The clean-up continues as people drive through a demolished street in the aftermath of an earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria on February 6, 2023. Picture taken on February 14, 2023.

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How to aid Turkey and Syria earthquake victims in the face of political conflict

Ruchir Agarwal (Harvard Kennedy School; Yale School of Management) and Adnan Mazarei (PIIE)


Photo Credit: REUTERS/Emilie Madi


The earthquake in Turkey and Syria has created an urgent humanitarian crisis, drawing relief and aid workers from around the world. To date, more than 40,000 lives have been lost and more than 5 million people may need shelter in Syria alone. Aiding the people of Turkey and Syria is a moral imperative but also complicated by politics. Turkey has ties with most of the world, but Syria has failed as a state under worldwide economic sanctions because of its violent repression of dissent, though US sanctions have been temporarily eased.

The immediate priority for the international community is to provide medicine, food, and shelter to those whose lives have been destroyed by the quake. Beyond that challenge will be damage assessment, reconstruction (including financing, and the design and supervision of projects). Important lessons can be drawn from previous earthquake assistance efforts, including the Haiti earthquake of 2010.

Additionally, the Syrian civil war has created a refugee crisis that the country and the international community have failed to address. The international aid architecture needs drastic reform to better serve populations in states where governance has collapsed. The World Food Program (WFP) and UNICEF should step in and help adopt regional approaches to supporting populations in these countries.

Turkey. Turkey faces self-induced economic and political difficulties, compounded by mismanagement of its macroeconomic policies (including those of the central bank). Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government has cracked down on domestic political opposition, become entangled in the Syrian civil war, and sided with Russia over the war in Ukraine. Despite those entanglements, the international community is willing to help Turkey. The World Bank has agreed to provide $1.78 billion as initial support for its recovery and reconstruction in Turkey. In turn, Turkey can use its presence in northern Syria to help Syrian earthquake victims.

Syria. Relief efforts for Syria face special problems because the earthquake’s epicenter is close to the epicenter of a civil war. The damage has been in the northwest, ravaged since 2011 by conflict driven by political grievances, particularly among the Kurdish population. Corruption has also plagued the region, much of it controlled by rebel groups. International aid efforts for displaced victims are hampered by poor infrastructure. On top of all these problems are the international sanctions by the United States, through the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, and other countries. The earthquake has made the need for help more urgent than ever.

Key Priorities

Seven immediate steps should be taken to save lives, rebuild communities, and reconstruct destroyed areas, with the help of upgraded efforts by multilateral development institutions.

A. Saving Lives

  1. Prevent secondary disaster
    Search and rescue operations have begun to shift their focus in Turkey and Syria to preventing a secondary disaster from hunger and exposure to freezing temperatures. Aid needs to concentrate on the rapid disbursement of shelter, food, medical supplies, and warm clothing. Additionally, essential infrastructure needs to be restored, especially roads and other public works.
  1. Opening border crossings to deliver humanitarian aid to Syria
    Since 2014, the UN has been delivering aid to northwest Syria through Turkey under a Security Council mandate, but it is restricted to a single border crossing. Although efforts are under way to expand access to two additional crossings, the number of border crossings needs to be expanded urgently. The Security Council needs to ensure that happens and go beyond its bare minimum step on February 9 to extend the cross-border humanitarian operations by six months.
  1. Mobilizing emergency financing
    The European Union announced it will hold a donor conference in March to provide relief aid. Making the humanitarian assistance unconditional and upfront will be important to speed the deployment of funds. Also, given the complexity of the cross-border operations, establishing an effective coordination mechanism for contributions across agencies and donors will also be important.
  1. Modifying sanctions to ensure financing flows
    On February 9, the US Treasury issued a general license to authorize transactions related to earthquake-related relief efforts in Syria for six months. The current general license should be applied broadly with the types of transactions and institutions in its scope clearly defined. Additionally, Treasury should assess the need to relax sanctions further, as was done in Afghanistan, since the current license could preclude cash transfers or similar development programs.

