The absence of EU funding for Syrian civil society groups in exile: A missed opportunity or a sensible approach?
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As a leading donor of the international refugee response, having mobilised over 9 billion euros since the start of the conflict towards humanitarian and development assistance, the European Union has contributed greatly to a number of large-scale efforts aimed at addressing the crisis in a relatively holistic manner. On 26 April 2016, the European Commission released a communication entitled ‘Lives in Dignity: from Aid-dependence to Self-reliance’, in which it emphasises the importance of aid activities and programmes which engage displaced people themselves. The communication states that “[a] new, coherent and collaborative policy framework needs to be put in place harness[ing] the productive capacities of refugees and IDPs.” Accordingly, any new approach ought to ensure greater cooperation between donors, civil society and displaced people themselves because the effectiveness of development action “depend[s] heavily on the extent of ‘buy-in’ from the host communities and the displaced people themselves.” In this context, an obvious ‘low-hanging fruit’ that lends itself very well to the EU’s objectives of harnessing the capacities of refugees would be the funding allocated to civil society initiatives launched and led by refugees themselves in exile. Logically, by supporting such initiatives, funding endeavours of the European Union would not only be contributing to current aid initiatives but would also help strengthen the emergence of a Syrian civil society which would later on have the potential of continuing its activity in post-war Syria. This paper aims to assess whether the European Union currently has the capacity to enact the aforementioned policy framework by funding the Syrian civil society in exile. The paper focuses in particular on the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR) and its potential support to the Syrian civil society emerging in Lebanon. The paper starts by providing an overview of the European Union’s funding towards addressing the ‘refugee crisis’ to-date, highlighting the limitations of these instruments in supporting smaller size local actors. In the second section, the paper assesses the importance of local actors, with a specific focus on Syrian-led civil society initiatives operating in Lebanon. The contribution of Syrian-led groups addressing the ‘refugee crisis’ is then explored, and it is argued that these groups are able to go beyond short-term “provision of food, medicine and blankets”, as they also have the potential of building trust and strengthened relations between people from different parts of society. It is suggested that such efforts therefore have the potential to help re-build the foundations of civil society in anticipation of ceasefire and a political solution to the Syrian civil war. The third section of the paper establishes that EU funding for Syrian-led initiatives is lacking, and identifies a number of key challenges and risks which a funding body may face when looking to support such groups. Importantly, in the fourth section, the paper focuses on the scope for evolving practice, proposing some relevant ‘next steps’ which would allow the EU to support a civil society in exile. It is argued that there is, first and foremost, an urgent need for increased understanding of the phenomenon, combined with the need to address a number of specific considerations to render funding mechanisms accessible to the exiled civil society. The paper concludes by recommending that the EU – as a leading donor in response to the Syrian crisis – starts exploring ways to tap into the potential of the Syrian civil society, in order to seize a unique, two-fold opportunity readily available.