Syrian Policy on Combating Poverty: Failures and the Future – Dr. Fayez Sara
It is indisputable that one of the deep roots that led to the Arab Spring that was sparked in Tunisia and led to Syria has been the systematic and institutional failure of state policies that dealt with poverty. It is imperative that any transitional government tackle this matter seriously given the experimented state policies in the past ten years. The Third National Report on the Millennium Development Goals in Syria for 2010, prepared by the government in cooperation with the United Nations, highlighted that poverty in Syria has not declined. In making this declaration the report assesses the results of the Syrian government’s policies on tackling poverty, which can be said to have failed to achieve their desired goals of combating poverty by reducing its presence within Syrian society as well as all the negative ramifications associated with it.
In general terms, the conclusion of the Third National Report is rooted in the failed policies pursued in combating poverty by the Syrian government during the periods from 2000 to 2010. During this time numerous anti-poverty programs and plans were launched in the country. From the official perspective, these plans and projects were conducted on two levels; the first being projects of a general character that target the poor throughout society, and the second being projects designed to benefit specific classes targeting specific groups of society’s poor.
One: The Government’s General Anti-Poverty Programmes
The National Programme to Combat Unemployment was the first, and most significant, of the governmental anti-poverty projects in Syria over the past decade. Its basic features were outlined in Law No. 71 of 2001 regarding the National Programme to Combat Unemployment, which created the General Commission for the National Programme to Combat Unemployment, stipulating a renewable term for the project of five years. The law specified the overall aims and activities of this anti-unemployment programme, the first of which was to examine, finance and implement a number of production and service activities that would contribute towards generating income, providing job opportunities, creating new fields of labour and production, diversifying the structure of the economic and service sectors, and attracting the available workforce and those entering into the job market for the first time. According to the National Programme to Combat Unemployment, the government allocated the sum of SYP 50 billion, which was spent during the term of the project.
The government then launched the tenth five year plan (2005-2010), which was in effect a comprehensive strategy, one of the basic aims of which was to fight poverty through economic and social development. In 2008, during the period of this plan, the National Programme for Poverty Reduction in Syria was launched, which involved participation between the Ministry of Social Affairs, the General Federation of Trade Unions and the Federation of Syrian Chambers of Industry from 2008 to 2010. Its aim was to contribute towards reducing poverty by doing the following: providing work suitable for young people and women, focussing on priorities of enhancing the ability of the three aforementioned partners to implement labour policies and legislation, improving the performance of the labour market department, labour inspection and respecting the basic principles and rights of labour, improving social dialogue policies and mechanisms, increasing job opportunities through a national employment strategy, reforming employment services for those out of work in accordance with international labour standards, reinforcing social protection by improving the ability of the government and social partners to develop social security policy and administration systems, and finally broadening access to social protection for all workers and their families including those working in the unregulated sector.
Within the context of government policy, the General Commission for Employment and Project Development was established in Syria in the year 2009, replacing the Commission for Combating Unemployment. As part of its attempts to fight poverty, it took the procedural initiative of signing agreements with a number of government and private banks operating in Syria to facilitate the financing of small and medium-sized projects for those wishing to benefit from the Commission’s services. The Commission sought to encourage and facilitate the financing of small and medium-sized projects in various parts of Syria to generate new job opportunities in the regions where these projects have been established. It selects and equips entrepreneurs hoping to benefit from its services by organising training courses suited to the nature of their work, assessing the economic viability studies on the projects presented, and assisting beneficiaries by providing a bank guarantee and completing these economic viability studies.
The outcome of the Syrian anti-poverty initiatives at the end of the last decade was the announcement of the creation of the Social Support Fund. This fund aims to offer financial and social assistance to poor families in various parts of the country. The total finances allocated to the fund amounts to the sum of $250 million. The fund took its first practical step in this area in February of 2011 by distributing financial support to around 420,000 low-income families through 170 centres located across Syria.
