Residents of Azaz after an aerial bombing. Wikimedia/Voice of America. Public domain.
The protracted civil war in Syria awakens in me many memories from the Lebanese civil war. Growing up in Beirut in the Eighties to a Lebanese father and a Syrian mother, our family would spend our summers in Syria to get away from ‘the war’; funny indeed. I remember how my grandfather always used to say, “in Syria we’re poor but we’re secure”. I fear that the first part of the statement will hold true while the latter may be in question for the foreseeable future.
Amidst the cacophony of reporting on the war, it is hard to find a quiet place to think about the problems of the Syrian working class my grandfather belonged to, and how the post war reconstruction and development of the country might bring any sort of the change to their livelihoods. Even before the war, the unemployment rate was growing at what seemed like an uncontrollable rate. It is estimated that by 2030, the Syrian population is set to increase to 30 million. Furthermore, data shows that Syria has around 250,000 new entrants into the labor market each year. Thus, job creation through a visionary economic reconstruction and development plan and policymaking will be integral to the recovery and growth of the Syrian economy.
Historically, the Syrian economy has been unable to compete on the regional and international level despite the low cost of labour and other inputs. Syria’s new rulers will need to think about ways to reengage the labour force, making it a partner in future policymaking. The unions need to be reactivated and strengthened to emphasize their role in facilitating a better distribution of wealth. Moreover, with strategic oil reserves practically depleted, and the future of production facing far too many challenges, future leaders must think hard about how to invest in and diversify the economy to ensure long-term growth.
It is important not to forget the economic troubles that have led - directly and indirectly - to this uprising. The country’s educational system is in need of a complete revamp if its graduates are to remain competitive in the world economy. The agricultural sector has suffered from several years of drought and mismanaged water systems, pushing the rural communities into city suburbs and exacerbating already high unemployment and poverty levels. Industry, apart from Pharma, is suffering badly; textiles for example have been completely crushed by Chinese imports. These productive sectors are in dire need of investment and innovation.
Another elephant in the room is the bloated public sector. It is the largest employer in Syria, and its reform will help establish the policymaking environment for the rest of the economy. The literature informs us that “sound financial management, an efficient civil service and administrative policy, efficient and fair collection of taxes, and transparent operations that are relatively free of corruption all contribute to good delivery of public services”. Although broad statements like that are hard to distil into policy and action plans, they provide a big picture for the direction of reform.
I agree with Nizar and Jihad. The problem with Syrian National Coalition groups working towards a Marshall Plan-style reconstruction is that this tends to follow the trends set by most foreign consultants and advisors, completely disregarding the hard mix of sociopolitical dynamics in Syria, its neighbours and the international markets that might prevent any neoliberal economic reform framework from delivering on its promises. The Syrian Marshall Plan, as it appears to me now for example, focuses on construction, providing a quick jumpstart to the economy. Other elements that will help in the short-term would be the potential investments from the Gulf States in the tourism and service industries. However, these options will not have sustainable long-term effects.
I expect all eyes to be on the Coalition as it manages post-war reconstruction efforts. Their efforts will set the tone for the way Syria will be governed in the near future. The current state-sponsored monopolies might disappear or morph into new entities; however, I do not see any reason why new ones will not be formed in their stead to manage big contracts after the war and dominate the economy thereafter. New oligarchies, new Makhlouf families (pointed at for years as the very image of Syrian corruption) could simply follow the old ones: the Lebanese post-conflict reconstruction experience and its forced reforms has taught us that some rich people may benefit during and after wartime while masses in general do not really witness a lot of change. What might happen is that the pie will be divided amongst a number of families active in the Opposition and that the poor will understand this very well and accept it, for an immediate present when security and employment will the primary concerns of the people.
A new social contract is needed in Syria; Syrian people need to be treated like adults and regarded as individuals empowered to partake in the social, political and economic future of their country. They should feel secure in the knowledge that their rights as members of society are protected by the state and that their share of wealth is ensured by the government’s policies. Will a democracy resting on pre-scripted reconstruction plans and imported policies solve these problems? Not likely.