“Misuse of quake donations”: Rumors track Syrian local relief groups

Relief organizations in northwestern Syria are subject to rumors and allegations of exploitation of aid (edited by Enab Baladi)

Relief organizations in northwestern Syria are subject to rumors and allegations of exploitation of aid (edited by Enab Baladi)

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Enab Baladi – Hussam al-Mahmoud

Since the early days of the Feb.6 earthquake that struck the Turkish state of Kahramanmaraş, and in view of the devastating effects, especially in northwestern Syria, several local organizations have launched donation campaigns via official websites and on social media to contribute to the humanitarian response in the affected regions, given that the disaster is greater than the existed capabilities.

What added to the significance and necessity of donation campaigns was the delay in the arrival of the first UN cross-border aid until the fifth day of the earthquake, in addition to its late arrival later, devoid of what the rescue teams had initially demanded (engineering equipment and machinery for removing rubble).

After the end of rescue operations, and then search and recovery, with purely local efforts carried out by the rescue Syria Civil Defense (SCD) agency in cooperation with local residents, other humanitarian needs related to shelter, and all that follows, requires, and accompanies it, such as medical and food needs, became more evident.

In addition to the response of the organizations, some tensions began to appear regarding the level of transparency and the fundraising mechanism, leading to talks that are not supported by a legal basis or clear evidence, to question the integrity of some organizations due to considerations that may fall within the framework of political affiliation.

At a time when non-Syrian people and influencers have called for donations to local Syrian organizations in support of the humanitarian response, Syrians have appeared to question the credibility of some organizations and their humanitarian engagement with the response itself.

This skepticism extends to a large extent within the context of fallacies and incomplete information, on the one hand, and rumors, on the other hand, given that it is not supported by evidence.

The call not to support a team and donate in its interest, given that it is not active in the areas controlled by the regime, neglected at the same time its “criminalization” by the regime. Also, talk about thefts or the lack of aid did not come with evidence.

Lack of verification leads to rumors 

Rumors of social media take easy ways to spread and transmit within a long tunnel of text or information circulation without verification and in isolation from the absence of this news from the accounts of the concerned parties on the credible media.

According to a research published, in 2015, by the American Columbia University (founded in the 18th century), under the title “Lies, Damn Lies and Viral Content,” the research reached a set of results, most notably that the titles that are presented in the form of questions may lead to misleading the masses.

“Even if something is presented to us as a question, we tend to think of it as true because we are frustrated by the uncertainty. We are more likely to spread rumors if we believe they are true and if they are personally relevant to us.”

To clarify the issue, Enab Baladi spoke to the Molham Volunteering Team that operates in northwestern Syria, which was also affected by some rumors, but despite this, the team was able to collect $11 million as part of the donation campaign that it launched since the earthquake occurred until the preparation of this article.

The program director of the team, Ahmed Abu Shaar, told Enab Baladi that every successful campaign of the team since its establishment in 2012 has been accompanied by a set of rumors that may come from the regime or “E-flies” affiliated with it to confuse the campaign, indicating at the same time that these campaigns continue and achieve their goals thanks to the continuity of donations and people’s trust, regardless of “gossip.”

Abu Shaar added, “Those who criticize and ask out of inquiry and questioning, we actually provide them with answers, but we do not respond to rumor spreaders. We may resort to legal means to sue them for trying to defame the organization’s reputation.”

Concerning the beneficiaries of spreading rumors, the official of the Molham Volunteering Team stated that the beneficiary, according to his point of view, is the Syrian regime, which, through its affiliates, may be behind fake accounts and Telegram rooms from which smear campaigns are launched.

Abu Shaar considers that the purpose of these rumors is to distract people and obstruct donations on the grounds that some people from the revolutionary street or “affiliated with the opposition” may be drawn into these accusations and believe them without investigation or finding out, according to him.

He also pointed out that the Molham Team made various information related to donations available on its website and explained the case of “possible drag” behind the rumor, with people’s anger at the Syrian opposition institutions, which puts the team in front of the duty of clarification, interpretation and keeping people informed.

The donation campaigns conducted by the Molham Team are not affected by the repeated rumors. On the contrary, they serve the donations, according to Ahmed Abu Shaar.

“Every campaign of the team is accompanied by a rumor that doubles donations and people’s interaction with the humanitarian appeal does not diminish with it, as the rumor seeks,” he confirms.

