Developing Syria’s New Humanitarians

Empowering Local Responders with Localized Online Training Support 

“The worst man-made disaster the world has seen since World War II.”  That’s how the United Nations human rights chief has described the ongoing conflict in Syria. The response from international NGOs has been swift, providing food, healthcare, and temporary shelter to the millions of Syrians affected by the conflict, but the challenges these aid organizations face getting humanitarian assistance to those in need have grown more extreme.

Carter/Mercy Corps – Distribution of hygiene kits in Newroz Camp, Northeastern Syria. 2014

Aid workers have been unable to reach certain parts of the country to even begin to assess the needs there. In other locations, foreign aid workers have been caught in the cross-fire or become targets themselves. As a result, local community members and start-up Syrian relief groups are leading much of the immediate response and recovery work in their own communities, often at great personal risk to themselves.

Though these local aid workers have a strong desire to help, few have access to formal humanitarian training. They are engineers who now find themselves managing a shelter; community members conducting door-to-door needs assessments; volunteers teaching in schools; and surgeons working as general practitioners. In extreme cases, midwives and dentists are performing life-saving surgeries.

In short, these are everyday people who have decided to remain and rebuild their own country. Regardless of their work, performing in a conflict setting now requires new skills and an understanding of humanitarian principles that most never even knew existed. There is also the question of the future: while many Syrians plan to return to their regular field after the crisis, this won’t be possible for everyone. Therefore, professional development is critical not only to support Syria’s new humanitarians today but also to prepare them for a long-term career helping the country to recover.

Professional development is critical not only to support Syria’s new humanitarians today but also to prepare them for a long-term career helping the country to recover.

Fauszt/IRC – Safiah Abou Sharef, an International Rescue Committee (IRC) midwife, visits a Syrian mother and son living in a tent at a camp housing 125 people in Sabha, near Mafraq. The IRC and the United Arab Emirates’ Ministry of International Cooperation and Development (MICAD) are working in partnership to bring mobile medical teams to vulnerable Syrians in and around Mafraq and Irbid, northern cities where the largest number of Syrian refugees live. The team provides primary and reproductive health care, health education, and referrals for severe conditions. 

To better equip these local responders with the knowledge and skills they need to become effective humanitarians, three organizations— (a Cornerstone OnDemand Foundation initiative), Mercy Corps, and the International Rescue Committee (IRC)—have teamed up to implement the Investing in Syrian Humanitarian Action (ISHA) program, funded by the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA). ISHA has two main thrusts: Mercy Corps and IRC provide financial and technical assistance to a select group of Syrian nonprofit organizations, and leads the development of the ISHA Online Learning Program for the wider humanitarian community in Syria.

Fauszt/IRC – IRC training of mobile medical teams and community health workers to improve health conditions of vulnerable Jordanians and Syrians in rural areas of Northern Jordan where there is limited access to health facilities. 2015

Launched in December 2016, the ISHA Online Learning Program provides free training in Arabic and English in the form of online courses, videos, job aids, mobile learning, online simulations, and a certification to aid workers working in and around Syria. The program provides crucial, contextualized content on 23 topics ranging from how to distribute relief goods in local communities to leading teams in a crisis response. For example, a new course on developing a voucher program uses best practices from a field guide developed by Mercy Corps, and weaves in actual scenarios, challenges, and photos from local responders in Syria. With every new course, the team vetted the content with Syrian response teams to ensure timeliness and relevance.

We recently completed the first phase of this program and the results have far exceeded our original expectations. More than 16,000 learners from the five key nations involved in the conflict—Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey—have registered for more than 133,000 online courses in DisasterReady. We have also helped more than 400 learners achieve certification in Project Management in Development by providing free training prep courses and covering the cost of the exam fee.

Importantly, our review has identified three critical practices that accelerated our progress and positioned our team to have a sustainable impact in the region. We share this in hopes it will guide the development of other capacity-building programs around the world, including our own:

1. Take the time to understand the needs of your audience.
There is no point in developing a solution that no one wants or uses. For the ISHA program, first-hand feedback from both the local organizations as well as the individuals who would ultimately take the training was essential in designing engaging and accessible learning program. Before we launched, we traveled to Jordan and met with INGOs and UN agencies to identify the priority needs of Syrian humanitarians. We also conducted focus groups with representatives from 35 Syrian NGOs and conducted an online assessment with over 600 humanitarians working inside Syria. We asked respondents a variety of questions to assess their current knowledge of core humanitarian skills, which devices they use to access the internet, and their level of motivation to complete online training.

Through these conversations, we discovered that many of the aid workers had limited time for or access to training. We also learned that the majority of humanitarians are constantly on the move and use mobile phones as their primary, if not exclusive, way to connect with colleagues. Based on this feedback, the team devised a method to share courses through a mobile application, enabling learners to more easily take courses online via their mobile devices and offline when internet access is not available.

2. Have a plan but be open to change.
Crisis settings are constantly changing and unpredictable, so adaptability is a must. For all aspects of the program, we worked with our partners to establish the project objectives, timeline, and budget, but also built in an adaptive design approach to the training content and delivery. For example, although our partners were focused on delivering both face-to-face and online training, it soon became nearly impossible for international organizations to enter the country and therefore conducting classroom training inside Syria was ruled out. Instead, we developed a 100 percent technology-based learning program. After we initially rolled out the program, our local partners suggested that some topics were higher priority so we shifted our focus to provide training on those in demand.

3. Collaboration and coordination is key.
As is the case in any crisis setting, it is incumbent upon international NGOs, UN agencies, and private companies to find opportunities to work together and minimize duplication of efforts. From the beginning, we sought opportunities to find local training content that we could add to the DisasterReady library. When relevant training did not exist, we sought out local experts to guide its development. To support local NGOs with established training programs, we collaborated with their training teams to introduce DisasterReady as online “pre-work” for their in-person meetings. In another instance, we worked with a local NGO to have employees complete online training at DisasterReady and then meet in person with their teams to discuss key learning points and how to apply these principles to their work. Working together with local and international organizations has created a more targeted, engaging training experience for our learners. This coordinated approach was instrumental in expanding the reach and impact of the program throughout the region.

What’s ahead for ISHA and the Syrian humanitarian community?
With the conflict in Syria now in its eighth year, many international aid organizations are still unable to enter the country to directly deliver critical aid. We expect local responders and newly formed NGOs to continue to take the lead in stepping up to deliver much of the relief and spearhead the rebuilding process. Therefore, we see even more demand for practical, skills-based training in the immediate future.

With the first phase of the ISHA program now behind us, our team is now exploring ways to deepen and broaden the training available. For learners at all experience levels, this will include micro-learning modules, mobile job aids, and simulation-based training programs. For more advanced students, we are pursuing the opportunity to provide certifications to better position them for full-time work with NGOs. By taking the time to understand the unique needs of these learners, developing an achievable but flexible project plan, and partnering with local organizations on both the development as well as the ongoing promotion, the ISHA online learning program delivers engaging, impactful training to a population largely cut off from traditional educational opportunities.

Feature photo courtesy of Ned Colt, IRC. Learn more about ISHA along with our Foundation’s capacity building efforts across the humanitarian aid sector at

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