Zenobia Baalbaki | Doctoral candidate United States
July 9th, 2007

Re: ‘If you had the choice what would you change in Syria?

There are so many lofty prescriptions one could present in answer to the question of what Syria needs for progress through change (I assume progress is what we all want). The temptation is to expound on the obvious desirable political, economic, and educational reforms that could lead to dramatic change in Syria, and I think many of the contributors to this forum have already done an excellent job of presenting the best of these types of prescriptions. The problem, in my view, with so many of the loftier ideas that easily come to mind is that in most if not all cases‚?¶ there will indeed be huge obstacles and resistance to implementation of these prescriptions, as well as, hindrances to actual gains for the average person in Syria. Political reform is inevitably met with total repression and refusal by the ruling body. Educational reform of a major sort ‚?? though filled with possibilities for beneficial results is, as well, fraught with obstacles given the state controlled system that cannot feasibly be challenged.

David Shagoury‚??s excellent piece in this forum‚?¶ describes eloquently the perspective (that I share) that all the realities historically and currently for Syria really justify the persistence of the status quo and will prevent dramatic changes occurring in the near future. I too share the belief that many small or circumscribed initiatives are what are achievable at this time, if not even the most desirable‚?¶. instead of any aggressive internal or external efforts at social engineering. Larger shifts should and will occur organically in time.

So, my own answer for this question will be one of a modest level of thinking and narrower in scope. The reason for such modesty in addition to what I have already said is that social change in Syria is very tricky business, as a few of the other writers here have discussed. I think, to say the least, Syrians are ambivalent about change of any sort, and as Ayman Hakki so aptly described ‚?? Syrians tend to have a million ‚??NO‚??s‚?Ě to deliver out and very few ‚??Yess‚?Ě. Syrians are cautious people‚?¶ generally speaking and particularly in social matters, and the ones who aren‚??t or have some element of boldness in their character have often been the ones to leave the country. So, right away, the question of change has to be considered in light of this cultural character, and not just in terms of the regime‚??s resistance to change.

My answer to this question will fall in the realm of economics‚?¶ as it has for some of the other writers here. Partly, my choice is based on a view that, overall, most Syrians want more economic benefit and opportunity and that they would be willing to tolerate a certain amount of newness in ideas and resulting change if they manifestedly benefit in real material terms.

George Ajjan put forward an excellent recommendation for the repatriation of investment dollars derived from the Syrian expatriate communities and diaspora around the globe. I couldn‚??t agree more, and wish I had thought of this idea. I think the difficult aspect of his recommendation ‚?? is how to ensure that these funds and investments will actually impact and give benefit to the non-elites and the lower classes of society in Syria. Not only would I be concerned about how to ensure their impact, but even I would advocated for some structures of financing that directly bring charity, funding, and investment to lower levels of society.

The concrete pragmatic recommendation I put forward is simply, ‚??Micro- Finance‚?Ě. Sounds very unglamorous and rather narrow. It is not the most profound economic idea either, but I think the larger scope suggestions have already been made by others and implied in most of the positive reports coming out lately about Syrian economic upswings. I chose it because one critical thing that I think has been missing in many reports and recommendations is the recognition that special attention and intervention should be made towards funding needs, investment, and credit directed at lower echelons of society and business.

In answering the question of what Syria needs right now, I knew that my answer would fall in the arena of economic relief. As I have explored the landscape around Damascus for many weeks now, and viewed the people on the streets, and some in their homes,‚?¶as well as in the slums, I am struck by the purity of economic need and economic struggle. I observe this not singly concerning the super poor of Syria‚?¶no, in fact, I speak of the average‚?¶.the common ‚??everyman‚?? and ‚??everywoman‚?? of Syria. This is a poor country. People keep talking about how rich it actually is. I suppose if I could look behind the gated doors‚?¶ and in the swank apartments of Malki, Abu-Rumaneh, and in select homes around the city and countryside, I might agree for a moment‚?¶if I screened out everything else I can see on the streets and in the villages outside. This is not possible of course. To look only at the wealth of the few is to ignore the larger reality of the situation. And when one considers the average‚?¶ the vision screams for economic relief and opportunity. Even basic level services are not dependable currently. Normal people have their water and electricity turned off for hours everyday right now. There is no postal system to even pay bills by mail, never mind electronically.

