Localism as Radical Ethics: What Syrians have taught us about the critical localization of aid

7/2020 | Siad Darwish

Syria’s localization agenda is caught in an ethical bind. Since the beginning of the war, much of the aid to Syria has been channelled through a regime that the vast majority of funding agencies oppose, a government that “blackmails” civil society actors, “weaponizes the delivery of aid” and stands accused of war crimes.

As the Syrian state is failing under collapse of the economy, localization is also no longer only an enlightened tactical choice by the aid industry, but a vital necessity that increasingly seems to be the only way to alleviate the suffering of millions within government-held areas.

Localization as movement for justice and liberation, here clashes with the humanitarian principle of impartiality and thereby lays bare some of the moral challenges inherent in the practice. Yet, Syrians themselves have practiced radical forms of localism throughout the war. These home-grown localizations suggest that “the local” itself is predicated on ethical action and that liberation from all forms of oppression has to be at the core of the localization project in Syria or elsewhere.

The World Humanitarian Summit of 2016, with its commitment towards the Grand Bargain and other forms of localization occurred in the fifth year of the Syrian Civil War. So, it would seem only logical that the largest humanitarian crisis at the time—in which local and national actors only received 1.4% of the total humanitarian funding for Syria in 2016[1]—should become the testing ground for localization. UNHCR and UNDP, for example, set up a joint secretariat in order to localize the response and “concretely catalyze the contributions” of local, civil society, governments, and the private sector to the war and the ensuing refugee crisis. Further, INGOs have developed new approaches to localize humanitarian aid that are based on long-term mutual partnership. With the reclamation of most of the territory by the Government of Syria (GoS), today most aid agencies operating outside of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES) have struck the Faustian bargain with the government and are learning the “hard lessons” of delivering principled and ethical aid in government-held areas.

As a whole, the aid industry tends to situate the local within the colonial binaries of local/traditional, global/modern. Moral understandings of localization mirror this hierarchical simplicity. The local is either suspicious in terms of fiscal morality or seen as panacea though which humanitarian aid, tainted by colonial legacies and capitalist economies, can be absolved by returning to an essentialized and often exotified state of nature. In peacebuilding the “local turn” is a turn away from grand liberal peace projects exemplified by internationally brokered peace accords, towards the communal realities of injustice and violence and the processes that lead to their management.[2] Peacebuilding scholarship has been at the vanguard of interrogating the “local turn.” In response to this simplistic representation, scholars have called for a localization that is based on “a critical approach to the analysis of power, dominance, and resistance, with sensitivity to all power relations and circulations.[3] Syrians themselves have even surpassed these critical interrogations of localization, by instituting them into liberatory practice.

Radical Localism in the Syrian Uprising

From the very outset of the revolution in 2011, Local Coordination Committees and Revolutionary Councils (tansiqiyyat) mushroomed wherever the authoritarian state lost control. These committees were largely based on a program developed by the Syrian anarchist activist and writer Omar Aziz (1949-2013), known to many under the tekonym (kunya) “Abu Kamel.” Already in his sixties, Aziz returned from exile to aid the revolution and co-founded the first Revolutionary Council in the Barzeh district in Damascus in late 2011. In the early days of the revolution, he feared that the revolutionary movement would wilt or become “hostage to the rifle” and decent into violent chaos. As an antidote, he sought to embody the revolutionary spirit, which to him was characterized by liberation from oppression, in the everyday interaction between people. He developed a well-formulated framework for local governance that would allow Syrians to liberate themselves from decades of tyranny.

In his call to action, he put forward a radical localism that was based on participatory democracy, horizontal leadership and an ethic of coexistence and mutual care. Aziz explicitly demanded for people from different cultures and social classes to from collaborative structures that deliver aid and support self-governance independent of state institutions. He called for the, “formation [of] local councils with members from diverse cultures who belong to different social divisions, yet are working together.” As a minimum these structures were required to provide housing and food for the internally displaced and to lobby on behalf of those detained. Even after Abu Kamel’s murder in government detention, his council system spread organically.

Initially Revolutionary Councils became the heart of local and trans-local revolutionary activity. Councils organized protests, drew up lists of the disappeared and lobbied for their release. But soon these councils locally held up the rule of law, provided security, and many integrated dispute resolution into their workings to manage the conflicts between emerging armed factions. In Opposition-held Aleppo for example, the Revolutionary Council reopened schools and delivered healthcare on a large scale. While the councils’ degrees of independence from militias varied, across many localities the councils positioned themselves against extremist organizations and stood for civil peace between Syria’s many ethnic and religious communities.[4] Similar grassroots governing structures based on participatory democracy were established in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. This approach to localism was developed by imprisoned leader of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), Abdullah Öcallan.

