Aid conference for Syria looks to raise $9B in 2016

AMMAN, Jordan - International aid to the victims of Syria's five-year war, including millions forced to flee their homes, has persistently fallen short, but organizers of Thursday's annual Syria pledging conference hope for greater generosity this time around, despite a record request of close to $9 billion for 2016.

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The expectations are partly based on the reframing of the aid debate over the past year, following the chaotic migration of hundreds of thousands of desperate Syrians to Europe.

Donor countries trying to slow the influx would arguably serve their own interests as much as lofty principles of international solidarity if they give more and spend in smarter ways to improve refugees' lives and ease the burden on Middle Eastern host countries.

"I do think the European experience will have sharpened minds," Guy Ryder, head of the International Labor Organization, told The Associated Press while visiting Jordan, one of the struggling host countries. "And I don't think that's a bad thing if it leads to action (on Thursday), as I hope it will."

The stark reality of a drawn-out conflict requiring more ambitious long-term aid plans has also sunk in.

Fighting between Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces and those trying to topple him has only intensified over the past year, and the latest long-shot attempt at UN-brokered peace talks got off to an acrimonious start in Geneva over the weekend. Attempts to broker a cease-fire and political transition deal for Syria are further complicated by the involvement of world and regional powers facing off on opposite sides of the conflict.

Thursday's donor conference, to be held in London, is co-hosted by Britain, Germany, Norway, Kuwait and the United Nations. World leaders and representatives of dozens of countries have been invited, along with officials from international organizations, aid agencies and civic groups.

The total aid requirement to be presented in London amounts to nearly $9 billion, including a UN-co-ordinated appeal by dozens of aid agencies for $7.73 billion and a $1.23 billion request by regional host governments. The latter is a small portion of the massive economic support sought in the coming years by countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, which host nearly 4.6 million Syrian refugees.

"We hope and expect to raise significant new funding," said Jens Laerke, spokesman of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which assembled the UN-led appeal.

Such optimism comes despite widening funding gaps. Last year's appeal of more than $7 billion was just over half-funded, forcing painful cuts in programs such as refugee food aid.

Beyond the basics, donors are also being asked to support longer-term plans, with a focus on education and jobs.

"We think we need to make a step change now from simply the traditional model of passing the hat around the international donor community," British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said in Jordan this week.

Donors would work more closely with countries like Lebanon and Jorden to boost fragile economies plagued by high unemployment and help create jobs for both citizens and refugees. Currently, the vast majority of refugees are banned from legal work, making them dependent on scarce aid or forcing them into poorly paid informal jobs. The influx of Syrians has also pushed down wages of Jordanian and Lebanese labourers, driven up rents in poor neighbourhoods and overwhelmed local schools and health centres.

Jordan's King Abdullah II told the British Broadcasting Corp. ahead of the donor conference that "the psyche of the Jordanian people, I think it's gotten to boiling point."

New ideas also include encouraging large-scale private foreign investment in the region and Europe granting easier access to products made there. The ILO envisions labour-intensive infrastructure projects, such building water cisterns, schools and roads. Germany has proposed a donor-funded program to create 500,000 short-term jobs for refugees in the region.

The World Bank is meanwhile helping to set up cheap loans for host countries, with donors covering interest payments. Jordan has balked at the idea of having to borrow for anything linked to the refugee crisis, but has welcomed zero-interest financing for development programs it had to put on hold in recent years.

One of the most specific goals of the conference deals with education - to get all refugee children back to school by the end of the 2016/17 school year. Currently, more than 700,000 school-age refugees are out of school, more than half the total.

The UN children's agency said Tuesday that $1.4 billion would be needed to rescue what could become a "lost generation," both in Syria and in exile.

But despite goodwill and new ideas, donors face a grim truth - millions of Syrians are worse off now than they were even a year ago.

Most refugees in Jordan and Lebanon live in poverty. More refugee children have had to quit school for jobs to help families survive, as savings run out and adults are barred from legal work. Host countries have tightened entry restrictions for Syrians trying to escape fighting, including Jordan, where 20,000 are stranded in a remote desert area on the border and thousands more arrive each month. A new report by the Norwegian Refugee Council says hundreds of thousands of refugees are at risk or have already lost their right to legal stay in host countries.

A string of diplomatic failures has meanwhile worsened conditions inside Syria, where aid groups say 13.5 million people are now in need of assistance. Millions struggle to survive in besieged or hard-to-reach areas, and several dozen have starved to death.

"What we are witnessing now is a collective failure to deliver the necessary support to the region," said Jan Egeland, a former Norwegian diplomat who heads the Norwegian Refugee Council, which has called for aid on the scale of the Marshall Plan. "We are witnessing a total collapse of international solidarity with millions of war victims."


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