Building a bridge between powerlessness and hope


Picture of Tanja Gönner
Tanja Gönner

Chair of the Management Board at the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ)

Tanja Gönner is Chair of the Management Board of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) and a former German Member of Parliament

There are now more than 65 million refugees and displaced persons worldwide, according to the latest figures from the United Nations. These people have fled terror, poverty, violence, persecution and discrimination in regions torn apart by conflict and crisis – not least the Syrian civil war, currently the world’s greatest humanitarian disaster, which human rights organisations say has claimed the lives of around 300,000 people and wounded a million more.

The violence in Syria has triggered a mass movement of refugees and displaced persons: there are now 6.6 million displaced persons in Syria itself and a further five million refugees in neighbouring countries. This makes Syria the largest origin country of refugees worldwide. Most have sought sanctuary and the chance of a new life in Turkey (2.5 million), Lebanon (1.1 million), Jordan (664,000) and Northern Iraq (250,000). Many of these host countries also need support in providing for and integrating the new arrivals.

In Iraq, for example, local communities are themselves bearing the brunt of armed conflict: in the past two years alone millions of Iraqis have been displaced or forced out of their villages by violence. More than 200,000 have fled to other countries.

As part of its response to the crisis the international community held the Supporting Syria and the Region Conference in London in early 2016, pledging more than €9bn to improve living conditions in and around Syria. During a follow-up conference held in Brussels in February this year the international community reconfirmed the necessity to meet the massive needs of the populations inside Syria and in neighbouring countries. The pledged funds will be used to ensure that all refugee children in the region have access to schooling, to improve healthcare, and to support employment creation programmes for refugees. Jordan, Lebanon, northern Iraq and Turkey are also the focus of the European Union’s Regional Trust Fund in Response to the Syrian Crisis. This fund invests in education, training and the social integration of refugees and provides psychosocial support for the many people who are deeply traumatised by their experiences.

We live in a globalised world, and interaction is its lifeblood

Development cooperation is vital: it helps to create livelihoods and prospects for refugees in their new homes outside the war zones. But it is almost powerless when it comes to curbing wars and armed conflict. So the debate about aid for war refugees cannot simply be subsumed within the broader context of long-term international cooperation.

The movement of refugees to Europe raises one question with growing urgency: is the fact that people are still leaving their homes and attempting the journey a sign that development cooperation has failed? The answer sounds both simplistic and cynical: development cooperation is not about preventing people from taking action. It is about providing support and improving people’s skills and living conditions, wherever they may be, and enabling them to earn a decent living. But this requires long-term commitment, patience and a strategic approach, as well as a degree of flexibility.

We live in a globalised world, and interaction is its lifeblood. Success depends not only on free but regulated movement of goods, capital, services and ideas; it relies on the movement of people across national borders. Globalisation is an arrangement based on reciprocity, and together we must resolve how we should shape all these mutual relationships. Needless to say, our European values must be built into the solution, and one of these values is assisting people in need.

On behalf of the German government, and often with co-funding from the EU, GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft fuer Internationale Zusammenarbeit)is committed to creating jobs and providing access to education and decent housing in the countries around Syria. Supporting refugees and the communities that offer them sanctuary is fundamental to our work. GIZ combines short-term aid, aimed at alleviating suffering, with medium-term and long-term infrastructural projects designed to increase the capacity of host countries to manage the crisis.

In northern Iraq, where more than a million displaced people and 250,000 Syrians have sought refuge since late 2014, GIZ is working on behalf of the German government to help these individuals regain a measure of control over their lives. Refugees and host communities are participating in a cash-for-work programme that provides a temporary income to cover basic needs. For the participants, the work is a welcome break from enforced passivity. Various employment options are available: road-building, school refurbishment and maintenance of sanitation systems.

Development cooperation is vital: it helps to create livelihoods and prospects for refugees in their new homes outside the war zones

The daily wage is skills-dependent and amounts to €20 to €30 for up to 50 days. The refugees can spend their wages on additional food for their families and school books for their children. To avoid social tensions the schemes always benefit the local community as well. This employment drive, initiated by the BMZ (the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development) and largely carried out by GIZ, reached 58,000 people in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey by 2016. With these broad-impact, short-term projects we are offering people hope and helping to create new prospects for their futures.

As well as rapid measures to improve living conditions, psychosocial support has a vital role to play. Refugees on the move are extremely vulnerable, with few defences against sexual assault, extortion or physical violence. GIZ supports them as they deal with these traumatic experiences. In northern Iraq community centres have been set up in refugee camps to offer mental health services and counselling. They have already reached around 250,000 people, helping them to gradually rebuild their lives.

In the medium to long term, further capacity-building in these countries will be essential, with many of them still engaged in their own development processes. On behalf of the German government, we have been working for many years in water-poor Jordan, providing access to clean water and raising awareness of the need to use this vital resource sparingly. Partly because of our cooperation with local partners, Jordan was better equipped to manage the arrival of the Syrian refugees.

Our cooperation has also helped to mitigate the social conflicts that can arise when large numbers of refugees place increased pressure on this already-scarce resource. Much of Jordan’s precious water is lost because its supply network is in a poor state of repair. Making a virtue of necessity, we have invested in training plumbers. So far around 300 Syrian refugees and Jordanian women have completed the training programme, which has encouraged them to build their own future.

These small, innovative and inspirational projects have a vital role to play. But long-term engagement is also needed to offer brighter prospects for people in the crisis region around Syria. And this is precisely the purpose of development cooperation: to make a sustainable investment in the future.

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