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Providing a lifeline to people in Syria - how SYAN #Makeitcount

In Syria, where most qualified professionals have died or fled the country, Syrian Youths Associate Network  (SYAN) provide training that enables people to deliver essential public services. This year Mango and SYAN partnered to deliver essential financial management training to NGO staff working in Syria. We spoke with Baraa Bakkar, Chairman of the organisation. In this sobering account, he explains how SYAN provide a lifeline to people who are struggling to cope with extraordinary challenges, and why capacity building is a top priority.

Since the eruption of conflict in Syria four years ago, the known death toll has passed 200,000, and more than four million have fled the country. Within its borders, at least a further 11 million people are thought to have been displaced.  According to the UN, around 12 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, including almost 6 million children who don’t have access to food, shelter, education or healthcare.  Following the collapse of basic public services, it is now down to ordinary people to provide them where they no longer exist.

This is where SYAN’s staff come in; they are a lifeline to people working around the clock to help others. Formed by volunteers in 2011, SYAN brings together experts from different countries and backgrounds to develop and carry out essential capacity building work, from the planning and implementation stages of a training programme right through to monitoring and evaluation. They work from their base in Gaziantep, Turkey, but their work spans Lebanon and Syria’s volatile northern region.

Since beginning their work in 2011, SYAN have trained more than 5,000 people – a staggering figure by itself, but all the more extraordinary given that they have a full-time team of just ten people (supported by associate trainers in Syria and Turkey), and that they are working in dangerous conditions. Because of security issues some INGOs are looking for implementing partners to help deliver training, and this demand means the SYAN team really are working 24/7 in many cities.  But as Baraa explains, their work underpins vital humanitarian operations:

“...we realised that one of the main problems that the Syrians are facing is capacity building. And we think if we have more leaders, we will have less issues in managing NGOs."









In the beginning they worked primarily with individual volunteers, but as more and more NGOs began to establish themselves in Syria, SYAN began to team up with international aid agencies to design and deliver essential capacity building training, supporting people on the ground to run makeshift schools, orphanages and hospitals. Through these partnerships, they pioneered a new approach to funding humanitarian training, which Baraa refers to as the ‘Shared Funding Scheme’. Under this model SYAN pulls together groups of INGOs in different areas of need, each contributing funds to train, say, 3 staff members. This way, SYAN can raise enough funds to run their courses.

Sometimes, though, they carry out focused programmes of training in partnership with one particular INGO.  For example, they are working with a well-established INGO to design a training programme for aspiring teachers across 400 schools. So far they have implemented two types of training-one focusing on classroom management and fundamental teaching skills, and the other on providing psychological support to traumatised children. A third course on the more strategic aspects of schools management is under development and will launch in a couple of months’ time.

Another target group is hospital managers, supported through SYAN’s 12-day diploma that teaches the skills needed for strategic and operational management of field hospitals in emergencies. Baraa illustrates the impact of this qualification, citing the example of a hospital run by a past student:

“...they are doing 1,000 operations a day...and this is ... a field an apartment or villa that they turned into a hospital. This is the track record internationally, and I saw they were talking about this in one of the French newspapers...1,000 operations a day. So he’s actually managing a lot of people – they’ve got more than 250 staff, but they don’t have real leadership and management skills.”   

He goes on to paint a vivid picture of the huge risks associated with relying on unqualified volunteers:

“This manager did a short presentation during the course. We asked him about the training and he just said this: the problem inside Syria is there are a lot of people who want to do the work but they don’t have the skills to do it. But they have to do it. I mean, you go to a school and you find out that most of the teachers even don’t have a university degree, they haven’t done teaching before – but they have to do it.

So that’s in the schools...that’s also in the hospitals, you meet a doctor, you find out he is not a doctor. He doesn’t have a degree. He learned this from other doctors. So imagine the range of mistakes that could happen in education, in humanitarian aid and also in healthcare. There’s not much specialists. Actually most of the good people left Syria. meet the doctor –who’s actually delivering babies for women but [has] never done it before. There’s actually a crisis, this is an emergency. He has to do something, so they for example sit next to a doctor for, like, 2 or 3 weeks and then they try to do it. And sometimes they do it right, and sometimes... they don’t.” 

