By Tom Esslemont
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Charities trying to deliver aid across Syria to help victims of the worsening conflict, have admitted it is hard, if not impossible, to know where supplies end up and fear future funding could be at risk, a Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation found.
A survey of 10 global non-government organizations (NGOs), United Nations agencies and local charities employed to deliver aid in Syria - all of whom requested anonymity - said they could not confirm aid is reaching the right people in many areas.
NGOs and U.N. agencies varied in their responses but were between 40 percent and 98 percent certain that aid was reaching the intended populations in besieged or hard-to-reach areas. Three organizations admitted it was impossible to say.
In Syria, one internationally renowned NGO said all its aid had been delivered but it had to curtail activities with three of its local partners because they were not found to be delivering aid to the intended beneficiaries.
Western donors say compared to past humanitarian emergencies, there is less theft of aid inside Syria and that NGOs and their partners are working as effectively as they can.
Aid diversion is nothing new. From Afghanistan to Somalia and Niger, there have been reports of humanitarian aid going missing - either diverted to government ministers and armed factions or simply unaccounted for.
But uncertainty over the delivery of globally funded aid in Syria has fueled concerns that supplies could fall into the hands of Islamist militants, with the United Nations' World Food Programme (WFP), alarmed earlier this year over social media images showing Islamic State logos on its food aid boxes.
At a time when other conflicts are attracting donor funding, NGOs are concerned a lack of accountability over aid or over their impartiality could jeopardize future funding when only 26 percent of a requested $2.9 billion for Syria this year has been received, according to the United Nations.
"How do we make sure it is the people in need, that aid is given in a balanced way? That is very important in Syria, that we are not favoring one group or another," said one international aid worker.
Aid workers said the complex nature of the Syrian conflict, which has become the worst humanitarian crisis since World War Two, has forced them into clandestine operations, often through local partners, making it impossible to follow all supplies.
This has hampered the delivery of aid, with an estimated 12.2 million people in a population of 22 million in need of humanitarian assistance.
"Clearly many U.N. member states, including donors, misread the conflict in Syria. Funding is just not keeping up with the humanitarian needs in what is a worsening situation. There is a gap now between the needs and the funding," Matthew Hollingworth, WFP's country director in Syria, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
The opaque nature of the Syrian conflict makes it hard to know where diverted aid ends up and even U.N. convoys cannot reach some besieged areas, with aid workers saying the global body must lobby harder for access.
The children's agency, UNICEF, said it had not been able to get to an estimated two million children regularly because they were trapped by siege, bombardment or hardline militants, with a total of 5.6 million children said to be in need of assistance.
The WFP said it was unable to monitor 40 percent of its distribution points in the past month, including in besieged cities like Aleppo and other hard-to-reach areas.
The fact that territory is at times occupied by hardline groups, internationally recognized as terrorist organizations, complicates the legal framework in which agencies can operate.
"We have an incredibly dynamic situation in Syria, because it is a civil war, and there have been problems that have arisen through working with different communities," said Hollingworth.
The Syrian partners themselves told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the context in Syria is often life-threatening.
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent, which negotiates access and delivers aid on behalf of international NGOs, has seen at least 50 of its volunteers die in the line of duty.
Confronted by danger, relief workers accept that some of their aid will not reach the intended beneficiaries.
"The needs are huge, but OK, along the way some of the aid will be diverted. Someone with a gun comes along and you have to give it up," said one international aid worker.
(Reporting By Tom Esslemont, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)