B. Rebuilding Resilient Communities

  1. Directing cash transfers and food rations for displaced populations and refugees
    Limited programs exist in both Turkey and Syria to aid Syrian refugees and internally displaced populations in Syria. Since the earthquake, agencies such as the WFP have been providing food rations, but more funding and expanded operations are needed. Assistance is needed to support livelihoods, create jobs, and provide direct cash transfers and food rations. Support for community economic activities can be channeled through the Area Based Approach for Development Emergency Initiatives (ABADEI) program of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Afghanistan. The international aid program in Afghanistan offers other lessons—including the digital cash transfers program of the UNDP.
  1. Broadening coalition to support communities in Syria
    Because of Syria's civil war, many earthquake victims live in areas beyond the control of the government, complicating aid efforts. Stronger partnerships need to be established among nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), UN agencies, and local governments; the UN would perhaps be the most suitable player to lead with these efforts. Nevertheless, these steps are likely to be the thorniest—given Syria’s political reality, the geopolitics that involve Iran, Russia, Syria, and other regional nonstate players, and the limits of the mandate of each UN agency.

C. Reconstruction

  1. Mobilizing and coordinating donor funds for reconstruction
    The World Bank has announced initial support of $1.78 billion for Turkey, but no significant support for Syria has been announced. Comprehensive assessment of the region’s needs and available funding must be undertaken. In this context:
  • The World Bank and related agencies could coordinate this effort by hosting a separate donor conference.
  • For Turkey, financing could be sourced through donations from countries, as well as concessional lending from the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. The International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) Rapid Financing Instrument or its new Food Shock Window could be made available to lend to Turkey. Unfortunately, Turkey is unlikely to draw on IMF support because doing so—especially before the upcoming presidential elections—could be interpreted as Erdogan admitting his failings in economic policymaking and his government's inability to manage the aftermath of the quake.
  • For Syria, the most promising vehicle would be the World Bank’s International Development Association (IDA), to be administered by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and various NGOs. IDA support is typically provided directly to member governments, which would be realistic for Turkey but not Syria; aid for the later would have to be channeled through the multilateral development banks and NGOs.

The reconstruction costs after recent earthquakes of comparable intensity have totaled at minimum $6 billion, including for the 2015 Nepal and 2010 Haiti earthquakes, as outlined in the table below. The damage in Turkey and Syria is still being assessed, but it could easily surpass those figures. Unfortunately, financing for reconstruction after such disasters in developing countries has often fallen short. Thus, the donor community’s track record coupled with the substantial funding requirements of the Turkey-Syria earthquake means that persistent funding shortfalls are a distinct possibility.

Estimates of deaths, damages, and reconstruction financing needs from recent earthquakes
Country Year Magnitude Deaths Physical damages (billions of dollars) Reconstruction financing needs (billions of dollars)
China (Gansu Province) 2008 8.0 19,000 7.1 NA
China (Sichuan Province) 2008 8.0 69,000 112.2 NA
Haiti 2010 7.0 230,000 7.8 11.3
Nepal 2015 7.8 8,700 7.0 6.7
Turkey-Syria 2023 7.8 40,000 and rising TBD TBD
NA = not available; TBD = to be determined
Sources: World Bank, United Nations, and authors' calculations, as of February 14, 2023.

Reconstruction financing in Turkey and Syria is likely to be further complicated by the cross-border operations and the political reality in Syria. For instance, the Syrian government may divert aid to other politically favored priorities. Thus, it will be important to complement funding efforts with strong donor oversight and a system of aid governance.

Inaction by the international community could cause not only massive suffering in the earthquake area: It could further destabilize the region, which in turn would deepen the humanitarian crisis and increase the number of refugees, while increasing the risk of conflict and the spread of extremism. The international community’s reputation and credibility are at stake if it fails to fulfill its responsibility to protect human life and respond to this enormous crisis. By helping the victims of the earthquake, the world can also help address the long-term challenges of the Syrian civil war.

Ruchir Agarwal is a research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Yale School of Management. Adnan Mazarei is nonresident senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. He was previously deputy director at the IMF’s Middle East and Central Asia Department. He is also a consultant to the United Nations Development Program on Afghanistan. The views expressed in this blog post are those of the authors alone.

Data Disclosure

This publication does not include a replication package.

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