Baraa elaborates on how the destruction of conventional hospitals has rendered people helpless, transforming normally routine procedures like childbirth into a life-or-death gamble:

“I went to a hospital, I know one of my friends who was working there, and... and I saw, like, a queue – a long queue - of like 200 women waiting on the hospital. So I went to my friend (my friend is a doctor inside), so I say, ‘what’s this?’ He was coming from Egypt, volunteering, went inside Syria, he was working in the hospital. He said this hospital’s the only hospital in this area, and no other doctors, and all these women when they heard he was here they actually wait in the queue. So he said, ‘I haven’t slept for 48 hours, and I can’t sleep because there are a lot of people waiting in the queue outside’. And if he said ‘I’m going back to my country’, he’ll be in trouble.  

So, I mean, in this situation, people would say, ‘Ok I’ll stay next to this doctor for, like, one week, try to learn whatever’, and then they try to do it again. So we don’t have real doctors. So that’s why sometimes they lose lives because of lack of skills.”

It’s for this reason, Baraa says, that the impact of the diploma is so clear:

“We do the training – especially the hospital management – we see the impact ourselves. And we keep communicating with them. We opened, like, a Watsapp group that we have all the hospital managers in. They keep exchanging information, photos, they keep communicating even after the course... the trainer is part of the group, keep giving them advices.”

Although SYAN develop training programmes in partnership with international organisations, everything they do is in response to needs identified at the grassroots level.  Local councils often act as the implementers in each area. A form of local government elected by local people, they act as an umbrella, bringing together civil society and NGOs.  Local councils conduct research into the projects needed, often mediating between INGOs and NGOs in an area.

Most of the NGOs and volunteers in a given region are undertaking aid activities (this constitutes around 60-70% of what they do), for example delivering aid baskets from Turkey and Lebanon or working in healthcare, education and media. But the development side of their role is also growing, with an increasing number of organisations involved with infrastructure projects.

The training themes range from HR to programme management, and SYAN sometimes partner with other capacity builders where the training requires specialist knowledge.  It is this approach that led to their recent partnership with Mango to provide grant management training to NGO staff.

If asked to cite the key skills needed to cope in a crisis, most people probably wouldn’t put financial management at the top of the list.  But Baraa explains why SYAN place a priority on building financial management capacity:

"The major link is coming from the need to satisfy donors’ minimum financial management requirements to fund the Syrian NGOs’ humanitarian projects. Organising the books properly and based on some international standards is so important.  In addition, there are some government regulatory requirements in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and internationally where all Syrian NGOs are required to satisfy. They will risk losing the license or carry on unnecessary expenses in case the NGOs are not financially managed. As the Syrian crisis is continuing with more complexity every day, the size of humanitarian aid projects and accordingly the size of the organisations are also getting bigger. Lack of proper financial management will make the NGOs unable to cope with this increasing need.”

Baraa also explains the effect of the migration crisis on NGO operations in Syria:

“The number of Syrian immigrants to Europe and other countries is increasing, this is making the turnover at NGOs relatively high. So there is a need for continuous capacity building programs to compensate this shortage.”

Last year SYAN commissioned a Mango course for a maximum of 20 participants – and received 48 applications. It’s this overwhelming response that has prompted SYAN to carry out a more detailed needs assessment. As a result of the clear demand, SYAN and Mango will collaborate to offer even more financial management training in 2016. In the meantime, Baraa and his team will continue to work around the clock to help Syrians where they are most needed, despite the obvious security risks. Baraa explains:

“The risk is always there, but we have to continue doing the training anyway, because actually the kinds of messages that we’re receiving from the trainees and the participants of our training courses actually encouraging us to do more and more”.

In Syria, Nepal, Sierra Leone and countless other countries across the globe, grassroots NGOs are working tirelessly to help people help themselves.  Often their work has the greatest potential to deliver long-term impact.  But without a sound grasp of financial management, they will struggle to achieve long-term sustainability. Investing in robust financial management skills will enable grassroots NGOs to make the most of their money and create more of it.

Want to give to charity this year but overwhelmed by choice? Consider supporting Mango’s training bursary scheme – your money will help us to support 15 grassroots NGOs, helping them to achieve even more in 2016 and beyond. Visit our campaign page for more details. Thank you.


To learn more about SYAN and their activities you can visit their website, or take a look at their Facebook page.  Photo credit: All photographs on this page were taken by SYAN staff.