By Abdulhamid Qabbani

Since the start of the Syrian uprising-turned conflict in March 2011, there has been a proliferation of Syrian civil society organisations (CSOs), within Syria, established by refugee networks in neighbouring countries and diaspora groups across the world. According to the Citizens for Syria mapping project, there are more than 800 CSOs in the country and almost 150 within neighbouring Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. The increase in ‘formal’ CSOs came around largely as a response to emergency and relief needs. However, as the conflict protracts, many Syrian-led organisations are shifting their focus from primarily supporting humanitarian aid efforts to leading advocacy campaigns and engaging in peace talks and political dialogue. This move comes as more civil society actors realise that they have an important role in influencing the UN-led peace processes and monitoring the implementation of a future peace agreement. Despite working in extremely challenging circumstances and being impacted by the conflict themselves, CSOs are playing a crucial part in supporting humanitarian and peace efforts and in shaping the country’s future beyond the current conflict.

However, a closer look at the rapid growth of the nascent CSOs, including those that are grassroots and youth-led, demonstrates that international funding allocations during the last seven years have affected their capacity and effectiveness. For example, large NGOs established by diaspora Syrians based mainly in Europe and the US have been able to leverage more funding and professionalise compared to the community-based organisations (CBOs) which have, in contrast, received limited international assistance. This has not only created a capacity gap but also unfair competition for resources. The reason diaspora Syrian NGOs have been favoured may be due to the perception of their capacity to manage international grants.

While the humanitarian crisis influenced the prioritisation of funding towards NGOs with existing capacity to deliver emergency assistance to communities, as the humanitarian response in the country changes into long-term development, it is time for donors to consider a shift in their funding strategies. This must involve an increase in assistance to smaller CSOs, those that are youth- and women-led, and those that focus on governance, community development and peace. This would help make transitional processes and post-conflict reconstruction more inclusive. Prioritising the long-term capacity development for grassroots, youth-led CSOs and informal local civil society networks would also support greater stability. Indeed, these actors often have significant legitimacy, are respected by local communities, and understand the needs on the ground.

The international community must view the civil society actors and particularly the grassroots ones not only as service providers but also as part of the communities affected by the conflict and, themselves, in need of support. They require financial sustainability and capacity development to lead the transition and be accountable to their constituencies. Finally, the international support should be conflict sensitive and responsive to the unique needs of these CSOs – not only organisational capacity needs but also the skills-set that they may require for community building.

Ensuring a subtle balance between working with large NGOs whilst addressing the long-term capacity needs of smaller CBOs is vital for a healthy, effective and open civil society. This will enable the uprising-born CSOs to manage the change peacefully in this unique time of great social transformation.

This blog was originally published in INTRAC’s October 2017 Newsletter.

Useful reading

Alunni, A., Calder, M. and Kappler, S. (2017). Enduring Social Institutions and Civil Society Peacebuilding in Libya and Syria. Manchester: British Council.

Citizens for Syria. (No date). Mapping Project. Online. Available at:

Human Rights Watch. (2017). World Report 2017. Country Chapters – Syria  Events of 2016. New York: Human Rights Watch.

Abdulhamid Qabbani is a specialist in conflict resolution and sustainable peace. His areas of expertise are in peacebuilding, programme management and evaluation. He is the Founding Director of Jouri Research and Consulting and a long-term consultant with the British Council. He is also a freelance author. His work has featured in TRT World, TIMES, The Daily Beast, Washington Post, BBC Arabic and Your Middle East amongst others.