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Nearly seven years since the crisis began, over 13.5 million women, men and children are still in need of humanitarian assistance inside Syria. (Relief Web)

The protracted crisis in Syria has impacted all aspects of humanitarian work. A number of international NGOs are involved in the response and recovery effort.  But since the conflict began, local Syrian humanitarians have stepped up to deliver the majority of assistance in support of local communities and families, often at great personal risk to themselves. 

To better equip these local responders with the knowledge and skills they need for an effective humanitarian response, three organizations— (a Cornerstone OnDemand Foundation initiative), Mercy Corps and the International Rescue Committee (IRC)—teamed up to implement the Investing in Syrian Humanitarian Action (ISHA) program funded by the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA). The ISHA program is comprised of two elements. While Mercy Corps and IRC provide financial and technical assistance to a select group of Syrian organizations, has led the development of the ISHA Online Learning Program for the wider humanitarian community in Syria. Tailor-made for a region with limited internet and technology access, this unique learning program leverages custom online and mobile learning in Arabic that is available to thousands of local humanitarians for free through the portal and also accessible offline on a mobile app. The ISHA program provides crucial, contextualized content on topics ranging from how to distribute relief goods in local communities to leading teams in a crisis response.

Photo: Colt/IRC

Though still in its first phase, ISHA has already made a significant impact across Syria and the surrounding region. Over 13,000 learners in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey have registered for more than 99,000 online courses and completed more than 21,000 of them. We spoke with Stacy Guidera, project and learning design manager at the Cornerstone OnDemand Foundation, about the program, what made it effective and how it will have a long-lasting impact in the region.

Before developing the ISHA program, the DisasterReady team spoke with humanitarians in Syria to better understand their needs. How did their feedback help you create a learning program for them?

Stacy Guidera: This first-hand feedback was essential in developing an effective online learning program. We learned that many Syrian humanitarians are always on the move and do most everything on their phones. Many lack access to reliable electricity and internet, so we needed to develop light content that could be accessible offline. The majority of learners also told us that it was critical for them to take training in Arabic.

We also identified the priority topics they wanted to learn such as leading teams in an emergency response and implementing voucher programs. Humanitarian work is new to many Syrians, and they know that in order to be effective, they needed to better understand the international standards for providing humanitarian assistance.

What were some of the challenges you faced with the development of this learning program?

Guidera: Initially, we were focused on delivering both face-to-face and online training, however, when the crisis made it difficult for international organizations to enter the country, it became virtually impossible to conduct classroom training inside Syria. As a result, we developed a 100% technology-based learning program. Fortunately, we were able to team up with a local partner that had pop-up learning labs inside Syria who helped us reach our target audience in order to get first-hand feedback on their specific learning needs for this program.

Another challenge was the lack of quality, mobile-friendly online learning in Arabic for humanitarians. As a result, we had to get creative and source, translate and create as much new content as possible. We had to find vendors that were able to build mobile courses in Arabic on a low budget and to find subject matter experts that knew the context in Syria and were willing to work with us to develop content for free. In the end, we partnered with local partners and the international community responding in Syria and were able to create ten brand new content projects in less than one year and on a very limited budget.

Can you share some examples of the courses that you developed?

Guidera: One of our key projects was working with our partner Mercy Corps to create training on implementing a successful voucher program. Many Syrian humanitarian organizations distribute printed vouchers to vulnerable community members, enabling people themselves to purchase what they need most urgently. There are issues around printing and distributing vouchers effectively, so getting it right is extremely important for survival. We transformed a comprehensive guide of over 144 pages into an online interactive simulation-based learning program. Learners take an introduction to vouchers course and then are able to practice what they learned to implement a voucher program based on real-life scenarios inspired by ISHA’s Syrian partners.

We also developed a series of mobile job aids with animated infographics and a user-friendly design specifically for smartphones. One of the mobile job aids on hygiene promotion teaches aid workers how to prevent the spread of disease especially in areas with limited water access and supply.

What kind of feedback have you received from local humanitarians taking these courses?

Guidera:  So far, our learners have been very overwhelmingly engaged and are giving us a lot of positive feedback. They appreciate how we have been able to design custom training based on their needs and contextualize it to their reality in Syria.

Do you see this program have a long-lasting impact in the region?

Guidera: The ISHA online learning program has exceeded all of our expectations – not only in terms of the number of learners and courses taken, but how they are applying the concepts they learn. For example, in addition to providing courses relevant to the Syria response, we're helping hundreds of learners inside Syria get their project management certification. We're using our program grant to cover their exam fee which is giving so many learners the opportunity to take the exam and get certified which will better position them to work with international donors on local projects. This professional development and certification lasts a lifetime.

Moving forward, we want to reach more learners and expand targeted learning programs in the region. We're starting to use more social media like Facebook that can help get the word out on ISHA and reach local Syrian NGOs and networks. With our OFDA grant coming to a close, our goal is to secure new funding to allow us to create more engaging and impactful courses for our learners in Syria, the region, and the world.

Header Photo Credit: Carter/Mercy Corps