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Evaluation database

Evaluation report

2014 Global: Syria Crisis Common Context Analysis [Study]

Author: Hugo Slim and Lorenzo Trombetta

Executive summary


The Syria crisis was declared a level-three (L3) humanitarian emergency in January 2013. A humanitarian appeal was launched in June 2013, the largest ever launched by the United Nations. Although an L3 humanitarian emergency requires a mandatory inter-agency humanitarian evaluation, in the case of Syria, the Steering Group for Inter-Agency Humanitarian Evaluations concurred to undertake a different type of evaluative work, which would provide for an appropriate level of lesson learning and system-wide accountability to help guide the ongoing response to the Syria crisis.

In January 2014, the Steering Group for Inter-Agency Humanitarian Evaluations set up the Coordinated Accountability and Lessons Learning (CALL) initiative to support evaluations of the humanitarian response to the Syria crisis. The Inter-Agency Standing Committee’s (IASC) Transformative Agenda driving the humanitarian system’s initiatives for greater effectiveness and accountability underpins the Syria CALL. Accordingly, a major concern of CALL is the establishment of effective modalities for coordinating evaluation and lesson-learning activities across humanitarian actors and among relevant evaluation networks, such as the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP), the United Nations Evaluation Group (UNEG) and the Evaluation Network of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development/Development Assistance Committee (OECD/DAC).

This report is the Common Context Analysis of the Syria crisis, and it is one of the three primary deliverables of CALL. The others are the ALNAP Evaluation Portal and a Common Evaluation Framework. Together, these products will serve as an “evaluation starter pack” for IASC agencies to support their evaluation work.


This Common Context Analysis aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of the Syria crisis and the humanitarian impact in the region. Together with the Common Evaluation Framework, this Common Context Analysis will ensure a systematic and coherent approach to building evaluative evidence. This Common Context Analysis aims to offer a ready-to-use common understanding of the crisis, thus saving evaluation teams’ time and research, and avoiding unnecessary duplication. and a Common Evaluation Framework. Together, these products will serve as an “evaluation starter pack” for IASC agencies to support their evaluation work.

The Context Analysis focuses on the period from March 2011 to April 2014. A timeline of key events during the crisis is in annex.


This study was carried out by two consultants—one in Beirut and one in Oxford—with a small research team at the Institute of Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict at the University of Oxford, UK. The research combined desk-based secondary sources, semi-structured interviews with Syrian and international humanitarian managers during visits to Syria, Beirut and Gaziantep, and interviews in London and remotely by Skype.

Findings and Conclusions:

The primary focus of this Common Context Analysis is the Syria crisis and its regional spillover. Chapter one provides an historical understanding of the political, social and economic factors that led to the outbreak of the crisis, and it examines the condition of the Syrian State and civil society before March 2011. Chapter two examines the political dynamics during the period of civil resistance and Government repression between March and December 2011, and its impact on the civilian population. Chapter three charts the rise of civil resistance and its militarization and radicalization, and it illustrates the different Syrian perspectives on the crisis. Chapter four examines the impact of the initial repression and subsequent armed conflict on Syria’s civilian population and describes the main patterns of violence. Chapter five examines the humanitarian needs that emerged from the onset of the armed conflict and the necessity for humanitarian agencies to respond to the twin challenge of extreme displacement and entrapment of the civilian population. Chapter six identifies the key distinguishing characteristics of the conflict that have most affected humanitarian action and shaped the particular context of humanitarian operations throughout the crisis. Chapter seven concludes with the key take aways from this report.


The Syrian crisis and the challenges it poses to international humanitarian action raise a number of strategic considerations for UN policymakers. In a sense, these considerations are the key take aways from the tragedy of the Syrian crisis.

1. UN humanitarian action needs to develop a distinct and appropriate way of working in the Middle East.
2. UN agencies need to develop creative ways of working alongside humanitarian nationalism, which is likely to be an increasingly common feature of strong State emergencies.
3. UN humanitarian action will once again have to work from within a UN system that lacks political consensus and unanimity.
4. UN humanitarian practice will need to build popular citizen-based constituencies within each conflict to complement its reliance on formal State power.
5. Clear humanitarian ethics will be an essential mark of credible and effective humanitarian aid.

Lessons Learned:


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