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Convoys are flashy but humanitarian aid is evolving - Interview with Wojciech Wilk, president of the Polish Centre for International Aid (PCPM)

Sławomir Dębski: The Polish Centre for International Aid (PCPM) provides humanitarian aid to Syria and Ukraine, and runs development aid projects in Nepal, Tajikistan, Georgia and Sudan. Is Poland capable of helping people in need?

Wojciech Wilk: Poland is a member of OECD, a club of the world’s most affluent states, where it comes at the very end in terms of per capita development assistance, even behind countries such as the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Aid is an important and effective element of foreign policy and soft power, which is very much neglected in our country. The scale of development and foreign aid provided by Poland is difficult to grasp. The Polish state assigns for this purpose a not inconsiderable amount of some 2.9 billion zloty (685 562 989 EUR) a year, but three-fourths of that is Poland’s contribution to the European Union and its aid funds.

SD: In other words, we do provide help, but not “under the Polish flag”?

WW: Indeed, but this is also how other countries do it. Polish membership contributions to international organisations are close to 400 million zloty (94 623 045 EUR), while only 120 million zloty (28 368 123 EUR) from the central budget is earmarked for the national strategy for development aid – the equivalent of revitalising five parks in Warsaw or building a single flyover on a motorway. This really is a minute figure for a country with the European Union’s sixth-largest economy. Little wonder, then, that one may have problems noticing the effects of Poland’s contribution to foreign aid.

Last year, OECD experts reviewed Poland’s aid policy and concluded that fund management and monitoring by the foreign affairs ministry were spotless. The biggest aid policy problem here is insufficient funding. At a very small cost, Poland could visibly improve the situation, in addition to consolidating its positive image in Ukraine and thus paving the way for deeper economic and political cooperation.

This means that we have an effective aid system but not enough money to finance it, right?

The aid system comprises two elements, one of them being a financing system aligned with the government’s political priorities. This element exists in Poland and is fairly well designed, but it has to be accompanied by the so-called implementation potential, in other words, funding. Let’s keep in mind that the Polish government is committed to raising its ratio of official development assistance (ODA), including contributions to the EU, to gross national income (GRI) to 0.33% by 2030, in line with EU and OECD recommendations. Because Poland’s contributions to the EU will not change noticeably, foreign aid provided by state institutions, NGOs and on a bilateral basis is set to grow tenfold. To run projects and deploy funds on a scale ten times bigger than now over the next 15 years, Polish ministries and NGOs must have adequate implementation potential, which at present is exceptionally small.

So insufficient funding is an issue but is there anything specific about how Poland provides aid? Perhaps, even though our funds are small, we are better than others at spending them?

As matters stand at present, Poland’s main specialty is interesting, innovative projects with very small funding. They could be at least ten times bigger and still produce better outcomes. For now, to operate on a very low scale limited by resources, Polish organisations have to employ methods that others have yet to discover. Our strength lies in providing something that is needed, helpful, perceptible and innovative, at a fraction of the costs borne by British or American organisations, for example.

Is the provision of aid subject to any sort of international audit? Does anyone evaluate the way in which aid is given out by Poland, France, Germany or the European Union?

There are many ways of helping. We are talking about two types of aid – humanitarian and development. The financial aspects are subject to review even by audit firms. The outcomes, especially when it comes to official development assistance, should primarily be assessed by the recipient governments. Whether or not projects are continued or expanded is a very good indication of effectiveness. One highly successful Polish development aid project in Africa run by PCPM involves training firefighters in Ethiopia and Kenya. We started it as a Foreign Ministry-overseen voluntary worker project costing just 40 000 zloty (9462 EUR). It now covers three Kenyan counties (with a combined population of 4.5 million), which, based on 1.1 million zlotys’ (260213 EUR) worth of Polish know-how, invested millions of dollars in firefighting services, including the purchase of several dozen fire engines, construction of new fire stations and hiring of new firefighters.

Hundreds of thousands of people are attempting to reach Europe. What is your take on the causes of the refugee crisis?

We have to first mention the origins of the Syrian crisis and the migration crisis in Europe. In the past, when dramatic events were taking place thousands of kilometres away from Europe, we could watch them on TV, read newspapers and heave a sigh of relief that all of it was taking place far, far away. Today, almost every crisis in the world has a global dimension and global consequences. The civil war in Syria broke out in 2011. It has led to a migration crisis that is threatening the unity of the European Union, a block integrating some of the world’s most advanced countries. We are experiencing the consequences of this crisis in a very direct way.

