodriguez with One Defense.
RODRIGUEZ: Neal, thanks for taking the time to join us on the call.
My question, I guess, piggybacks on the two previous ones. Given the state of Syria as well as your team and its presence—and I was looking on your website right now, and one of the most recent updates is just a simple note saying that, hey, everyone from Mercy Corps is safe in east Aleppo. So, you know, with situations like this, in terms of your ability to be effective on the ground, I guess the two-part question is, A, how has your mission shifted toward serving and helping Syrians outside of Syria, which is a huge proportion of the population now, especially in Europe where you guys, you know, certainly have presence?
And then also related to Syria and the environment around it, and given that the nature of this call is religion and foreign policy, if I’m correct, how have you seen, I guess, any kind of interfaith dialogue between, you know, states that, at least at the state level, like Russia and the United States and Iran are at odds with each other, and yet, you know, have you seen religious leaders come together to try to ease the suffering, say, between the Orthodox church in Russia and, you know, various Christian churches in the U.S. that, you know, may have supported candidates that are at odds with each other? Does that make sense?
KENY-GUYER: It does, thank you. Part of that may be outside of my particular area of expertise, but I’ll share some thoughts. And thank you for the question.
You know, in terms of our mission, you know, early on, again, when this crisis started, we felt, in part, because, you know, we felt that we could operate in really tough environments and that, you know, we’ve built up a capacity to deal with insecure arenas. You know, early on we built a presence inside Syria. In fact, some may know we actually were in Damascus originally and the government of Syria—and I will say they were polite about it. They did say you have to make a choice. You either are going to operate out of Damascus or you can operate cross-border, but you can’t do both because we think cross-border violates our sovereignty.
And we said you know very well you can’t operate from Damascus and inside government-controlled areas and reach opposition areas. And at that time, that was where the greatest needs were. And it was also where there was hardly any capacity except for those international NGOs that were getting established, because you had a situation where the U.N., you know, could only operate out of Damascus, maybe with a few one-off convoys here and there that would go cross-border, but nothing substantial at all. So just from a pure needs standpoint, we felt like we could have greater access.
And we told the Syrian government, we said, listen, you know, we’d like to be everywhere because there are people with humanitarian need on all sides of this conflict, in all locations in Syria. And we want to be able to meet those needs, you know, irrespective of where people are.
And secondly, we said, you know, to force us to make that decision, you really want groups like Mercy Corps providing humanitarian and other international NGOs because, you know, we will do this in a nonpartisan, impartial manner. We will do it with accountability to the best of our abilities. There will be no political objectives attached to that. But we lost that argument. So we’ve really built up a significant, significant capacity. And I think we’ve been among the largest providers of cross-border aid of anyone.
But at the same time with, you know, the needs were tremendous with the refugees who fled into Lebanon where we already had programs, Turkey, into Jordan where we already had programs, and into Iraq where we already had programs. We felt we had a responsibility because of our mission to step up there, which we did.
The unusual thing for us was also because of that million-plus kind of chaotic wave of people that made their way to Europe. We suddenly found ourselves also with quite significant operations in Greece, those continue to this day, you know, as well as significant operations in Turkey, working with Turkish organizations and the government of Turkey to meet the need of the, you know, more than 2 million refugees who have fled into Turkey.
We drew a line at Greece and felt there were others with more capacity inside. Well, we actually initially worked in the Balkans as well, but we’ve pulled back from there and our focus in Europe now really is in Greece.
With respect to the religion and foreign policy, you know, that’s a difficult one. I am aware, and obviously I think we all are, of, you know, of efforts from in this country to Europe, to elsewhere where, you know, faith leaders, Christian and Muslim, Orthodox, Catholic, Sunni, Shiite, you know, are coming together in an effort to really, you know, support one another, to ensure that some of the most ugly aspects of any of these kind of wars, the growing sectarianism doesn’t increase and doesn’t, you know, particularly impact communities in the West, in America and in Europe. And there are many wonderful examples of that.
I’m not as aware of how the interfaith dialogue, and some of you on this phone may be, you know, has actually been engaged and is being productively engaged in terms of the formal peace process. I do know that, you know, in Geneva the special U.N. representative, de Mistura, has certainly, you know, tried to bring in the religious communities and tried to bring in, you know, almost as members of civil society in an effort to build as broad a base for a peace process as possible.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Azeem Farooki with Islamic Center of Rockland.
FAROOKI: Oh, yes, thank you very much. Yes, sir.
My thoughts are pretty pessimistic at the moment. At the Islamic Center of Rockland, which is located in Rockland County, New York, we had had in the past several people came in for a fundraising effort and so on. And whatever was collected, it supposedly went back to Syria.
But what we see now and what I see now on TV is pretty dismal. I mean, there has been destruction everywhere, right? So the obvious question that comes to my mind, what’s the use of humanitarian assistance if daily destruction of life and property is the routine within the country?