Democratic Confederalism instituted a nested council system that resulted in unprecedented levels of, at least de jure, gender equality in the Middle East.[5] This radical localism espouses class, gender, and ecological liberation through grassroots participatory democracy.[6]

This is not to say localism in Syria has become a perfect solution to the ills of authoritarianism. The GoS also recruited local fighters through the so-called “Popular Committees,” run by local pro-government notables that formed local militia groups who came to be known as the notorious shabiha. In the Kurdish dominated Northeast, the imposition of the council system in itself has often been described as authoritarian and leads to an array of local conflict.[7] But what these forms of localization in Syria demonstrate is that at least to Syrians the local cannot exist outside the realms of social justice. It must be based on ethical behavior and seek to liberate people and planet from multiple intersecting forms of oppression.[8]


Anthropology, Feminism, and the Ethics of Localism

Anthropologists have struggled with the notion of the “local” long before the aid industry. The “local,” by virtue of our preferred methodology, ethnography, has at least traditionally been the domain of anthropological inquiry. My own research for example has shown how moral geographies, the way we ascribe moral judgment to localities and the people that reside in them, can lead to ghettoization and prevent social and spatial mobility. Other anthropologists dissolve the very idea of the local as a spatial category and therefore arrive at similar conclusions as Syrian localisms, namely that the local is ethical primarily.

Michael Lambek for example sees the local not as a bounded space (local: from Latin locus ‘space’), but as emerging from processes of habitation and specifically practices of moral action in a space.  His writings are situated within a larger shift in the anthropological literature in which morality is not etched in codes, but manifests in the construction of ethical subjects and their relationships. [9] Or as feminist ethicist, Carol Gillian puts it in her development of an Ethics of Care, don’t ask “what is just?,” but ask “how to respond?”[10] In this view morality is embedded in all aspects of social life. Morality here is not a code within itself, but emerges through the ethical choices of individuals and the relationships these forge within the shifting boundaries of moral codes.

To Lambek it is then ethical criteria and commitments that bind people through collective action—labour, ritual, but also humanitarian aid, and all forms of care—into communities that through this mutual ethical action create the “local.” He writes ethics derive from a “sort of mutual acknowledgement that must be central to inhabiting the local”.[11]In other words, ethical behavior is a prerequisite for the local. What Lambek means by the local emerging from ethical action and its significance for the localization of aid is exemplified in a report by the Lancet Commission on localization in the delivery of cross-border medical aid from Turkey to Syria.

The report cites that working in the Idlib province in Syria revealed the centrality of interpersonal trust to enable any collaboration with Syrian and non-Syrian actors… trust was often present with networks previously forged, or when being introduced by a trusted intermediary.”  Here locality is not a geographical space, but a network of mutual trust and care that allowed Syrian and non-Syrian actors to work in a particular locality. The localization of aid here emerges on the bases of ethical action through which mutual trust arises. As Lambek suggests, locality here is not a bounded space or even community, but emerges through practices that are considered internal, even if they are ostensibly global like the myriad of humanitarian aid practices.  

Two Localizations of “Peace” in Syria

In the absence of justice, “peace” and “reconciliation” have become sullied words in contemporary Syria. Today, Aziz’s revolutionary councils have been suspended under GoS-rule and their members have been mostly excluded from new municipal governance structures. Since, new and nearly diametrically opposed forms of local “peace” have emerged in government-held areas. Starting in 2016, the GoS used a variety of coercive measures, such as military force and/or sieges that resulted in starvation to pressure opposition-held areas across the country into localized ceasefires and eventually surrender agreements, which are known as “reconciliation deals.” Generally speaking, during the deals local intermediaries provided lists of combatants and anti-regime activists to the GoS. Local reconciliation offices/committees were established, staffed by GoS aligned notables and intelligence staff that came to be known as “reconciliation offices.” Many national and international observers have concluded that reconciliation agreements were a way for the GoS to retribute against the opposition, through disappearances, torture, or police harassment.

While in no way ideal, Aziz’s council system stood for the localization of aid and everyday localized peace embedded in ethical behavior. They were a reimagination of everyday political life in Syria. Both are local processes of peace-making: The former at least in theory based on ethical principles and liberation and the later based on the succession of armed violence through nominally local “peace agreements.” This juxtaposition demonstrates that “local” in the traditional sense of the word here is nearly meaningless to peace.

What then does the discussion above tell us about the local turn in peace operations and localization of aid in general?

  1. Localization must be an ethical endeavor in so far that it has to be based on the building of strong relationships between individuals and trust along and across scales (local, national, regional, global).
  2. The local is therefore not a particular space or scale in itself, but is multifaceted and what “local” means for an intervention has to be constantly assessed and reassessed in relation to humanitarian principles and conflict sensitivity analyses.
  3. Local capacities will have to be carefully evaluated. And as the local in the view presented here includes various scales, local capacities also reside in the diaspora and in the trans-local.
  4. Localization as a multi-scalar process also requires a reassessment of the division of labor. Local peace organizations in Syria have been completely excluded from the national level peace processes known as Geneva Initiatives. INGOs are often better place to form linkages between multi-scalar peace processes for example.
  5. Finally, what follows from localization as an ethical project is that localization has to be a long-term commitment to the nurturing of relationships and the mutual building of capacities.