Syrian people account for just over half of the refugees. According to UNHCR statistics, as many as 23% of the migrants who came to Europe via Greek islands and the Balkan route were Afghans, and many of them did not come from Afghanistan itself but from neighbouring Pakistan where they had previously found refuge from the civil war in their home country. In 2015, the Pakistani government decided to forcefully resettle them back into Afghanistan, which prodded some of them to attempt to reach Europe. This illustrates how a decision by the government of Pakistan, a country which is 5000km away from us, can have direct impact on developments in the European Union.

Migration is triggered by push factors, such as the civil war, human rights violations and economic collapse in Syria, and pull factors. People are pulled to the European Union in the absence of a common migration policy and borders that are still relatively open. We also do not have a coherent system of workforce absorption suiting the requirements of the European labour market. Why is this so? One of the main problems of the European Union is posed by high labour costs, which made European politicians believe that Europe’s economy would only gain if someone wanted to work here at lower pay rates. Consequently, the Union constantly lived with the conviction that everyone reaching Europe would somehow find their place in the economy. But as demonstrated by the experience of the past year, that is not the case. Some immigrants do not have the adequate education and occupational skills required to fill in the labour deficit in a fast and effective manner.

So we have a single market without a common migration policy on migration, do we not?

Indeed. And this market requires only very specific labour. However, the reality is that the EU has been pulling in not those who are needed but anybody who managed to reach its shores. Instead of acting in a strategic, deliberate manner, Europe is like a large vacuum. In effect, the migrants reaching Europe are not always capable of finding jobs that would enable upward mobility and they fall into structural dependence on social welfare or the black labour market, which is always close to—and often controlled by—the criminal underworld.

Could you give some examples?

Of course. Spanish agriculture depends on seasonal workers who are mostly needed in the summer. Most of these seasonal workers come from North Africa. Why not create a system that would allow them to work legally in the EU for six months? In the other six months they would live at home with their families, spend their money locally, thus driving local development. The tragedy of the current crisis, aside from the many deaths of those trying to reach Europe, is that those on the move are the most intelligent and enterprising people. Upon reaching developed countries, where their formal skills are not in demand, they cannot live up to their potential, which is also not being used at home. One could say that this pattern brings triple losses to mankind. The losers are Europe, the migrants’ home countries and the migrants themselves. The conditions pushing successive generations towards migration are not changing, either. 

So the Pakistani government’s decision to expel Afghan refugees was a factor contributing to the migration crisis in 2015. But what was the direct cause of the Syrian exodus? After all, the civil war in Syria had already been in full swing for a number of years.

In Syria, the migration crisis was correlated with the beginning of Russia’s intervention. Please note that the migration wave started in September 2015, at the same time as the Russians began bombing opposition forces and Iran made a discreet increase in its military involvement in the Syrian war. In the latter half of 2015, around 400,000 Syrians left Lebanon, while the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon dropped by no more than 50,000. Some 350,000 Syrians passed through Lebanon in a single day, reaching the airport or ferry ports before going to Turkey. I have no doubt that an overwhelming majority of the Syrians who then headed for the West were not the refugees we are caring for in Lebanon, especially since their number virtually did not change. The people we care for simply could not afford that. A journey to Europe costs some $2,000-2,500 per person, which has to be paid to smugglers. Meanwhile, most refugees cannot even scrape together $50 to buy medicines. The people we help in Lebanon live in extreme poverty and have no money for a long trek.

The Russian intervention in Syria was very likely prompted by the risk of the Syrian government’s military collapse, which was a very real prospect at the time. And most likely Syrians living in areas controlled by the Assad government knew what was happening. They knew that if the Assad regime fell, they and their families would face death or persecution at the hands of the Islamists. That fear precipitated the flight of the Syrian middle class, most of whom were loyal to Assad.

In other words, those who left were fleeing not so much the Assad regime as the spectre of its collapse.

