Isabella Arbelaez: Partnership or Competition?

A Syrian boy and girl huddle together at an informal school in Azraq, established by HRJ: Helping Refugees in Jordan.

When our Immerse team met with a UN officer here in Amman, he shared that in every meeting he attends, he is expected to know all the facts about the region he manages. It seemed to be a theme between aid organizations and government negotiations that we have met so far –  success is measured on knowing all the facts and having the necessary numbers. There is an expectation for these UN officials to come to each meeting prepared for discussion, just like the existing expectation for these aid organizations to be making a mark on their communities. And where do these UN officials and agencies receive their facts? From the partner aid organizations that they fund. It’s an endless cycle. A cycle that has turned humanitarian work into a competition.

It seems ironic that agencies call themselves “partners,” when in reality, these agencies lack all cooperation. From what I have observed during my time in Amman, these agencies are so focused on the prospect of receiving monetary support that they risk working together for the benefit of collaboration. Even more, it seems that this hyper competitiveness does not end between these aid “partners,” but transcends to all levels of the humanitarian sector.

Walking into the Jordanian headquarters of one of these refugee agencies here in Amman, I was amazed by the hundreds of folded bright red and navy backpacks that were stacked along the floor and up against file cabinets all throughout the office. The headquarters’ main office was comprised of a large white room, but the space felt cramped and cluttered with all the different school supplies and cardboard boxes. These backpacks were to be distributed to the agency’s students, who were currently enrolled in its twenty different informal schools throughout the country of Jordan. With the influx of refugees, hundreds of schools have been created to compensate for the lack of schooling that Syrian refugees receive from Jordanian schools, and humanitarian agencies supply these schools and their students with supplies. Along the walls of the office, several large images of smiling refugee children were hanging, with the blue UNICEF logo printed in the right hand corner of the picture.

When we asked the Programs Manager about whether this agency and the rest of UNICEF partners collaborate in their work to provide for these Syrian students, she told us no. Each agency is working towards receiving the same grants, so in a sense, it becomes a competition as to who will receive the most funding.

Listening to the Program Manager explain this reality, I was immediately struck by this idea of a “competition” between humanitarian agencies. But then I realized that this was a theme between aid organizations and UN officials. The expectation to perform has stifled collaborative progress on all levels of the humanitarian sector. What does this mean for the future of the international humanitarian world? I am not certain. But I do recognize that this hyper-competitiveness has put extreme pressure on these agencies to not only perform, but focus on the quantitative measures of their charity work, not necessarily the qualitative.

Isabella Arbalaez is a T’19 Undergraduate and a 2017 Immerse Participant.

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