The Arabic word for ‘local’ (mahalli) has much the same spatial meaning as its English counterpart. However, the Arabic word derives from the three-letter root (ma-ha-la), which signifies to “untangle,” ”deceiver,” and even “resolve.”

A critical localism then requires a careful untangling of the moral binds inherent in the localization of humanitarian aid. First and foremost, this must be done with a keen attention to power. But this attention is only meaningful if it aims at the subversion and inversion of various forms of oppression and tries to reimagine the everyday interaction between people.

[1] UNHCR and UNDP (2019) Localised Resilience In Action: Responding to the Regional Syrian Crisis. https://reliefweb.int/report/syrian-arab-republic/localised-resilience-action-responding-regional-syria-crisis-february P.7

[2] Donais, T. (2012). Peacebuilding and local ownership: Post-conflict consensus-building. Routledge.

[3] Thania Paffenholz (2015) Unpacking the local turn in peacebuilding: a critical assessment towards an agenda for future research, Third World Quarterly, 36:5, 857-874.

[4] Khoury, Doreen (2014) ‘Syria Organising for the future: grassroots governance and national peace’ inACCORD: Issue 25. https://rc-services-assets.s3.eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/s3fspublic/ Legitimacy_and_peace_processes_From_coercion_to_consent_Accord_Issue_25.pdf

[5] 104 Öcalan, Abdullah (2017) The Political Thought of Abdullah Öcalan: Kurdistan, Woman’s Revolution and Democratic Confederalism. London; Pluto Press.

[6] Schmidinger, Thomas (2018) Rojava: Revolution, War and the Future of Syria’s Kurds. London; Pluto Press. P. 62

[7] Humanitarian Access Team (2019) Tribal Cold War: Northeast Syria, the New Tribal System, and the Destabilization of the Kurdish Self Administration. Mercy Corps.

[8] Crenshaw, Kimberle (1989) “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum: Vol. 1989 , Article 8.

[9] Fassin, D. 2012b. “Introduction: Toward a Critical Moral Anthropology.” In A Companion to Moral Anthropology, edited by D. Fassin, 1–17. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell.

[10] Gilligan, C. (1982) In A Different Voice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

[11] Lambek, M. (2011) Catching the local. Anthropological Theory 11 (2), 197-221. P. 215

Photographs listed from top to bottom: Photograph 1  Photo Credit: Dr. Siad Darwish. Photograph 2:  Photo Credit: Dr. Siad Darwish.

About this article

This blog was written as part of the “From where I stand: Unpacking ‘local’ in aid” series. Each weekCDA will create a space to help bring  these critical and fresh, though often neglected, voices – from local practitioners to those working alongside them (including those who work on the policy and programming agenda) – to the forefront. 

Our hope is to expand our collective thinking and understanding about what “localization” actually looks like in practice, no matter how messy it may be. In doing so perhaps we can begin to answer the question: What if the evidence-base for local leadership, aid policy, and INGO practice was instead based on the diverse experiences and ideas of those leading humanitarian, aid, and peacebuilding efforts in their contexts?

For more blogs in this series check-out:

And many more to come soon! If you are interested in contributing to the series please contact Sarah Cechvala at [email protected]. We would love to hear from you and include your perspective.  

About the author

Dr. Siad Darwish is an anthropologist and peacebuilder who specializes in gender, governance, and the environment in conflict and post-conflict settings. Siad started working on conflict two decades ago when advocating for indigenous people’s land rights in Guatemala shortly after the end of the country’s civil war. Here he learned that violent conflict could only be successfully managed if the lived experience of marginalized communities is fully taken into account and he has since pursued this conviction as a peacebuilder, researcher, and activist. 

Siad’s doctoral research, supported by the US National Science Foundation, explored the undercurrents of environmental conflict in the Arab Uprisings. His publications interrogate authoritarianism, democratization, and war through material processes in the context of the Anthropocene. Siad has contributed to research projects on war and the built-environment in Iraq and Syria and on the persecution of environmental defenders in the Philippines, both at Deakin University in Australia. And he intermittently teaches at the School for Humanities and Social Inquiry at University of Wollongong, Australia.

Siad was trained in CDA’s Reflecting on Peace Practice approach 12 years ago, when working for the Permanent Peace Movement and the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict. He has also been a trainer of trainers in gender and peacebuilding for the Women Peacemakers Program and has lead inter-cultural dialogues within the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership. As an independent consultant, Siad conducts humanitarian and public policy research using participatory action methods, benchmarking, and ethnographic methods to deliver policy and programing recommendations. Most recently he worked for Mercy Corps, PricewaterhouseCoopers, the Economist Intelligence Unit, and the Centre for Not-For-Profit Law.

Siad is fluent in German and English, is an advanced speaker of Arabic, and has basic knowledge of French and Spanish. He holds a PhD in Anthropology from Rutgers University and a MA in the Anthropology of Development from the University of Sussex. Siad currently resides in a hamlet by the sea in Australia.