Two: The Sectoral Programmes
These programmes focussed on particular sections or classes of the population in Syria, such as Syrian villagers or Palestinian residents in the country. Some have dealt with rural areas while others concentrated on towns. Although they tackled various segments of society, there has been an increased focus on women, youth and children. Among the first of these programmes was the Rural Society Development project in Jabal Al-Hoss. This project began in 2000 and continued until late 2007 bringing together Japanese and Syrian governments as well as the United Nations Development Programme. The aim of the project was combating poverty and improving incomes for families by establishing a national microfinance system and activating the participation of women in development and empowering them economically and socially. This project gave rise to the Small Employment Loans Programme, which was inaugurated in July of 2003 by the International Agency for Relief and Employment of Palestinian refugees in Damascus. This offers small cash sums to Syrian and Palestinian citizens seeking to establish small businesses, or to develop existing businesses, with the aim of improving their living conditions and reducing poverty.
In 2004 the Healthy Villages Programme was launched by the Ministry of Agriculture and Agricultural Reform in cooperation with UNICEF. The programme’s aim was to provide support for the project to develop the capabilities of rural women in northeast Syria in order to incorporate women into development, revive the situation of rural women, and empower them economically and socially. The programme also aimed at creating job opportunities for rural women and improving their living standards. It is part of the larger national scheme of the Healthy Villages Programme, which focusses on improving social and economic conditions in rural Syria. It has been implemented in five provinces, namely Hassakeh, Al-Raqqah, Deir Al-Zour, Aleppo and Idlib. It provided training for around two thousand rural women in the year 2004.
In 2007 the National Programme to Empower Syrian Women was launched with an allocated budget of SYP 1 billion. The performance of this programme was overseen by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour, with input from the United Nations Development Programme. The United Nations campaign to combat drought which was launched in 2009 was among the recent sectoral-focussed anti-poverty campaigns in Syria. It involved the distribution of food aid to families affected by drought in the regions of northeast Syria. Baskets of food were distributed that included grain, oil and other materials.
The past decade has evidently seen the launch of numerous anti-poverty programmes, whether general or sectoral, and many of these projects have had significant material and technical resources available to them. They have also had access to a wealth of information including the poverty in Syria report of 1996-2004 prepared in cooperation between the United Nations and the State Planning Commission, and published in 2005. They also benefited from the publications of the Central Bureau of Statistics, and the annual qualitative reports which have begun to appear in Syria produced by different state and non-governmental institutions and civil society associations.
However, this profusion of resources and projects that target poverty did not achieve most of its goals because it did not find the suitable positive and practical environment for success within government institutions as well as by Syrian officials involved with the issue of poverty. The lack of a transparent and efficient government was manifested on two levels; the first was the u-turning in Syrian policies that deal with poverty, caused by disagreements among those with influence and lack of a vision or strategic planning. The foremost example of this was the abolition of the Commission for Combating Unemployment, and replacing it with the General Commission for Employment and Project Development. This reflected a fundamental transformation in the treatment of poverty moving away from a focus on the poorest classes of society, as in the schemes of the Commission for Combating Unemployment, towards the less poor who became the target group for the General Commission for Employment and Project Development.
The second level is represented by the contradiction between policies and announcements by the government on the issue of combating poverty. Amid the talk of fighting poverty, official policies have been submerged by other contrasting policies. There are three main points here; the most significant of which is the increase of taxes and duties that weighed heavily on the middle and lower classes who do not have sufficient wealth to pay higher taxes. Meanwhile, the upper classes were allowed tax loopholes and breaks in addition to their unregulated underground activities.
The second point regarding the incompatibility of government policies with the combating of poverty is the abolition of subsidies for basic materials and goods, in particular fuel at a time it is most needed by the most poor classes of society. Although alternatives have been paid to state employees, no possible compensation has been able to offset the impacts of this rise on the various goods and services. The third point here is embodied in the government’s continued disregard of black market activities within the Syrian economy. This has burdened state and society, leading to the creation of twisted ways of making a living, and the accumulation of wealth through bribery, corruption and the plundering of public funds.
It is obvious that the current Syrian government’s anti-poverty programmes and projects are not achieving much in reality if not deepening poverty’s societal and economic ramifications. The urgency and priority of dealing with this issue once and for all is a popular demand. The lessons of the past ten years must be investigated further by the future transitional government. These lessons of failure await a strong transparent political will to tackle the issues related to poverty such as the lack of the rule of law, political and economic corruption and contradictory policies and practices that hinder any reform from achieving its goals.
15 August 2011
full article in pdf Poverty in Syria_EN