Reconstruction. Everyone talks about it but the thing itself appears elusive. There is no doubt it has become imperative for Syria to shift its focus and remaining resources to reconstruction. The status on the field at least allows for it; it was the US President Donald Trump who, back in July, distinctly stressed that ISIS has almost been destroyed while conveying the intention to help the Syrian people on a humanitarian basis. The Russians had added, in their proposals, there should be provisions to facilitate the return of refugees. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that Mr Trump’s administration will be able to sit on the same table with Moscow, at least not until the case regarding the alleged Russian meddling in the US election is resolved, one way or another.
The Syrian government forces have incontestably regained control of almost the whole of Syria, greatly assisted by Russia and Iran. Still, the United States hold the key to the peace process and thus to any substantial coordinated initiative for reconstruction. Besides, along with Britain and France, they essentially impede investment and ventures in Syria, demanding a political resolution, even if it does not include a transition that would see Bashar Al Assad out of power.
‘We do not need it’, Mr Assad has said, referring to the West’s economic assistance. Yet the truth is that Syria needs any help that can be given to it. The accrued loss to its GDP is estimated to 226 billion USD, according to a July 2017 World Bank report and the regime itself has said the total cost of reconstruction – for schools, hospitals, factories, homes and infrastructure – is no less than 400 billion. Hence it has swiftly invited Russia, Iran and China to submit tender offers; countries that actually compete with one another to obtain public contracts, from hydrocarbon exploitation and construction to the lucrative phosphate mines of Syria. It is no coincidence that the regime celebrated its 4th International Trade Exhibition for Rebuilding Syria in September, in which 270 exhibitors participated from 29 countries, including Germany, France, China, Italy, Spain and Brazil.
In this context, an analysis published by the British think tank Chatham House appears quite right in its ending: ‘Holding back funding does not hold back time’. The international community, but mainly the West, is encouraged not to wait for a political resolution to engage in reconstruction, so as no player can monopolise it as well as for obvious humanitarian reasons.
‘We help people return to their homes, reopen their business, reignite life in this amazing country’
GIACOMO NEGROTTO is the Partnership Officer of the United Nations Development programme in Syria. He has a long-standing experience participating in development and support programmes in a number of countries, including Cuba, Libya and Indonesia.
• What is the work of the UNDP?
There are three pillars comprising the Comprehensive Approach system of the UNDP, that aims at early recovery for the vulnerable parts of the population. Firstly, we focus on the practical-technical issues, in order to ensure physical access to the respecive area. Secondly, we create – wherever this is possible – the appropriate conditions of livelihood. It is important to reactivate the social and economic dynamics to help the people recover. And the third pillar focuses on social cohesion, which means helping the communities that saw their social fabric disrupted by the clashes. Restoring social cohesion means to help people who left to return to their homes and communities. This of course includes managing the multiculturalism that pertains to these communities in Syria, which – as you know – is very high.
• Can you describe what that ‘practical-technical’ part entails?
We enter an area that has recently become accessible, meaning there is no active conflict in it, in order to remove the debris, collect and manage solid waste and fragments, often accumulated in a time span of three or four years. This is necessary before people can return to their homes and shops. Then, we restore the sewage system, water supply, power supply – if the network still exists – and we take action, for example by installing solar panels.
• Where is the UNDP currently present in Syria?
Our activities expand in 12 out of 14 provinces of Syria.
• How are the action plans implemented? For instance, are local people involved?
Yes. To a great extent and especially for activities like the removal of debris and the restoration of basic services. As we call it in the language of the UN, we utilise the model ‘cash for work’. Syrians belonging to the most vulnerable parts of the population, ie. very poor people, internally displaced people, women, young people, people with disabilities etc. are hired for a fixed term in activities like those I mentioned. Not only this offers those people income that they so much need, but also contributes to the programme.
• How can economic activity resume in a given area?
This is the concern of the second pillar of the programme. For example, we help people whose business or shop was damaged, pillaged or their equipment and tools were lost, or who have no money to operate. On that account, the simplest we do is offer access to resources or equipment. Another example is families who own a business or a workshop, but the man who ran it is no longer here, for reasons that we do not investigate. So we have a family business but without the main professional who had the necessary skills to operate it. In such cases, we try to help the other family members to obtain these very skills and restart the business.
• Are there sectors to which you give priority?
The selection of beneficiaries is based on scrutiny. We compare the data that was available before the war to those coming from new studies regarding the current needs and the prospect of reconnecting rural and urban areas. Allow me to use Aleppo as an example. Aleppo, as it is known, was the industrial locomotive of the Syrian economy before the war. Even today there is a great dynamic. But its industrial character was associated with the surrounding rural areas. For instance, its textile industry was dependent on the cotton produced in the greater region of Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor, Hasakah, etc. Gradually, then, we attempt to restore the small businesses and support the families. We do give priority to the sectors that appear to have the capacity to recover, in order to create as many jobs as possible and rehabilitate as many people as possible.
• In your experience and knowledge, how many displaced have returned, if so?
Last year, 2017, was a decisive one, due to the escalation of the conflict. Since April 2017, we began to collect and receive information from all UN agencies, in times when the media hardly covered the matter. There was a massive wave of returns to Aleppo, for example, that corresponds to an average of 15,000 people per week. If we project this rate to a year, we estimate the number to over 600,000 returnees. And now that we have the data in our disposal, I can tell you that only in Aleppo the displaced who returned reached over half a million. So we realise that this is an impressive case of internal repatriation for a city that had truly huge need of support.
• Is there, perhaps, an estimation of the refugees who might have returned to Syria from abroad?
In general, we do not make distinctions between internally displaced and refugees. Either way, our services embrace the community in totality. However, I know that, from the 600,000 who returned to Aleppo, 85 per cent were internally displaced and 15 per cent were refugees who returned from other countries.
• The funding available to UNDP does not exceed a few hundred million euros, from countries like Norway and Japan. They seem meagre amounts compared to the 250 billion that will be needed for reconstruction, at least according to the former UN envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura…
I would say that even the 250 billion mentioned by Mr de Mistura is a small amount and probably we would talk about 400 or 600 billion. The estimations made far so take into consideration only a part of the country and are often based on satellite images. At this point, though, I should make clear that no agency or organisation of the United Nations has any engagement in the process of reconstruction. None of our activities’ objectives include reconstruction, per se. To be precise: We will not rebuild a ruined school. But we will restore it if it has been damaged by 40 per cent, for example.
• What is the reason for that?
There is a clear directive towards all UN agencies not to engage in reconstruction until the political situation is resolved. Surely the term ‘reconstruction’ is not much different than ‘recovery’, which is the one we prefer. The reason is that, often, media publications and stories about UNDP may attack the UN, saying that the UNs help the regime to rebuild. This is the kind of criticism that we receiver, for example, during the time that we worked in the old city of Aleppo.
• But, in the context of your work, is it not necessary to at least coordinate with the local authorities?
Of course. As in any other country, there is no other way to implement a programme or action plan, especially in crisis-stricken regions, without coordination with the local authorities. A small example: to restore part of the sewage system you need the respective maps.
So, we coordinate with the authorities but we do not operate through them. In other countries, this happens, but not in Syria.
In any case, what we see is that, through our work, we help thousands of people who returned get back to their homes, jobs, reopen their businesses, reignite life in this amazing city and country.