- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Wealthy nations that pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to refugees of Syria’s civil war haven’t come through with the money, according to data compiled by the top U.N. agency tracking the funds.

The situation has triggered an unusually tense round of international finger-pointing since Monday, when the U.N. World Food Programme announced that unfulfilled donor commitments were to blame for the organization’s sudden suspension of a critical voucher program serving more than 1.7 million people across the Middle East who were displaced by the crisis.

Officials with the program have so far refused to pin a $64 million funding shortage on any individual nation and claim the deficit is best explained by a failure of many governments to come through on promises for a broad humanitarian response to the Syria crisis.

But a close examination of data compiled by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs shows some countries are guiltier than others.

While many have lived up to aid promises — including the United States, which, at $3 billion, has funded nearly half the total humanitarian response — several are delinquent, with Kuwait, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Saudi Arabia leading the charge.

According to OCHA documents published this week, those four nations have collectively come up some $335 million short of what they’ve promised at international conferences on Syria since the civil war began more than three years ago. Separately, the European Union has delivered $97 million less than what its officials have pledged.

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The four nations and the EU have collectively delivered well over $1 billion in Syrian humanitarian aid, spread across the World Food Programme and other U.N. agencies, including the U.N. Refugee Agency and UNESCO.

But the massive deficit caused by the failure of those countries — and several others — to deliver on promised aid has left key programs in what one official described as a “hand-to-mouth” funding crisis that spilled into the open this week with the suspension of the voucher project.

Cutting the program, which provides Syrian refugee families in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt with debit card-like electronic vouchers to buy food in local shops, means “many families will go hungry,” the WFP said in a statement Monday.

The development is the most significant and highly publicized cutback by a U.N. aid operation in recent memory, and it represents the latest manifestation of the world’s failure to deal with the massive human catastrophe spilling out of Syria’s civil war. The situation is particularly troublesome for Lebanon, which hosts more than 1.1 million Syrian refugees, a number that corresponds to a quarter of the country’s population.

News of the voucher suspension began reaching those refugees Tuesday. Khaldiyeh Abbas, 42, who has been living in Lebanon for more than three years after fleeing Syria with her 55-year-old husband and six children, ages 6 to 20, told The Associated Press that she and her family “rely on the vouchers to make ends meet.”

The WFP says the voucher project has injected some $800 million into the economies of refugee-hosting countries that border Syria. But Monday’s statement provided no details on the project’s total budget, saying only that WFP requires $64 million in immediate funding to keep the project going through December.

WFP officials contacted by The Washington Times were not forthcoming about how the project is specifically funded and resisted suggestions that the cutback announcement was designed to shame wealthy nations into coming through on promised aid.

“We don’t want to start the blame game for this,” said Abeer Etefa, a WFP spokeswoman at the agency’s headquarters in Rome.

“It is very difficult for us to go through this country by country and then name and shame,” said Mrs. Etefa said, who added that individual nations have “pledged aid to the overall humanitarian effort, but not to any specific project.”

The largest organization fighting hunger worldwide, the WFP has an annual budget of around $3 billion and some 13,000 workers feeding more than 80 million people in 75 countries. But it is just one of dozens of agencies involved in the wider humanitarian response to Syria.

Understanding the funding shortage requires an examination of “the bigger picture,” according to Mrs. Etefa, who pointed to a major donor conference held this year in Kuwait, where billions were promised by dozens of nations for a broad-based humanitarian response to Syria.

“Of all the pledges that happened in the conference, only 47 percent have come through,” she said. While she added WFP officials “don’t have a track on who promised and didn’t fulfill their promise,” Mrs. Etefa said OCHA documents contain such data.

An accounting sheet posted on the agency’s website Monday showed dozens of nations and nongovernment groups have delivered some $4.2 billion for the humanitarian response to Syria, with roughly $720 million having been promised but not delivered.

Several nations — including France, Italy, Oman, Qatar and Switzerland — have collectively failed to deliver on more than $100 million, and some $207 million has been promised but not delivered by a consortium of nongovernment organizations around the world. But the starkest numbers for individual nations appear next to Kuwait, the U.K., the Netherlands and Saudi Arabia.

Kuwaiti officials pledged $500 million in aid at the very conference the nation hosted in January 2014. But the OCHA document shows Kuwait has so far only cut checks for roughly $300 million for programs like the ones being run by the WFP.

Kuwait’s embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But the nation’s foreign ministry undersecretary, Khaled Al-Jarallah, was quoted Monday by the official Kuwait News Agency as saying there are concerns about hosting another donor conference for Syria since some countries have yet to fulfill their aid promises.

While the UK has delivered nearly $400 million since the start of Syria’s war, it has come up roughly $50 million short of what its officials promised. Saudi Arabia is roughly $43 million short on the approximately $60 million it pledged, and the Netherlands is about $40 million short on its promise to deliver some $70 million.

Such data has provided U.S. officials with timely political cover to deflect the aid organization’s urgent pleas for additional assistance to prevent the interruption in service.

USAID spokesman Matt Herrick responded to the WFP’s announcement Monday by asserting that the U.S. has “provided 29 percent of the total WFP funding requirements and 50 percent of total donations, including food assistance” for Syrian refugees.

Washington has “contributed more than $3 billion in humanitarian assistance for the conflict in Syria, which includes $935 million for food assistance to the World Food Programme alone,” Mr. Herrick said in a statement, which called on other governments — specifically in the Middle East — to “step forward with funding now to avert lapses” in overall aid for the refugees.

While it remains to be seen how nations in the region will respond to such comments, refugees on the ground are feeling the weight of the failed international response.

Hadi Bahra, the head of Syria’s Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, told the AP on Tuesday that the suspension of the U.N. vouchers project “will cause thousands of families to starve to death.”

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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