Given the brutality that has come to characterise Syria’s four-year war, it is understandable that discussion of the conflict has focused on violent deaths.
But there is another scourge destroying lives in the country: economic ruin and crippling poverty – what a UN-backed report called “an equally horrendous but silent disaster.”
Some aid organisations and policy experts are finding that with more than four out of five Syrians in poverty, traditional humanitarian aid, while necessary, just isn’t enough. So they’re advocating for, and implementing, livelihood projects – intervention to assist people’s abilities to support themselves.
One of these is the Danish Refugee Council. As Peter Klanso, DRC Middle East and North Africa director, told IRIN: “You cannot have an entire population that is dependent on humanitarian aid. That doesn’t make any sense.”
In the country’s northeast, once known as Syria’s breadbasket, agricultural production has dropped sharply, and farmers have been battered from all sides.
Displacement caused by shifting frontlines has resulted in missed harvest and planting seasons – in total 6.6 million Syrians have been internally displaced by the violence inside their country. People who returned to areas vacated by the so-called Islamic State, for example, have come home to neglected soil and couldn’t afford seeds.
Government agricultural subsidies have reduced, and in some areas, disappeared. Prior to the conflict, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad was the primary purchaser of wheat and maize; it still buys these products in some places, but on a far smaller scale. Research by a major NGO working in northeast Syria, shared with IRIN on the condition the charity not be named for the safety of its staff, found that a flood of in-kind aid has resulted in a fall in demand for agricultural products.
This is not a region always hardest hit by violence, but many are heavily in debt and selling all they have to feed their children. The International Rescue Committee told IRIN that between 70 and 90 percent of those it polled as part of an assessment this July in northern Syria admitted to spending more than they earn each week.
A new approach
Traditional humanitarian assistance such as food, sanitation, and medicine, remains vital – 13.5 million Syrians need it, by the UN’s count. But some Syrians have been asking aid organisations for something different.
“[Syrians] were requesting support with farming… something more productive than just being given food parcels,” explained one aid worker based in northeast Syria, who spoke to IRIN on the condition of anonymity.
To that end, the Food and Agriculture Organization funds various projects inside Syria, including agricultural support, as does the IRC, which this summer gave 2,667 vouchers to 863 households for seeds, fertilisers, and tools to grow and sustain small-scale farms. IRC also runs training programmes and apprenticeships for young people, while the British Red Cross supports carpet manufacturers and the DRC assists other small business owners.
A May 2014 deal brought the Old City of Homs under regime control as rebels were allowed safe passage out. Many residents came home to find the place devastated by years of fighting, and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent has been helping them to start over, although few shops have reopened their doors.
The DRC runs programmes from Damascus, Homs and Daraa – they give out grants as well as provide training and market analysis for small businesses.
“In every war situation, no matter how cruel it is – and certainly the one in Syria is very cruel – there are always people who are living and trying to make a normal life,” the DRC’s Klanso said.
Supporting jobs and job creation is not viable in all areas – particularly those under IS control or where battles are ongoing. Solidarities International found that while the need for such programmes in northern Syria was greatest in Aleppo city, the security situation meant that their May 2014 – March 2015 cash-for-work project was restricted to the province’s countryside.
One benefit of livelihood aid is its long-term potential, an attraction for those Syrians who have come to see the intractable conflict as the new normal.
Eva Svoboda, research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute, has been researching Syria since the conflict began. “People we spoke to in 2011 [and] 2012 still expressed some hope [for] an end to the conflict,” Svoboda told IRIN. “This has now changed to sheer desperation.”
Rim Turkmani, research fellow at the London School of Economics (LSE), believes livelihood support is even essential to weaken the war economy. Her research shows that, in opposition-controlled areas, many are joining armed groups because they offer the only opportunity to earn a salary. “There is a lot to do against ISIS that is more serious and effective than airstrikes,” she said.
Despite the hype behind it in policy circles, there are limits to how much aid organisations can, and want, to fund job growth in a war zone.
“The reality is that 95 percent of [our] funds go directly to in-kind support,” the FAO coordinator for food security in Syria told LSE researchers for a report published last year. “Impact for such programmes is not immediate, humanitarian needs are overwhelming and it is more difficult to run such projects rather than providing food,” he wrote.
OCHA, the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, reports that in September 2015 only 11,687 people inside Syria received any sort of livelihood support, whereas 5,879,737 collected food aid.
Penny Sims, senior media officer at the British Red Cross, said humanitarian work must remain the priority. “We are doing some livelihoods work, but the situation in Syria is still very much an emergency,” she said. “Immediate relief is still our main work… food, water and healthcare are still the most important.”
With the UN’s appeals for aid to the Syria crisis critically underfunded – there is a shortfall of 47 percent – little is left for livelihood projects. Kathryn Striffolino, advocacy advisor at the IRC, told IRIN by email: “There is a finite amount of assistance/resources available, and so many different, frankly competing, humanitarian needs.”
Aid agencies are also constrained by access. “You can’t successfully implement quality livelihoods programming when there are bombs dropping from the sky or bullets flying,” said Striffolino.
“How can we understand how markets are reacting and run livelihood programmes when we don’t have direct access to communities?” another aid worker said.
With a political solution elusive, many say a response encompassing humanitarian aid and – where appropriate – longer-term support, is necessary.
For those not directly impacted by violence “life is going on,” one aid worker who had recently encountered a man transporting 5,000 chickens out of Aleppo to start a poultry business, told IRIN.
“Even in Syria, people are trying to cope.”