There has been much written lately on the economic successes and upturn in Syria. I realize that the current president has marketed himself as someone who will open up and stimulate the economy. There is talk of the new financial system on the way including a stock market, new banking system, insurance, and thus, hopefully foreign investment. But here is the rub, from my perspective. Do I really believe that all these new financial systems will bring economic opportunities that will be directly offered to the average Syrian? Do I believe that there will be significant impact (in terms of economic well being) to the citizens of Syria of average and below average economic means?

I am afraid that the answer is no. I have a terrible feeling – that amidst this dramatically hierarchical and controlled economic system with entrenched corruption, relying on the ‚??trickle down‚?? theory of economic infusion and growth‚?¶ to ensure that even the average Syrian will thrive is a hypothesis that remains unconvincing to me.

Partly, I think the obstacles have to do with corruption and more significantly the monopolizations of the business sectors and of so many markets by the state and the select privileged class. However, the other problem, in my view, is that the general populace of small merchants and business people simply are ill equipped (knowledge-wise and structurally) to jump on the large-scale opportunities that might be available.
What we hear about lately ‚?? in the optimistic reports of economic opening – are the big business investment ventures or industries, and the creation of finance systems. But how is this level of enterprise going to benefit ‚?? in any real and immediate way‚?¶ the little
‚??everyman‚??? I do not suspect that it will.

My recommendation of a complimentary ‚?? not competing ‚?? economic intervention of small scale resource building would be a model using micro-finance. Such projects have been very successful even in the most modest of circumstances in places like India.

Syria doesn‚??t just need a more extensive big- banking system. It needs a credit system that extends itself to the non-wealthy citizens of the country.
The higher up on the food chain the banking and credit system functions – there remains the problem of a corrupt structure and biased system of ownership and control. (We have that in the United States too, but‚?¶ at least, it extends its benefits to the middle class. In exchange for charging huge amounts of interest and sucking the blood out of the population, we get such privileges as having many many credit cards and borrowing capabilities.) By organizing a Micro-Finance project that is not competing with the larger system and functions outside or on the periphery of it, I would suggest that it would be easier to have such projects be remote from the usual siphoning and destructive practices that generally make it impossible for small businesses to thrive and grow.

Therefore, I would like offer the idea ‚?? not of simply opening the usual usury constructed credit systems, but a separately organized non-profit project of small credit and financing to common Syrians who are looking for credit to extend and grow small business enterprises. It is possible I believe to also run non-profit organizations in parallel and in partnership with for-profit investment and financial institutions.
The target of this economic financing project would be primarily small businesses and merchants, as well as rural development projects, and women‚??s enterprises. The vehicle of implementation would be non-governmental in sourcing and driven through collaboration with the Syrian and European NGO institutions that already exist. I think taping the expatriate population as Ajjan suggested to make investments and donation would be an excellent way to fund such projects.

The reason I chose this area of intervention is in large part because this is overtly an apolitical type of activity. It is desperately needed. And because the powerful entities in Syria actually need economic growth on the lower level to occur in order to secure their own economic profiteering for the time being, I do not think that they would hinder and thwart such projects. The Syrian first lady herself professes to be working to support rural development causes, and micro-financing has the ability to be structured into the arena of such humanitarian and non-threatening entities without causing conflict of interests with state controlled enterprises.

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2 Responses to the Article

Alex Says:

Zenobia,

I disagree with one of your conclusions, there is at least employment benefits out of the larger exclusive development projects. Those large new hotels, the new banks, the new private Universities .. they are all full of employees… regular Syrians.

But overall I fully agree with your theme … we need to find a way to help poorer Syrians to try their luck starting their own business if they feel they have good ideas and are more motivated to work for their own business rather than be forced to be employed elsewhere. After all … Syrians are supposed to be good entrepreneurs.

By the way, I think Asma is already managing a micro-finance initiative. But I am sure it can be done on a much larger scale.

Zenobia Says:

hi,
yes… you are correct – that all these corporations in the form of hotels, banks, larger service sector businesses…do hire employees…and these are usually the non-educated and middle / lower classes of people.
But the same argument is used in the United States right now – to claim that there is job growth…and hence claim that people are not unemployed and there are more jobs available.
Unfortunately, most economist with any morals… point out that these service sector jobs are extremely low paying (thats even in the USA) and that they rarely provide a living wage to the employees. I don’t know what the specifics are in Syria. I agree that some job is better than no job. But… still….i am not sure this translates into a standard of living that can support marriage and a family here.

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