Why can’t the United Nations feed Syria’s refugees?

In the oxymoronic world of humanitarian war, refugees occupy a precarious and unenviable position.   Sometimes they will find themselves propelled to the forefront of international concern, and then suddenly they will become a problem and a burden, and they may find themselves forgotten and ignored.

This is what seems to have happened to Syria’s refugees.   Only last year,  Samantha Cameron went barefoot to Lebanese refugee camps for Save the Children, and William Hague visited refugee camps in Jordan wearing a stain-on-the-world’s-conscience frown.   At that time Britain and the ‘international community’  were trying to get the security council to approve military action in the event of Syrian  non-compliance with the Annan plan.

Back then it was useful for Hague to have himself filmed threatening Syria with ‘consequences’ against a background of refugee tents, while simultaneously promising that the ‘international community’ would respond to the ongoing humanitarian crisis.

Now, more than a year later, Syria’s refugees are no longer useful, and have become so useless that the ‘international community’ cannot even find the money to feed them.

On Monday the United Nations food agency announced that its World Food Program (WFP), which feeds 4 million Syrian Internally Displaced People (IDPs) inside Syria and another 2 million outside the country will be suspending its food voucher program, through which food is channelled to Syria’s refugees, because of a $64 million funding shortfall.  .

Refugees in Lebanon learned of this decision through a text message, which informed them: ‘We deeply regret that WFP has not yet received funds to reload your blue card for food for December 2014. We will inform you by SMS as soon as funding is received and we can resume food assistance.’

The Gulf states bear particular responsibility of this shameful outcome.   Some of them, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, played a pivotal role in supporting and facilitating the armed uprising and opposing any attempt to reach a negotiated solution.

Yet these states have failed to fulfil financial pledges that they made at a donor’s conference in Kuwait in January, where the Gulf states promised $650 million in humanitarian assistance.  Qatar promised $100 million, and has so far donated $2.7 million.  Other countries have donated nothing at all.

It’s true that some of the GCC countries have made their own private donations to particular refugee camps or refugees.  But these tend to be arbitrary and piecemeal, and there is no indication that they have reached the massive sums that the GCC has spent on war or the preparation for war.   This year Qatar signed an $11 billion dollar deal to buy US Patriot missiles.   Last year Saudi Arabia gave a whopping $3 billion to help the Lebanese army ‘fight terrorism’.  This year it gave another $3 billion in ‘fuel donations’ to the military government in Egypt, on top of another $5 billion that it gave the government last year.

No one knows how much money the Gulf states have spent supplying and financing Syrian rebel groups, but as far back as March 2013, the Washington Post reported that Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries were providing the rebels with ‘millions of dollars in funding each month.’

Few of these countries, it seems, have much interest in helping the victims of the war they helped create.  It’s difficult to know whether some of them actually want to see more refugees in even more desperate straits,  in order to increase the mayhem and instability that they hope ultimately to benefit from, or whether the leaders of these countries are just so stupid, shortsighted and greedy that they won’t pay for anything that they don’t see as profitable in the long or short term.

Either way, they aren’t the only ones with skewed priorities.  The largest single donor to Syrian refugees is the United States, which has so far provided $2.9 billion in humanitarian aid.   Britain has committed £700 million in humanitarian assistance – efforts that have partly been fuelled by a determination to ensure that as few Syrians as possible actually come to the UK.

All very commendable, but not exactly a massive sum when you compare it with the $3 trillion that the US spent on the Iraq war.   When Obama announced airstrikes against ISIS this summer, initial estimates of the cost of this mission oscillated between $15 billion to $20 billion a year.   Now the Pentagon is asking for double that amount to fund the war against ISIS in the coming year.

That’s on top of its existing budget and a $58.6 billion ‘ Overseas Contingency Fund’ that already pays for its military operations in the Middle East.   Britain, meanwhile is currently poised to spend at least £3 billion on the war with ISIS

Yet despite all this,  the United Nations cannot find $64 million to provide Syrian refugees with food.  No matter what the state of the international economy, it seems, there will always be limitless amounts of money to pay for wars, military interventions, and new technologies of destruction.  But when it comes to helping the civilians who continue to be the principal victims of war, the ‘international community’ just can’t seem to find the cash.

In Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa’s family are initially disgusted by his transformation into a cockroach.   Then they feel sorry for him.   And finally they just become indifferent and forget about him.

It’s disturbing to see how often our response to the 21st century’s refugees seems to follow the same pattern.

2 thoughts on “Why can’t the United Nations feed Syria’s refugees?

  1. Dear Matt, Last week I attended a lecture by the Swiss sociology professor Jean Ziegler. He has been a member of various UN bodies including the human rights commission as special rapporteur on the right to food. His talk was on the theme of the “cannibalist world order (where is hope?)” His main message was that grass roots organizations and “the people” are beginning to stir in some parts of the world. I hope he’s right. En passant he said that the UN is “in ruins.” I asked why and he gave two reasons: i) bankruptcy as member states don’t pay their dues so many staff are on short-term contracts and organizations like the WFP are unable to deliver (as you point out in the case of Syrian refugees); and, ii) the continued use of the veto in the security council which renders the organisation totally ineffective in resolving any crisis as at least one of the victorious states of WWII (i.e. those around the table in San Francisco in 1946 when the charter was signed) can be counted on to use the veto in almost any significant conflict. The upshot is the miserable state of affairs that we see in the middle east and elsewhere. The “international community” that you mention is a joke, at least if the idea is that the UN will play any sort of mediating or constructive role. And nobody in GB, France, China, Russia or the USA seems to want to take up the debate on reform, even though there are proposals on the table for rotation of the security council members, etc. that might unblock the organisation. Otherwise, as we can see, stagnation is the name of the game, with a bit of bombing here and there to keep things more or less under control. Not a very pretty picture… Mike (reporting from Geneva, where peace making doesn’t seem to be on anybody’s agenda).

    • Ziegler is certainly right about the UN, in terms of its function as guardian of international order and ‘security’. The problem with any ‘world government’ organization like this is that powerful states will always dominate, and will always try to pursue their individual state interests under the fig leaf of multilateralism. The countries that have done this most often have been the Western democracies that won WWII. They try to use the security council to get what they want, and when they don’t get it, they go ‘rogue’ and use NATO instead. Or you get botched attempts at ‘peacekeeping’ eg. in Bosnia, where the UN too often just sat and watched ethnic cleansing unfold in front of their eyes. And that’s not the only place where UN peacekeepers haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory. Graca Machel once wrote a generally-ignored report some years back which talked about sexual abuses/abuse of children carried out by UN troops in various countries. Despite all these and many other failings however, I think we have to cling on to the idea of some kind of ‘world government’ – much more democratic than the current UN of course and less beholden to powerful funders – because otherwise I fear the world will go down the tubes even more rapidly than it is already doing.

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