And you mentioned your work, you’re also helping them outside the country, so that’s probably most productive when you mentioned other countries like Greece and Europe and so on.
But I do not, you know, fathom or understand, among those three big powers you have fighting out there, what will happen, what will be the future of Syria.
KENY-GUYER: Well, that’s a great question. You know, and I appreciate the way you phrased that. You know, I actually think it is really important and urgent that we help as many Syrians as we can in their home country. First of all, I think, you know, the capacity of Lebanon, in particular, but of Jordan and Turkey and Iraq to absorb many more Syrians, you know, we’re at the breaking capacity in some of those countries. And, you know, clearly, that’s not a long-term answer as well.
Secondly, I think the political climate, as we all know, for, you know, movement of significant numbers, even in an orderly process, to Europe or the U.S., I think that’s just not in the cards right now.
And third, I think what is going on, it would be a mistake to see all of Syria right now as completely a basket case, a disaster. Yes, there are areas that have had intense destruction, which we’re aware of. And yes, there are ongoing pockets of conflict and there’s the potential for larger pockets of conflict, you know, particularly in Idlib that I described earlier, you know, areas, you know, with Raqqa as movement on both sides to try to pressure ISIS and then ultimately defeat them, but you do have—but in big swaths of the southern part of the country, there’s been a process, these can be criticized, but there’s been a process of so-called truce and reconciliation movement, largely the government regaining control, but at least in a way that hasn’t been as violent as in other areas. And some semblance of normal life goes on in big, big portions of those areas.
You have that whole zone in the, you know, the Kurdish areas are relatively peaceful and certainly under control there. That Euphrates Shield area has suddenly put an area that was very dangerous and difficult for people is now more secure. You’re beginning to see people go back to those areas.
And to me is—and you still—and you’re increasingly seeing members of civil society in Syria, ordinary civilians who say, you know what, I’m not going to leave, I’m going to stay, this country needs me. And one day, someday, this fighting will stop and it’s going to be important that we are here in order to try to help build the new Syria.
And I, you know, I—even our own team members, I will tell you, we had more than 20 team members who stayed in eastern Aleppo to the very end. And we had opportunities to bring them out about a month before, you know, the most intense fighting days. And they said we can’t, this is our community, we really want to stay, and they stayed and felt it was important to continue humanitarian assistance, to continue to support people in need.
And I think I still feel it’s important that we do that. And when peace does come, it’ll be a lot more likely to be enduring if we have continued our support of the people and if we can do it in a way that promotes dignity and do it in an accountable way. And I think we can.
FAROOKI: Yes, of course. I mean, God bless you for what you guys are doing there. And that’s the only hope, I suppose, for the rest of us who are not there and only witness these events in our comfortable environment on television. But actually, someday, inshallah, as you said earlier, there will be peace in that—it’s a very extremely, what should I—what I want to say, one of the oldest areas of civilization in the world. And to see that in turmoil, it really breaks your heart.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Lawrence Geraty with La Sierra University.
GERATY: Thank you. I was wondering if you have seen any differences of experienced any differences between the Obama and Trump administrations. And beyond that, are there any policies that you would like to see us advocate for that would assist your work?
KENY-GUYER: Oh, well, thank you. That’s a great question. You know, I mean, at this stage, I think it is so early. You know, frankly, we have not seen any significant differences. Clearly, you know, the good civil service in our government as a new team gets in place and political appointees get approved and so forth, you know, you’ll begin to see the stamp of a new administration.
But at this point, you know, for example, the folks at, you know, the good folks at USAID, you know, are carrying on. I mean, and they do do—I think sometimes our civil service, the people who do this, you know, our Foreign Service, civil service, don’t get the recognition they deserve for the hard work that they do do on behalf of all of us, regardless of our political affiliations.
You know, I do think there’s a lot of uncertainty. And I think it’s way too early to draw any firm conclusions with the new administration. You know, from our standpoint, we clearly hope that foreign aid right now, which is less than 1 percent of the total budget, will continue to be as vigorously supported as it has been by all administrations, certainly in my lifetime. There’s been a strong bipartisan consensus on the need for U.S. leadership in terms of humanitarian assistance, in terms of the number of the crisis spots in the world. And clearly, we would hope that would continue.
And one expression of that, you know, is the foreign aid budget, which is already less than 1 percent of the total national budget. And we can argue over how to be more effective and make sure we’re getting, you know, value for money and we’re being effective for all taxpayers, but let’s not argue over, you know, the need to have U.S. leadership and engagement there. And I think all of us encouraging that would be really important.
I do think, you know, this is more personal and is that I, you know, think that our country has been built on immigrants, on refugees. That’s what makes America so special and distinctive is that you come here and regardless of your place of origin or who your father or mother were that you have a chance to make your mark on society.
