Interview with Nancy Wilson

Nancy Wilson, executive director of Relief International, outlines plans for using a $20 million donation to refugee Syrian children by philanthropist Sezgin Baran Korkmaz, founder of SBK Holdings in Turkey.

The donor has his own priorities – children. What priorities does your organization bring for using this money?
We have programming at the moment in Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, and then some cross-border work in Syria. Our programs, with the focus on Syrian refugees, are largely around education, nutrition and primary health care.

We also do quite a lot of work around child protection because children become particularly vulnerable when families have zero resources available to them and not enough money to survive. We’ve agreed with [Sezgin Baran Korkmaz]– we have an annual budget now of about between $25 and $30 million that we’re spending on the Syrian crisis.

Nancy Wilson

Nancy Wilson

This [new money] is $20 million – $4 million a year over 5 years; so it presents some incredible opportunities. Sometimes institutional donors don’t quite support all the program elements we think are important. It allows us to add additional pieces. In one case, we might have funding for the teachers, but we don’t actually have any space for them because the schools have become overcrowded. We could use some of this to help construct a space.

With the focus on children, where do you find the balance between rescue and rebuilding?
A lot of humanitarian and disaster funding, [is for] six months, nine months – a year. You start to build relationships and you don’t know, with the community, never mind the staff you’re employing, if you’re all going to be doing this again in a year’s time.

But with some portion of the funds multi-year, you can work on portable investments – helping people build the skills that will help them with the transition from conflict to peace. And we have to believe that five years from now, people will be in a rebuilding phase.

That doesn’t mean that you start building now, but making sure that in varied community groups, there’s an adequate supply of teachers, engineers, electricians and plumbers – the kinds of skills they’re going to need to rebuild their homes and their communities when they have the opportunity.

Never mind also the community cohesion – the governance practices of decision-making that will help them set priorities and meet people’s needs as they go through this transition.

We work with communities to say ‘what are the assets you have’? They may be knowledge assets, they may be relationship assets, they may be skills – whatever it might be and what are your aspirations for the lives you want to be leading? Most people do want to go home, until there’s no home to which to go. Working with people to figure out the answers to these questions is important.

And any future funding will follow the priorities you and your participants set?
We believe so strongly in the importance of local participation that it would be a real challenge if someone said to us as a donor, ‘here we’ll give you this money, but you have to build exactly this thing, in exactly that place’. We would think: ‘well, if people don’t want it, they’d never use it. It’ll fall apart; it’ll be of no value’. We insist on that opportunity to go in and work with people and understand, as I said, their assets and aspirations and then build programming to support that. And [Korkmaz] is very much supportive of that.

When you work with communities, what criteria do you set to make sure that you can trust people, particularly in an area of conflict?
What we’ve done until now, with, we think, good success, is triangulating. You have to talk to a lot of people and get a lot of different perspectives. We are operating about a dozen clinics inside Syria in the North. Most of those are in ISIS-controlled areas. And we have local Syrians who came across the border when they were still able to, into Turkey. We could come to an agreement about what we mean by health care and make sure that they did have the credentials that they purported to have and that they knew that we were who we purported to be. And they’re seeing 33,000 people a month and they’ve been doing that for 12 months now. We’ve also got incubators and delivery rooms.

And in each case we have contact with many different elders in those communities, to understand who’s who, to make sure that it’s not ISIS controlled, that they are able to be humanitarian and be neutral – not taking sides and treating whoever needs to be treated without fear or favor.

And when it seems like it’s not, we look at – do we need to close down temporarily – permanently?

So far we’ve been able to keep that healthcare in place. It would be difficult to do education in that setting and feel like you have the same degree of freedom but the education is more appropriate in other parts of Syria or outside of the country. In each place you have to get to know the community.

You’re not going to hit it right every time. But if you keep talking and working in these networks and circles, you get a pretty darn good idea of what’s going on.

Credit: © UNICEF/NYHQ2014-0295/Haidar catalogue number: NYHQ2014-0295 Country: Lebanon Year: 2014 Photographer: Ramzi Haidar.

Credit: UNICEF.Country: Lebanon. Year: 2014. Photographer: Ramzi Haidar.


When you work with traumatized people – who need so much help – won’t they be tempted to tell you what they think you want to hear? How do you work through that?
We do it couple of ways. Of our 1,300 staff worldwide, about 1,240 are local country nationals. We don’t do a lot of deploying ex-pats into a setting, who don’t speak the language and don’t know the culture. We focus on local staff, who can have authentic communication and relationships with people. The ex-pats we do have are seasoned and experienced folks who bring the technical expertise.

[When working with people] you don’t ask one person, and you certainly very quickly map out an understanding of the various stakeholders in a community and make sure that you’re touching base with a range of stakeholders. There might be an existing seniority, let’s call it, in a community. But we’ll make sure we talk to people who aren’t necessarily part of that seniority chain – that we hear the voices of women. Then we observe what the children are doing.

In a 17 February article, Alliance mapped out some steps for working in Syria, including identifying diaspora donors and local partners.
On August 14th, we had a workshop with Syrian diaspora people from the United States who are already independently and collectively providing resources to clinics, schools and family members in Syria. Some will travel over with a few refurbished laptops in their suitcase. That’s one approach, and we work at understanding that. Others are raising serious funds for education, and so on.