Basic rumors may cause psychological frustration for volunteers, given that those who work for the benefit of people do not like to be met with responses of this kind, but there is a conviction that work on the ground expresses itself, life goes on, and our projects continue.

Ahmed Abu Shaar – Program Manager at Molham Volunteering Team

Need is overwhelming, donations are a necessity

The suffering of the northwestern regions of Syria is present and escalating before the earthquake disaster, and many UN reports count the fragility of the economic and living reality and various other aspects of suffering.

The number of people in need of humanitarian assistance (before the earthquake) rose to 14.6 million people, an increase of 1.2 million people compared to 2022, and this figure is expected to reach 15.3 million people in 2023.

According to estimates by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance in northwestern Syria during the year 2022 reached about 4.6 million people, including 3.3 million people suffering from food insecurity, and 2.9 million people internally displaced persons.

With the occurrence of the earthquake, a shelter crisis also emerged, resulting in fears of the spread of diseases at a time when the health sector was suffering from a state of weakness before the earthquake and a state of exhaustion due to a continuous response around the clock to large numbers of injured people during about two weeks after the earthquake.

Statistics, data, and crises make the activity of local organizations a necessity after the international failure in dealing with a disaster of this magnitude, according to the United Nations itself.

In order to encourage donations and the need for speedy response, some organizations invite donors to donate to an organization they trust in order to avoid gossip and rumors that may create doubts within themselves.

The Executive Director of Violet Organization, Hisham Derani, told Enab Baladi that fundraising initiatives through individuals, volunteer teams, and trusted organizations help cover needs and respond to humanitarian cases and campaigns in emergencies where organizations cannot operate directly.

Derani also considered that one of the most important reasons for collecting donations is to create additional channels to collect money to help those affected, away from organizations, the United Nations, and the traditional mechanism used to implement emergency or development response projects.

Rumors have found their way to attack any action that brings about a realistic change on the ground and in the field since the start of the revolution in 2011, according to the executive director of Violet organization, who pointed out that the rumors focus on volunteer teams and non-profit organizations, to destroy their reputation and tarnish the image of humanitarian work.

Derani pointed out that an accountability department is being developed to deal with rumors in order to achieve high levels of transparency with society on the one hand and donors on the other hand.

In addition to seriously dealing with complaints and following them up directly through committees that investigate and decide on an accountability mechanism in case of error, without granting rumors an impact on the work of the organization.

Social media platforms, especially Telegram and WhatsApp, are considered an engine of rumors, as the content is circulated without verifying its authenticity, with reference to the Syrian regime’s desire to tarnish the image of the various humanitarian organizations operating in northwestern Syria, according to Derani.

A gap in receiving information

Hala al-Mallah, who holds Ph.D. in Mass Communication, told Enab Baladi that talking about a rumor means a gap in receiving information and perhaps its absence, which causes the emergence of rumors and fabrications of speech that may carry some accuracy and may involve a lot of intimidation.

In crisis situations, in general, information is scarce, and its sources are already preoccupied at a time when people share different stories about a topic.

According to the former lecturer at the University of Damascus, the emergence of rumors is also linked to one of two factors, the first of which is the lack of information, which opens the door to interpretation, and the second is its abundance and transmission without investigating its accuracy, which may increase the sensitivity of the situation and the turmoil in the street.

The best response to these rumors is to allocate cadres to respond to them. It is also related to the awareness of the recipients, the extent to which they search for more than one source of news, and their lack of acceptance of everything they hear or see, which gives the media the responsibility of clarifying, to confirm or deny the subject in question, or to clarify confusion in it.

In addition to questioning the issue of donations in northwestern Syria by some without providing evidence, and after some activists in regime-controlled areas transmitted pictures and video recordings of selling relief aid coming from different countries to those affected by the earthquake, the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, appeared in his late speech about the earthquake, on February 16, calling on citizens to search for the truth instead of “marketing rumors,” considering its prevalence as a source of frustration, as he described it.

The devastating earthquake left about 2,274 deaths in northwestern Syria and 1,414 deaths in the governorates of Hama, Aleppo, and Latakia. Since that time, the Syrian regime has taken it as a gateway for political investment that it seeks to exploit by linking politics with the humanitarian disaster.

 

 

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