That is my hypothesis. We do not have credible, unequivocal data, and we do not know exactly who was fleeing because no one surveyed them thoroughly upon arriving in Europe. In Syria’s case, there is also one additional international legal problem of grave importance. According to the Geneva Convention, a refugee has the right to illegally cross a border to flee a country where he or she is threatened with death or persecution. Such an illegal crossing is customarily left unpenalised. It is regretful that the Geneva Convention says nothing about not penalising the crossing of the next border, which is deemed a criminal offence in all countries. The status of refugee was introduced to protect them in the nearest safe country, but today it is often used as a pass to migrate to any country in the world.

With regard to Syrians, matters are further complicated by the UNHCR interpretation granting them the status of prima facie refugee, or collective refugee. Each Syrian citizen who is abroad but was in Syrian on 15 March 2011, which is when the revolution broke out, is considered a refugee. In other words, every Syrian de facto is a refugee irrespective of whether they are actually persecuted in their place of residence and whether they lived in a war zone.

Are you implying that, in terms of the letter of law, people who arrived in Europe in 2015 were actually abusing the refugee status?

That is how it looks from the viewpoint of a humanitarian organisation. This is a huge problem because humanitarian organisations are unable to help everybody. We therefore provide assistance to those in the worst living conditions, people threatened with death or suffering. In a prolonged crisis such as this, it means we should be helping the poorest Syrians—these are the ones who have remained in the Middle East. In Lebanon, PCMP is helping Syrian refugees who live in dire poverty, and recipients of the Polish assistance programme are selected in collaboration with the UNHCR.

Prior to the revolution, the average monthly pay in Syria was $130. The people reaching Europe could by no means be counted as the poorest refugees because each had to pay $2,000-2,500 to get here. The poorest Syrian refugees stayed in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, as they could not afford to flee. We appeal for them not to be forgotten. We appeal not to focus just on the refugee problem in Europe as this inadvertently restricts room for helping the poorest and those most in need. All the more so as humanitarian aid provided in the Middle East is three to four times cheaper than aid provided in Poland. In Germany’s case, this difference is simply colossal. For example, this year’s Humanitarian Appeal budgetcovering activities planned by UN agencies and cooperating NGOs, such as PCPM—for the whole Syrian region stands at $9 billion. Meanwhile, according to 2015 data from Germany’s Ifo Institute for Economic Research, which is rather reliable, social welfare spending on refugees in Germany alone cost $20 billion. Half of this amount would fully cover the requirements of all aid programmes in the Middle East.

The Polish government says the same, arguing that international assistance should be redirected towards the region because this is where people need the most help. Instilling this way of thinking amongst our European partners has not always been successful. Do you think that this is a right policy line?

Well, we have to differentiate between the European politicians’ declarations on the one hand and their pragmatic behaviour and budgetary realities on the other. Everywhere in the world, foreign aid is at the bottom of budget priorities. After all, these resources go abroad and cannot be used to buy votes at home. This is why politicians find it easier to decide on providing aid in their country rather than abroad. Social and humanitarian assistance funding spent in Europe fuels local economy. Meanwhile, aid sent to the Middle East—while desperately needed—brings fewer political benefits to EU governments. It is no coincidence that the Trump administration wants to increase defence spending by cutting American foreign aid.

You provide humanitarian assistance on behalf of the international community. What does this mean to you, from the viewpoint of workers of organisations and institutions that help the victims of humanitarian crises on the spot?

PCPM operates in Lebanon’s Akkar district, bordering Syria. We have been there since July 2012, so more than four and a half years. If you go there and ask any Syrian refugee where to turn for legal help, the answer would be, “the Norwegians”. And where to seek help if your roof is leaking and you need to repair your house? The French. Who do you contact if you are short of rent money? The Poles. This is the international community. This is our shared effort towards the same endto help and support Syrian refugees. We can see it on different levels. When our workers knock on the door of Syrian refugeeseven those whom they visit for the first time to bring them into our project—and present themselves as being from a Polish organisation, the hosts know instantly that these are the guys who help Syrian refugees in the region with paying rent.

While one could be forgiven for having serious doubts about UN effectiveness in other fields, coordinating humanitarian aid and coupling efforts within a single humanitarian strategy work very smoothly. Our organisations work hand in hand and, thanks to various coordination mechanisms, we do not get in one another’s way. We transfer those in need to one another: we first establish what kind of assistance they need most and then direct them to the organisation that specialises in that field and can help them best.