In those settings, we put a lot of time planning: ‘let’s make sure we don’t just focus on our sense of what’s important, but also what we’re hearing is important in the communities where we’re all working’. And then we piece together that mosaic. It’s a bit like the proverbial elephant. The needs look very different depending on which part of the conflict you’re touching. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t get to an understanding of what’s going on by putting all that information together and then prioritizing – what are we particularly good at?

Syria did not have a strong civil society culture. It was a very strong government that controlled civil society. These are some new skills people have to learn – inside the country and outside the country – this kind of community cohesion. How do we co-ordinate, how do we jointly set priorities? Working with that and helping people to develop those skills, is important.

At RI we call our approach, the RI way. It’s got four components. One is the local participation. Another is integrating sectors; we get health, add a water, sanitation and hygiene component, add an education component – or add work in livelihoods, where you can do multiple things that match the complexity of people’s lives. Our third piece is partnering with other organizations. The fourth piece is building the core skills of sustainability: transparency, accountability and deliberation. It’s one thing for us to provide a place for schools and teachers, for example, but families have to get their children to show up. This is mutual accountability we can build into the program.

How much do you need to be involved in the whole peace dialogue and the readiness for the peace dialogue?
There are efforts that work on the supply side of good governance and there are efforts that work on the demand side, and mostly people work on the supply side. The rule of law, elections, a peace agreement –a ceasefire: those are the supply of frameworks for peace, stability and governance.

Our contribution is building the demand side for good governance: transparency, accountability and deliberation. If you have been in a very autocratic environment, the skills that you have used to survive are followership, loyalty, obedience – not questioning. And yet we know around the world, regardless of what form of government you take, the core for good governance is some accountability of that government to the people who are governed.

So we work at building that level so that when those institutions come along and someone says ‘ok there’s an election’, people have some skills beyond, ‘who is my relative running for office? Who is in my same group’? People may ask some questions about, ‘who’s going to be transparent, who’s going to be accountable, and how can we debate this among ourselves in our communities’?

 Credit: UNICEF Country: Syrian Arab Republic. Year: 2014 Photographer: David Youngmeyer title

Credit: UNICEF. Country: Syrian Arab Republic. Year: 2014. Photographer: David Youngmeyer.


What criteria do you use to measure effectiveness? What roles do participants play in assessing your effectiveness?
It varies by setting. In certain situations we’ve got a grant to deliver non-food items to people who’ve been refugees – who’ve been on the move. You’re distributing blankets, buckets plastic bins, cloths, towels, soap and basic household supplies. Then it’s a question of how efficiently you get the goods distributed. That’s pretty straightforward.

In some camps, we work with kids on what’s called either ‘accelerated learning’ or ‘remedial learning’. They might have been raised in a Syrian school system and now, in Jordan, they have to go to a Jordanian school system.

In those settings, we do a pre-test, and after six weeks of remedial education, we do a post-test. Then we’re able to see whether they’re ready to join the Jordanian kids in regular classes.

You also do drawing; you do sports, and you do civil activities so they have a chance for physical self-expression. We also evaluate whether they’re emotionally ready to be in a classroom, or whether they need a little more time and support. We engage the families in those conversations.

What are the next steps – what should people be funding in your view?
UNICEF has asked us to expand programing in education in Iraq in Anbar province. We said ‘yes, we’ve got people on the ground there; we can do that’. They came back and said, ‘the government that was going to fund that has pulled out’. They now have to find a different government supporter – they can’t do that program right now.

Even at the governmental level, there are just not enough resources.

At the philanthropist level, it’s great to get the flexibility to support the things institutional donors aren’t supporting, and to take this longer view of ‘how do we start to work with communities – what’s their plan to get from here to peace, what’s the approach’?

Five years on, you’ve got this lost generation of kids who haven’t been in school. You’ve got kids who, when the conflict started, were 12. Now they’re 17, 18, 19 – and need to be productive members of society. But they’re roaming around.

Thinking about these teens and how we’re going to help them create paths to livelihoods is absolutely critical.

Can you talk about a few of the implementation partners that you’re working with?
One from your own backyard is the BBC Media Trust. We work very closely with them in Lebanon in our work that’s called a Cash and Communication for Protection Program. And the basic idea there is that children can be very vulnerable if families don’t have enough to even feed themselves.

That can lead to families sending their girls off for early marriage or sending their children off to work at very young ages, and often in very risky settings.

We know that if families have cash, have sort of, financial security up to just a pretty low floor, then they are less likely to put their children in more vulnerable situations. So we do some of that screening and so on and the cash transfers – it’s called cash, but it’s usually on a credit card kind of thing – a debit card.

Is there any network or established group where foundations might talk more with other donors?
We would certainly love to talk to people, and not just because we’d love to be the target for their philanthropy, but also to coordinate and share ideas. We’re starting to look at on-line education options –how well are they going to function? What about vocational education functions? Where are some models that we can work with there? The more heads we bring together and resources the more impact we can have.

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