Developing strategies to end hunger

Saving more Lives in Syria

Syrian Refugees

Syrian refugees shortly after crossing the border into Jordan. (UNHCR/J. Kohler)

Syria dominates our media outlets, news pages, and Twitter and Facebook feeds. The conflict itself and the prospect of external intervention get most of the attention. The millions displaced (now one third of the Syrian population) and left to face homelessness and severe poverty and hunger somehow don't get as much. More of the world’s refugees are Syrian than any other nationality, and millions more have been forced from their homes but remain in the country. They have lost everything – their homes, livelihoods, and possessions — and are in need of emergency humanitarian assistance. 

Humanitarian relief is one of the most important things the United States can do to save lives in Syria. To help cover current and future needs, the United States can stretch the value of its aid dollars to reach more people, even without an increase in the budget. This is important because there is no telling when the conflict will end. Right now, there’s no end in sight.

The United States is the largest donor of emergency food assistance in Syria. A sizable share of that assistance is being provided through cash transfers, vouchers, and locally and regionally sourced food via the Emergency Food Security Program (EFSP). This new program, started just last year, makes the process of providing emergency food aid much more efficient and cost-effective. It eliminates the high costs in time and money of shipping food thousands of miles from the United States to the people who need it. Unfortunately, EFSP is an exception to the way food aid is delivered, not the rule. Syria, Numbers at a Glance

The current food aid system that’s been in place since 1954 requires that bulk commodities be purchased from only U.S. agribusiness corporations  and then shipped through U.S.-based shipping companies before being dispersed at the local level. These shipments take anywhere from three to five months to arrive, which can be far too late to help emergency situations. And once the food is dispersed, it often undercuts the efforts of local and regional farmers to sell their crops, dealing a backhanded blow to longer-term local food security and economic stability. The majority of U.S. food aid is still delivered under this archaic system.

A few months ago, President Obama proposed serious reforms that would help remove the long-entrenched barriers that waste U.S. taxpayer money and, more importantly, innocent lives across the world. These reforms alone would enable the United States to reach an additional two to four million people with food aid, and other targeted reforms could extend that reach to up to 17.1 million people. None of these reforms would increase current aid spending. In a situation like Syria where people are being displaced by the tens of thousands per week, those numbers matter immensely.

There is intense debate about the role of the United States and other countries in Syria’s civil war. But there should be no debate about changing “business as usual” food aid policies to better help the millions of innocent men, women, and children caught in the middle. Derek Schwabe


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