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Why has money run out for the World Food Programme and Syrian refugees?

Luke McManus, BA Arabic and Social Anthropology 

On the 1st of December, the World Food Program (WFP) was forced to suspend its food aid scheme for more than 1.6 million Syrian refugees because of a funding crisis, citing the need for an extra $64m before the operation could be restarted. This news could not have come at a worse time; temperatures in refugee host countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq have already begun to drop, and will continue to do so over the coming months, so the lack of access to food only threatens to add to their struggle.

Unfortunately, the WFP is not the only victim when it comes to shortfalls in funding. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), for example, still requires more than $850m to meet its 2014 appeal for Lebanon alone, which is set at just over $1.5bn. This is a country that hosts the highest number of Syrian refugees in the world, despite it being, geographically, the smallest. As such, with a fragile political climate and no official refugee camps, Syrian refugees face immense hardship.

First off, I’ll come clean – I’m no development student, nor am I claiming to be a provider of excellent solutions, but I do consider myself a decent human being, and in that very respect I’m sorely trying to get my head around how such a thing could have happened.  Why, despite the clear need for an unprecedented level of assistance, have we let it come to this? How is it that the WFP has had to suspend its food aid program, and how is it that the UNHCR’s funding gaps are so vast?

A good place to begin would be public sentiment, which, arguably, is rather depressing. As the Syrian conflict grinds on, so too do the images and stories of Syrian suffering and displacement, and they have since become the norm for us. As a result, the urgency demanded to help these people is lost to the ever-changing sands of day-to-day news.

By contrast, it is certainly true that the British public react in a very different manner to disasters that arrive without warning. Take, for example, the 2005 Asian tsunami. Humanitarian agencies saw a massive public response, with British donations to the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) hitting £329m – 11 times more than the DEC’s most recent Syria crisis appeal could generate. Of course, the particulars of the Asian tsunami and the Syrian crisis differ greatly, but at the very least it shows that when a widespread public agency to commit to charity exists, then fundraising targets can be met.

Now the other side to the current financial plights of the WFP and other humanitarian branches of the United Nations, should be viewed, with the understanding that the majority of their funding comes from international sources such as governments and private donors – not the public. Does this mean that the funding gap is their fault? Are they all a bunch of selfish,  heartless bureaucratics, purposefully withholding food aid from humanitarian agencies like a medic refusing to resuscitate a patient for fear of the paperwork involved?

Well, back in 2013, Oxfam lambasted top donor countries for failing to meet pledges. This may well have had its roots in unforeseen, domestic economics circumstances, which no one could have predicted. However, it does appear that, for whatever reason, some countries give a lot less than others, when they quite readily appear to have the financial means to offer so much more. In this case, I’m going to highlight Qatar; a nation which is spending around $200bn on a wildly controversial World Cup for 2022, has only donated $379,999 to the WFP this year, ranking it at 63 out of 93 on the WFP’s contribution list of international donors.

This kind of inaction does nothing to tackle the toxic rhetoric espoused by the Daily Mail et al against UK foreign aid (the current WFP contribution stands at over $357m), which is loosely based on a haphazard conflation between the British government and the mafia, and a strong dose of a “it’s not our problem, it’s theirs” type attitude.

All that being said, its hard to know if the Syrian refugees will get the hlep  they desperately need. The best anyone can hope for is that the very sight of the WFP’s food aid scheme shuddering to a halt will cause everyone to sit up and take stock of the situation. Humanitarian agencies and host countries alike are struggling under the impact of the continuous flow of Syrian refugees; the weight of demands and now-exhausted resources means that the burdens of host countries will only grow heavier. Refugee stigmatization will follow, social relationships will break down, and then we may have an entirely new crisis on our hands.


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