And I would hope, and I know there’s debates over, you know, security, which are very legitimate, but I hope that in the midst of those we will continue to uphold what I think has always made America so special and the beacon on the hill. And I think that, you know, engages all of us in ensuring that we are, I think, you know, being led more by hope than we are by fear.
I also think the final thing I would say is I do think it is the U.S. leadership among all the donors, not just the European donors, has been important in almost every humanitarian crisis. And I hope that leadership will still be there. And while, you know, the politics in Syria right now have shifted toward Russia and Iran, I do think when we get to recovery, if we want, you know, if we want a country that recovers, that has a chance to be more open and more just, then it is really important that the U.S. engage and not presume that that’s going to be carried out by Russia and Iran. I think that would be a mistake if we were to withdraw from that and that kind of engagement. In so many places, U.S. leadership has been a critical linchpin.
GERATY: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Do we have another question?
OPERATOR: No, ma’am, there are no further questions in the queue at this time.
FASKIANOS: Neal, I wanted to ask you about you referenced other organizations working in the country. How do you coordinate the assistance that you’re giving or your efforts? And my second question is, how do you ensure the safety of your workers?
KENY-GUYER: Well, the first—the first—your first question is easier to answer than the second question, although the second is so important. And if there’s anything that keeps me up at night, it is worrying about the security of people who work for Mercy Corps in some of the most dangerous and difficult places on our planet.
But let me take the first question. The first one is, I think for people who support Mercy Corps or who support International Rescue Committee or Save the Children or other great organizations who are doing work, the good news is is that while we might compete for the private-donor dollar, and we all think we’re really good, on the ground we really do coordinate closely and carefully.
There are coordinating councils, for example in southern Turkey, for all the groups who are active, say, in the northern part of Syria. There are coordinating councils, Lebanon, for groups who are working cross-border from there. Likewise in Jordan or any of these where we do come together, share information.
Many of our largest donors, for example USAID, will support, obviously, support multiple organizations. I think they both insist that we coordinate and help facilitate and encourage that, which is good. And it goes beyond just U.S. donors. I think that’s true for all the major donors that are there. So I think we all feel a professional responsibility, a responsibility to the people that we serve to ensure that we’re leveraging all the assistance and that we’re implementing it in as accountably and in as a coordinated fashion as is possible. And we take that very seriously.
The safety issue is one we also take very, very seriously. And the biggest safety that we have and how we think about it is that you had what we call community acceptance, that we work in a transparent way, we build strong relationships with local actors on the ground. We’re very clear in accordance with our humanitarian principles. In other words, we’ll only give humanitarian assistance based on need, not on political direction or affiliation. And we have to operate in a very consistent way.
We also employ in Syria, for example, we actually employ a lot of use of, well, of deep situational analysis. And we have teams that monitor social media. We have teams that are looking at all the sources of information that we have access to so that we understand what’s going on almost minute by minute in an area where we are active.
It’s not unusual when we have a convoy that goes cross-border from Turkey, for example, that, you know, there are—it will go with three or four possible routes and we get live phone calls and information along the way so that we can go to the most safe route and area.
So there’s a lot of—and there’s the use of social media and analysis. We even have a partnership with a large IT company, Palantir, that uses algorithms so we can make sense of the big data that is out there. And you’re beginning to see the use of this kind of technology now in places, you know, like Somalia, Syria, Central African Republic, South Sudan, and so forth. So we feel we need to bring, you know, the latest tools. And if we’re going to ask people to operate in these dangerous environments, we need to do the best job we can in terms of reducing risk.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
Any other questions?
OPERATOR: I’m showing there are no further questions in the queue at this time.
Neal, this has been a terrific overview of what you do and the situation in Syria. Are there any final remarks that you would like to leave us with?
KENY-GUYER: Well, I just, you know, one, particularly as this is, you know, many faith leaders who are on the phone, I do think, you know, as we all know, we live in a world now that is in transition, that’s a multipolar world in many ways with the rise of new powers outside of the West. It’s a multi-stakeholder world and it’s a multi-track world, and that peace is too important, we all know, peace is too important to be left just to the generals and the diplomats.
And I think increasingly there’s a role for civil society. And there’s a big, big role for faith-based organizations, for religious organizations who come together around, you know, the highest values of humanity. And we have to come together to, you know, to build a better world.
And I would urge all the faith leaders to recognize that their voice matters and counts. And we need principled, value-based voices as much now as ever.
FASKIANOS: Neal, thank you very much, again, for your time with us today and the remarkable work that you are doing, that Mercy Corps is doing in Syria and elsewhere around the globe.
You can follow Neal Keny-Guyer on Twitter @NealKG. We also encourage you to follow CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy on Twitter @CFR_Religion for announcements about upcoming events and information about the latest CFR resources.
So thank you, again, Neal, and thanks to all of you. We look forward to your continued participation in these discussions.
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