SYRIA: Many Syrians living in poverty
The launch of the new report on poverty in Damascus.
DAMASCUS, 17 September 2005 (IRIN) - Sami Ahmed came to the Syrian capital, Damascus, from his village expecting to find employment, earn some money and ensure a better life for his seven children.
Years later, life in a single room in Quarter 86 – a poor neighbourhood in the bustling city – remains tough.
He leaves home early each morning to go downtown where he sits with 20 others waiting for work.
"I was lucky last week," he said. "I worked for three straight days. This was great and exceptional as I often cannot work for more than one day a week for maximum of 400 Syrian pounds (US $8). When I do not work, my kids do not eat."
Despite the tough city life, Ahmed insists it is better than living in the rural areas.
"Waiting for a person who might ask for daily laborers and who might come once a week, is better than staying at a remote village and waiting for a job that might not come at all," he added.
Ahmed's home in Quarter 86 is just a 10-minute drive from al-Malki quarter, the wealthiest area of the capital – reflecting huge disparities between the rich and poor in Damascus.
According to a study done by the Syrian Central Bureau for Statistics and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), an increasing number of people in the country live in poverty.
The 'Poverty Reduction Study' published in June, said 2.2 million Syrians lived under the poverty line (below US $2 a day in cities or $1 in rural areas) in 2004/5 and were unable to ensure their own basic needs.
It categorised 30 percent of Syria's 18.3 million people as poor.
The findings of the study contradicted a statement made earlier this year by Abdullah al-Dardari, the head of the state's planning body, that only 11.9 percent of Syria's population was poor. He said this situation had not changed since 1994.
Tareq al-Kheir, the dean of the Faculty of Economy at Damascus University, said the Syrian middle class had also been affected by rising poverty because incomes had decreased, especially for those working in professions such as teaching and engineering.
Ali al-Za’tari, the UNDP Resident representative, said the poverty average in Syria was "within its rational levels ...[but] almost a quarter of the people in the northern areas are under the poverty line". Here, he added, poverty was linked to larger families, illiteracy and ignorance. RURAL AREAS
The rural areas where 62 percent of Syrians live are more affected, Mayssa Midany of the planning authority, said.
The northern and northeast areas in particular were the poorest places in the country, although they are considered the "bread and energy basket" because they produce wheat and contain oil resources, Midany added. Parts of the northwest were also affected.
However poverty in the country could be lowered by half by 2010 if government plans to reform the economy prove successful. Currently the country is burdened by state-run industries, low productivity and a legacy of years of socialist policy, economic experts say.
"One of the Syrian government's strategies is to build up a real partnership between the public, private and civil sectors," Midany said. "Building partnerships would not have direct impact on employment but would have a role in development."
As part of the reform strategy, a five-year national program to combat unemployment is ongoing, which Midany describes as a priority.
The study, which said workers in the private sector were worse off than those in the public sector, recommended that families be offered small loans of not more than 100,000 Syrian pounds ($2,000) for income-generating activities. Some have already been offered.
"Such loans are centered in the countryside and 50 percent of their beneficiaries are rural women," Obeid al-Salem from the government department working to combat unemployment, said.
Unemployment, she added, had reached 16 percent across the country. "When unemployment is reduced, poverty is lowered," she noted. "A large number of the women [who had] taken the loans, for example, bought simple equipment to make rural bread."