Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Caught in Limbo

Syria Today Magazine
September 2007

Syria’s vibrant private sector has long sponsored a number of charities to deal with society’s ills. These organisations most often only treated the symptoms of underdevelopment, not the cause of the problem itself. Following its 1963 Revolution, the Renaissance Party took away these charities’ tax exempt status and collectivized many of their activities into Popular Unions whose close relationship to the state, it was hoped, would help the Ba’ath wipe out poverty once and for all. When the late President Hafez al-Assad came to power in November 1970, his “Correctionist Movement” restored the charities’ tax-exempt status, allowing the private sector to treat the symptoms of underdevelopment while the socialist state attempted to remove the causes of the disease itself.
Legally speaking, that bargain between state and society on the burdens, and responsibilities, of national development remains to this day. But on the ground things have changed. A number of Non-governmental Organisations (NGOs) have taken root in Syria. While they are legally registered as charities, NGOs are hybrid organisations that administer complex programmes to tackle complex societal problems. The state recognised the successes of NGOs elsewhere in the world, and set to work three years ago to modify Syria’s outdated associations law to accommodate them. A number of draft laws are reportedly circulating in the Syrian capital. So far, however, the proposed laws have yet to see the light of day, with some predicting passage of a new associations law dealing with NGOs early next year.
The cover story of Syria Today’s sample edition over three and a half years ago dealt with NGOs in Syria and the obstacles they face. Given their growing numbers, and the slow pace of progress on passing legal frameworks to deal with them, we thought it was time to take another look. What we found was that months before the law’s expected passage, NGOs in Syria remain in limbo. They are also anxious because few of its members have seen the draft law and don’t know what to expect. But they have some ideas, and they are charging ahead against all odds.
We begin this edition with coverage of Operational NGOs, or organisations administering specific development projects in Syria. The majority of Syria’s official NGO community, and those under the patronage of First Lady Asma al-Assad, fall into this category. They tackle issues such as rural poverty, disabilities, education, and women’s affairs. They are making strong headway, but they are having problems accessing foreign funds allotted to NGOs internationally due to red tape resulting from the current associations law. The new law is expected to streamline funding regulations, but exactly how remains to be seen.
Next, we move onto Advocacy NGOs. To its credit, the state has allowed a number of advocacy NGOs in the fields of human rights and the environment to operate. But their legal status remains uncertain, meaning they suffer most from Syria’s NGO legal limbo. Adding to the tension is Washington’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), which is known to be funding NGOs dealing with Syria but not disclosing end users. This has caused some Syrian authorities to see NGOs advocating human rights, free press, and democracy as Trojan horses for the Bush Administration’s “Regime Change” policy in the Middle East. So while a new NGO law might clarify what Advocacy NGOs can do, it remains uncertain how much headway they can ultimately make unless the regional political environment changes.
Concerning Iraqi refugees, Syrian NGOs and international donors are in a dispute over why so few international NGOs dealing with refugee issues are actually carrying out operations on the ground. Donors say approvals from Syrian authorities come too late, while local NGOs say the programmes of international donors lack detailed plans. Our story shows that the truth may lie somewhere in between.
At Syria Today we believe in giving Syria’s authorities the change to respond to criticism. Our interview with Social Affairs Minister Diala al-Haj Aref outlines the state’s position on NGO issues, and where things might be heading under the new law. Whatever transpires, our article on Corporate Social Responsibility shows that Syria’s private sector is slowly coming around to the idea of supporting NGOs, inspired by the CSR programmes of multinationals working in Syria.
Rounding out this edition, Syria Today turns its attention to business. We tackle the growing number of holding companies in Syria, and columnist Angus Blair urges all Syrian companies to be more transparent. Last, but certainly not least, our profile of white goods magnate Farouk Joud shows that discipline and a sharp eye remains the key to success in Syria – and perhaps anywhere.
Next month, Syria Today celebrates its three-year, 30th anniversary edition! Whew, where did the time go?

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