One coordination channel consists of thematic meetings within so-called humanitarian sectors, where organisations from various countries and specialisations work out shared criteria and guidelines on aid provision. Several years ago, when I visited a family of Syrian refugees in northern Lebanon, a 3-year-old boy sat on the floor with a nebuliser mask on his face. I learned he had been poisoned with chemical agents in a Damascus suburb and had been suffering lung problems ever since. Thanks to the collaboration of our humanitarian organisations, which in some way are the embodiment of the whole international community, we were able refer this particular family to the U.S. organisation International Medical Corps (IMC), which helps Syrian refugees with severe health problems. We in turn receive many requests for help in our flagship department, namely support for Syrian refugees with renting a flat. Child education is the domain of Norwegian and Danish aid agencies operating under the aegis and coordination of the UNHCR. The humanitarian organisations operating in the Middle East have too little money and can meet just 40-45% of the requirements; this means that we cannot afford to waste it or duplicate our activities.

In your opinion, is the European Union visible in the Middle East? Are you able to use EU funding?

To begin with, the European Union is the largest donor of humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees in the Middle East. And it is outrageous that the Gulf countries do not finance this aid in any degree. They did that in 2013–2014, but now funding for humanitarian assistance is channelled through the UN, where the financial contribution of the Gulf countries is very small.

Why is that?

The Gulf countries show a tendency to transfer a fairly large portion of aid through financial channels of unofficial organisations not working with the UN. Consequently, this financing is not fully reflected in the UN statistics. Quite often we are not aware of who belongs to those organisations. On the other hand, donors from the Gulf countries face fait accompli in the form of the Yemen war, where the requirements are enormous, on a scale that is even higher than in Syria. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are directly involved in that war.

It regretful that the European Union, when reporting on the financial commitment in a given country, only gives data on projects of the European Commission. But the combined amount of aid from the 27 Member States is higher—sometimes by many times over—than the direct financial flows from Brussels. Poland should take up this question in the forum of the European Union because the Union is something more than just the European Commission.

It also means the Member States.  

Yes, and this should be made known. For example, in 2016, the European Commission and its funds transferred $461 million towards aid for Syria and neighbouring countries (Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey). Over the same period, the Member States sent a total of $992 million to the same countries, according to official UN statistics. We should therefore present the combined contribution from the European Commission and all Member States. It then turns out that Europe’s aid to Syria and the neighbouring countries does not stand at $450 million but three times as much: $1.4 billion.

Anticipating future developments is part of aid agencies’ planning process. Based on your experience, what can we expect in the future and what should we prepare ourselves for?

From the perspective of Poland’s assistance policy, I believe we should take interest in three questions that will increasingly make themselves felt. First, the war in Syria will not continue forever and some solution is going to be found soon, whether military or political, durable or temporary. Most likely, the Damascus government will stay in control, if not of the whole country, then of a part inhabited by the bulk of the population. The European Union will then face the question of what next. Back in 2015, according to UN figures, a third of buildings in Syria were either destroyed or damaged to a degree making them uninhabitable. The Syrian economy has been completely ravaged. Will the European Union join the Syrian reconstruction effort or not?

If not, Syria will likely seek support elsewhere. Countries such as Russia or Iran do not have resources comparable to the EU aid volume. If the European Union opts out of large-scale support for Syrian reconstruction, a real threat will emerge of a failed or semi-failed country generating instability in the Middle East, a country which borders Turkey and a number of other countries.

Back in 2015, the world’s largest humanitarian agencies issued an appeal, which we unofficially joined, to provide something like a new Marshal Plan for the Middle East. At that time, that was all about refugees. If Lebanon or Jordan had been granted meaningful economic assistance, generating new investments and new jobs, a base would have been provided for talks with the governments of those countries on letting Syrian refugees take advantage of some of those jobs. That would have represented huge benefits for the host countries and for the refugees themselves. As of today, the much-needed economic support for Lebanon and Jordan has yet to come. Meanwhile, Lebanon, with a population of 4.5 million, plays host to 1 million Syrian refugees. In comparable terms, this is like a situation in which Poland would play host to 8-9 million refugees from Ukraine. We would not cope with a catastrophe of that scale and these, after all, are countries with much weaker economies.

Thus, if an effort is eventually taken to reconstruct Syria we must not forget about the countries that currently host refugees. The consequences of the refugees’ presence for these countries’ economy and social relations can hardly be exaggerated. There are 5 million refugees in the Middle East at present and they are not going to return quickly to their homes, fearing violence from either the government or the militants. And international law prohibits forcefully sending refugees to countries where they may face persecution, the non-refoulement principle. The situation in Syria is likely to remain unstable for many years to come, which means that the condition of safe and voluntary return will not be met. The prospect of 5 million refugee living in countries that border Syria is thus a very real one.

