15th Nov 2018


EU milk aid to Syria: a 'Kafkaesque' story

  • The World Food Programme said EU-funded milk has reached over 600,000 Syrian children in the past two years (Photo: WFP)

An EU-funded programme providing Syrian children with milk bought from European farmers has ended as planned before the summer break, but it was a challenging project which faced delays and red tape, according to internal documents made public at the request of EUobserver.

One internal email, sent by an EU civil servant from the Damascus office, spoke of "Kafkaesque administrative hurdles" put up by the Syrian government in the war-torn country.

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  • The milk which the Syrian children received was produced in Portugal and Ireland (Photo: WFP)

"The purchase and import of milk from European Union origin into Syria was a complex and lengthy process given the lead-time of the milk shipment's arrival to the port, coupled with the government of Syria's rules and regulations for food and import of food into the country," said a spokeswoman for the World Food Programme (WFP), which took care of the distribution.

Both the European Commission and the WFP saw the two-year programme, which reached more children than initially announced, as a success.

However, as of this September, Syrian school children will have to get used to not receiving cartons of milk anymore: The WFP has not had any new financial contributions that would allow it to continue the programme in the new academic year.

It is also unclear if the measure made any meaningful impact on European farmers, one of the two goals of the project.

Agriculture policy + humanitarian aid

The plan was conceived in the summer of 2015 in Brussels when two policy challenges emerged at EU level in parallel.

There was the large influx of refugees entering the European Union, and there were protesting farmers who were feeling the effects of the end of the EU's milk quotas.

As part of a broader €500m aid package to farmers, the commission announced that €30m would be used to buy milk from European farmers, and distribute them among migrants.

"In identifying appropriate measures for the benefit of farmers, we cannot ignore the impact of this unprecedented humanitarian challenge, and we must see how our actions to stabilise the market can contribute to our solidarity efforts," said EU agriculture commissioner Phil Hogan in September 2015.

It took some time before the idea, which the commission itself acknowledged was an unprecedented attempt at creating synergy between EU policies, took its final shape.

"It was a one-off and difficult humanitarian operation, so it took some time to develop," said a commission spokesman.

At the end of March 2016, the commission announced that the milk-buying scheme would benefit Syrian school children, rather than migrants.

Two months later, the World Food Programme submitted a proposal to implement the plan - the commission normally outsources the actual aid work to organisations in the field such as the WFP.

The WFP already had a programme through which it distributed date bars to school children, who have suffered from lack of nutrition caused by the war. With the EU contribution, the WFP added cartons of milk to that aid effort.

Red tape

The WFP spokeswoman told EUobserver that the operation would not have been possible without the help of the Syrian government.

However, internal reports and emails from the WFP to the EU showed that the aid workers quickly ran into problems with Syrian red tape.

A WFP email from 19 September 2016 - all names have been redacted as is custom with EU access to documents regulations - said that the WFP had planned for the first batch of milk to arrive at Syria's Lattakia port in mid-August.

"However, due to challenges faced with Syrian customs regulations, the first shipment is currently held up at the port of origin (Portugal) and is expected to arrive in Syria by early October," the WFP email said.

The milk also had to be tested by Syrian authorities - which could take up to 21 days - risking that this process was finished only when schools had closed for the winter.

The WFP decided that part of the milk should be distributed through its general food distribution programme. It still went to children, but not necessarily to school children.

The EU accepted the WFP's solution.

"Basically the alternative would have been the destruction of the milk, which … could have had disastrous consequences for the partner and Echo," said a 2 February 2017 email from the commission's Damascus office.

Echo is the abbreviation of the commission's directorate-general for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations.

The fix remained an exception. Eventually less than 10 percent of the milk was distributed to the WFP's general programme.

Six ministries

Frustration with Syrian red tape persisted.

Syrian law normally did not allow the import of liquid milk from non-Arab countries, but the WFP had received an exemption.

Getting the milk imported required WFP officials to deal with no less than six Syrian ministries, however.

In May 2017, Syria changed the official specifications for milk and its packages.

"The procurement of milk for the 2017-18 academic year was initiated in June 2017," said an WFP update sent in October 2017.

"However, it suffered significant delays following a revision of the official Syrian specifications for milk, which forced WFP to temporarily put on hold the tendering process to review the revised specifications and ensure its ability to comply," the update said.

It was also sometimes not possible to cover all intended regions, because of the civil war.

Distribution to the north-eastern governorate Al Hasakeh, for example, ceased because fighting in Raqqa made distribution only possible via airlifts.

It is unclear which schools benefited from the scheme, because a list accompanying the documents had been completely redacted at WFP's request, possibly because of security concerns.

However, according to the last of a series of monthly reports to the commission, the WFP reached some 610,833 children in 12 of Syria's 14 governorates.

Most of them were government-controlled.

"You need storage capacity and logistics in a war-torn country where there are air strikes. It was a challenging project, but in the end it was really well implemented," said the commission spokesman.

In April 2017, the WFP was forced to destroy one pallet of milk, containing 0.668 metric tonnes, because the shelf life had expired by the time authorities had given authorisation.

In January this year, the WFP sent the commission a report about new delays it faced.

"The delays are mainly linked to the legalisation process of the milk shipments, requested by the Syrian authorities. This process requires the receipt of original shipping documents, which have to be signed by several countries and consulates," said the WFP report.

The programme ended in spring 2018, at the end of the academic year.

The number of children is almost double what the commission announced in March 2016.

Irish and Portuguese milk

The volume of distributed milk has also been more than expected, due to fluctuating milk prices. Instead of the planned 17,500 metric tonnes, the WFP was able to buy 19,237 metric tonnes.

The milk was procured from companies in Ireland and Portugal, which had both had financial problems and required EU bailouts, but the commission did not want to comment on the record on whether farmers from those countries needed additional income the most.

"The measure also provided a useful outlet for EU dairy producers at a difficult time in the dairy market," a commission spokesman said in an email.

Since the milk was acquired through a public tender, it was rather the companies with the best offer that became the successful bidders.

Meanwhile, the volumes were too small to make an impact on the milk price, said two dairy farmers' associations.

Pat McCormack, president of Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association, said that it of course supported programmes to help feed victims of the Syrian conflict.

"But in terms of impact on volumes and therefore price, the amount involved in this arrangement was very marginal and wouldn't have mattered even before quota abolition - much less after," said McCormack.

He noted that Irish milk production for 2015 climbed from 6,395m litres to 6,653.8m litres in 2016.

"Set against those kinds of increases on already significant volumes, 17,500 tonnes-odd of UHT milk is in no way material", said McCormack, referring to the sterilisation process at Ultra-high temperature (UHT).

"We believe that the aid package was an important support for the Syrian children, but we don't see any mayor impact for farmers", said Regina Reiterer, agricultural policy adviser at the European Milk Board, a Brussels-based lobby group for dairy farmers.

The EU's biggest agricultural lobby group, Copa-Cogeca, said it believed dairy farmers had benefited directly from the milk purchases, which occurred through cooperatives.

"The aim was not to give cash handouts directly to farmers, but to ensure a resilient market situation, where the dairy sector could continue to thrive," said a Copa-Cogeca spokesman.

No one to fill the gap

What's next? For the EU, the programme was always supposed to be temporary.

The commission said that its lasting contribution had been that EU money allowed the creation of a logistical chain from EU farmers to Syrian children.

"This logistical chain has been delivered. It will be easier for other operators to take over," said a commission spokesman.

But for now, no organisation has stepped in to fill the gap.

"Currently no contributions have been made that would enable WFP to provide milk in the upcoming academic year beginning September," said the WFP spokeswoman.

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