The UK’s humanitarian support to Syria

DFID overcame substantial barriers to the delivery of aid, such as food, shelter and vaccines but took too long to put the required staffing and resources in place

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24 May 2018
Green - Amber
Lead commissioner
Alison Evans
Fragile states, Humanitarian
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Approach paper

The conflict in Syria has been one of the most brutal in modern history, costing nearly half a million lives, displacing more than 12 million people from their homes and leaving 5.6 million in severe humanitarian need in Syria.

In response, the UK mounted its largest-ever humanitarian operation, committing £2.71 billion to the regional response since 2012, with £910 million allocated for humanitarian operations in Syria and has had to overcome substantial operational challenges to the delivery of aid.

Scope and methodology

This performance review assesses the effectiveness of UK humanitarian aid in Syria since the beginning of the crisis response in 2012. It explores how effectively DFID has identified and reached people in need, and whether it has managed to achieve the best possible results given the challenging circumstances. It also examines how well DFID has learned from the Syria response.

We analysed the strategies and planning documents that governed the response, as well as looking at each level of the delivery chain including interviews with DFID, its delivery partners and selected downstream partners. We conducted in-person interviews with 330 recipients of DFID-funded assistance within Syria and interviewed 67 community leaders and downstream partner staff. We also conducted brief literature reviews of topics relevant to the humanitarian response, including the use of cash transfers for humanitarian relief, data and knowledge management, and innovation.

Overall, we interviewed over 600 people in the UK, Syria and neighbouring countries, either in person or remotely.


  • DFID’s humanitarian response in Syria has improved significantly over time and is now delivering effectively over a much larger share of the territory.
  • Its early operations delivered vital assistance to civilians in need under challenging conditions, but were limited by a shortage of delivery options and constraints imposed by the complex operating context which DFID worked to overcome.
  • DFID built up independent sources of information on needs across the country and developed alternative delivery mechanisms operating from neighbouring countries and enabling the shift to a ‘Whole of Syria’ approach to the international response.
  • DFID’s effectively targeted the provision of aid to communities in need and, within them, some of the most vulnerable individuals.
  • However, DFID has been relatively slow to integrate protection and to move towards livelihoods and cash-based support.
  • The early phase of the Syria operation was not managed efficiently, however, from 2014 DFID began to move out of emergency response mode and build the capacity required to run its Syria operation more efficiently.
  • While safeguarding was not a focus of our review, we note that it has not been an explicit focus of DFID’s funding arrangements and DFID Syria has only recently begun to introduce safeguarding requirements in a systematic way.
  • The shift to individual business cases and multi-annual funding brought the benefits of longer-term planning and greater flexibility to both DFID and its INGO partners. However, these benefits have not necessarily been passed on to either downstream partners or multilateral organisations.
  • Third-party monitoring plays a useful role by giving DFID more confidence in its partners’ monitoring and reporting practices but the level of field monitoring is not commensurate with the scale and level of risk of the portfolio.
  • DFID’s engagement with learning, both within the Syria team and at a central level, has remained small-scale and largely ad hoc, and has not been commensurate with the scale or difficulty of the response.


  1. As conditions allow, DFID Syria should prioritise livelihoods programming and supporting local markets, to strengthen community self-reliance.
  2. DFID Syria should strengthen its third-party monitoring approach to provide a higher level of independent verification of aid delivery, and continue to explore ways of extending it into government-controlled areas.
  3. DFID Syria should support and encourage its partners to expand their community consultation and feedback processes and ensure that community input informs learning and the design of future humanitarian interventions.
  4. DFID Syria should identify ways to support the capacity development of Syrian non-governmental organisations to enable them to take on a more direct role in the humanitarian response.
  5. DFID Syria should develop a dynamic research and learning strategy that includes an assessment of learning needs across the international humanitarian response in Syria and a dissemination strategy.
  6. DFID should ensure that lessons and best practice from the Syria response are collected and documented, and used to inform both ongoing and future crisis responses.
  7. In complex crises, DFID should plan for the possibility of lengthy engagement from an early stage, with trigger points to guide decisions on when to move beyond emergency funding instruments and staffing arrangements.
  8. Building on DFID Syria’s reporting system, DFID should invest in reporting and data management systems that can be readily adapted to complex humanitarian operations.

Government response

The government publishes a response to all ICAI reviews. The government response is available to read online.

International Development Committee

Parliament’s International Development Committee (IDC), or its ICAI sub-committee, hold hearings on all ICAI reviews. The IDC hearing on the UK’s humanitarian support to Syria is available to watch online.

ICAI’s follow-up

ICAI follows up on all of its reviews to check what progress has been made since publication. ICAI’s Syria follow-up is available to read now.