Another threat is that the number of failed states in Asia and Africa has been on the rise. It is not just Somalia. We now have South Sudan, too, and there are also countries in the Sahara, or at least regions outside the government’s control, such as the areas inhabited by the Tuareg people in Mali. It is also an open question what the future holds for Syrian lands and western Iraq. This means the emergence of…

... hotspots of instability?

Yes, sort of black holes on the map of the world, not capable of generating enough political and military potential for effective control of their nominal territory. Not only Somalia but also more and more countries of the Sahel and some in the Middle East—they will infect neighbours with their instability, thus curtailing their economic potential and consequently driving increased migration. These black holes will   spread The largest one will very likely be Yemen, populated by more than 20 million people. It is already a failed state in every respect, and in several years’ time it will even lack drinking water, following the exhaustion of its underground resources.

And the third issue of importance to Poland is support for Ukraine. My impression is that, for reasons unknown, Polish development aid to that country has halted at a very low level. In terms of development assistance, the “strategic partnership” is valued this year at $2.5 million. What kind of partnership is that? Poland should support Ukraine not only because of good neighbourly relations or our political and strategic interests, but primarily because our help can produce huge outcomes there, from only small inputs. In 2016, for example, the PCPM arranged for a complete repair of 10 schools in eastern Ukraine and equipped 20 others with school furniture and teaching aids for a total of just 1 million zloty, or $250,000. Our engagement with eastern Ukraine has been hailed. Our foundation provided humanitarian aid close to the frontline in the Donbas region in the period to June 2016. We had direct contact with Ukrainian units, regular and voluntary, and never did we experience any problems. If we want to keep a good image of Poland in Ukraine and counter the consequences of a hybrid conflict, our engagement must be increased. As it is, the 9 million zloty at our disposal can only repair schools in a single region.

On the cover of the Polish Diplomatic Review [Polski Przegląd Dyplomatyczny] is a photo of the Eiffel Tower with its lights out on 14 December 2016, in a gesture of solidarity with the people of Aleppo. What is your opinion about such gestures?

I once saw a Facebook graphic like this: A lorry with medicines arrives in the ruins of Aleppo and the stuff is being unloaded, with this explanation to the local people: “We brought you help: Facebook likes”.

Is it caricature?

Special effects, but it shows this is not what is needed. Given the enormity of needs, especially in the Middle East, humanitarian aid now has a very tangible financial dimension. Not just with respect to single Polish projects, but in overall terms, too. We need a political commitment to enable financing with state budget funds. For example, the basic humanitarian aid package provided by PCPM for 10,000 refugees in Lebanon represents costs of 1.2 million zloty (2868391 EUR) a month. It is not feasible to obtain these funds for a several-month operation by means of public collection.

On the other hand, we very much need the commitment and support from private sponsors and individual donors, which would enable us and other aid organisations to increase assistance and respond to newly emerging requirements quickly. This is especially important in wintertime, when the humanitarian needs in the Middle East are the greatest—and in the case of creeping crises, such as the disastrous famines in South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen. A fine example of such a commitment is provided by the current “Warsaw for Aleppo” campaign, which is not highly publicised. If one wants to help those affected by war, the best thing to do is to provide financial support of whatever size. The times of humanitarian assistance in the form of physical shipments are gone. Convoys with humanitarian aid are no longer organised. 

Except by Russia.

Indeed. Aid convoys look better in the limelight but nowadays, humanitarian aid is monetised. What aid recipients get is something like social welfare assistance, which they can put to use to meet priority requirements, primarily purchasing food and arranging for accommodation. This is the most cost-effective way of helping people who for many months and years cannot return to their homes, which is a characteristic feature of contemporary conflicts.

Do you need more people, more volunteers? Can anybody approach you and offer their services?

We invite people who have experience working in the Middle East and know the Arabic language. The Syrian refugees in Lebanon do not speak English at all, which incidentally provides yet further evidence that the Syrian migrants to Europe—speaking English and with university/collage diplomas—are not typical representatives of Syrian society.

Wojciech Wilk was interviewed by Sławomir Dębski, director of PISM


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