As we walk down the “Champs-Élysées”, it is a hive of activity. Passers-by look longingly into shop windows at the extravagant goods on display. The latest fashions are on show, special occasions are planned and wedding dresses are purchased. A vast informal network feeds into the assortment of merchandise for sale. Groups of youths gather around the latest football shirts on sale. The throng of activity isn't actually taking place in Paris, France. This “Champs-Élysées” is the main thoroughfare in Jordan’s largest refugee camp, next door to the unfathomable horror of Syria's civil war, which is now into its seventh year.
From Jordan, where 10% of the population are registered Syrian refugees (the actual figure is said to be higher), I travelled to Helsinki to the Supporting Syria gathering, running in parallel to the peace talks in Astana. Here I shared the views of my organisation, Mercy Corps, on vulnerabilities, job creation and economic opportunities both inside Syria and in the surrounding countries, where we’ve supported more than seven million people since 2011. This has included assistance to bakeries and flour mills in Aleppo, working with and through a network of skilled and courageous local partners to provide humanitarian assistance on a massive scale, as well as providing access to water services and supporting small scale food production.
What we hear from our teams from countries in crisis, like Syria and Iraq where Mercy Corps leads some of the world’s leading Non-Governmental Organisations delivering assistance through cash, is contrary to popular rhetoric. The families we support don’t just want handouts – they want the ability to be self-sufficient and to be able to produce their own food. They want to stay at home, or as close to it as they can. And of course, above all else, they desperately want peace.
In Jordan and neighbouring Lebanon we’re helping them do this by supporting job creation and promoting social cohesion. In Al-Mafraq, up towards the Syria border, I saw for myself how formalizing jobs for Syrians has increased wage rates as the informal sector is less able to undercut market rates. This is contributing to building trust between refugees and host populations and is increasing social cohesion and trust across communities and with local government.
This work is complex, and often there are risks, primarily to our courageous team members and partners working in some of the most challenging and volatile contexts on the planet - contexts that most of us here in the UK will never see. It’s a source of deep concern that the support that we’re able to provide, despite being one of the largest relief providers in the region, is a drop in the ocean in terms of the real needs. We wish we were able to do more.
We’re also concerned by the shrinking space for discussion and reliance on good, reliable information that is based on fact rather than increasingly polarising rhetoric presenting stark choices around charity either at home or abroad; “people here or people over there”. But it’s not an either or. In today’s interconnected and interdependent world, challenges and opportunities – as is particularly evident across the Middle East – are shared across borders more than ever. Addressing and harnessing these doesn’t require consensus. Multiple viewpoints and perspectives are required and should be welcomed in our inclusive and democratic society. Debate is needed, but in the current post-truth climate much needs to be done to create the space for discussion – establishing connections between truth and emotion.
As alarming as the descent into a post-truth era is, we should be just as concerned by the current trust deficit and our slide into a post-trust world. And we in the NGO community must recognize falling levels of trust in us and the responsibilities we must assume in terms of re-establishing this trust. We have a duty to restore this by communicating with greater humility and transparency.
British Prime Minister, Theresa May, recently laid out her vision for a shared society where it’s highly encouraging to note the emphasis on fairness, justice and reducing disparities. Central components of any shared society also have to be openness to debate, discussion and inclusion. A shared society based on shared values. With those values increasingly – and alarmingly – under threat in the US, now more than ever we need to stand up for them in the context of an outward looking, open and progressive nation.
As we grapple with immensely complex challenges such as reducing vulnerabilities, creating jobs and economic opportunity in Syria and the surrounding countries, let’s not turn inwards or away from those values of fairness, tolerance and democratic debate. Let’s ensure we maintain space for discussion, exchange of ideas and differing opinions on what should be done. In doing so we can create a truly outward facing and forward looking vision of shared society. That’s how we’ll really get to solutions around these seemingly intractable problems that affect all of us - whether we’re walking along bustling Oxford Street, or the Champs-Elysées.