Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Working with civil society in Syria

I came to Syria one year ago to work as programme officer with UNDP in Damascus. My area of expertise lie within civil society and gender. Before arriving in Syria I was working with civil society in Nepal where the playing field is very different from here. After 12 years of civil war in Nepal the government is often non-existing outside of the major cities and civil society is filling the gaps both in terms of charity, development and advocacy. Coming to Syria the picture is quite different. At first glance it is difficult to recognise the civil society and the organisations involved within this field. However, it is there and it is very active. The Syrian civil society is characterised by being very diverse and nuanced - both in terms of geography, working areas, professionalism and community ties.

Syria has a long and proud tradition of charity based work. The country has a large number of charity organisations working with different marginalised groups in the country. Within the last 6-7 years a new trend has been noticeable. A new type of organisations are being established, namely development oriented organisations or as we know them, NGOs. These organisations focus more on long-term impacts and empowerment of people. In other words, where as the charities would give women and men a fish to eat, the NGOs are giving people a fishing pole and teaching them how to fish. Finally, there is also a growing number of advocacy NGOs mostly within the environmental area i.e organisations focusing on the rights of the people fishing.

As mentioned these new organisations have been growing steadily in number and size for the past 6-7 year. This is a very positive trend and UNDP is dedicated to support this process and these organisations. For this reason UNDP has been working with the Syrian Trust for Development, a newly established NGO in the country to develop the framework for a platform for NGOs in the country. It has been a long and hard process and we are still only at the beginning of the journey. The idea is to provide the civil society with a place to come together to network, discuss development issues and learn from each other. It is extremely important that the platform is driven by the member, that is serves their needs and that they see an added value in participating in this work. We have therefore been working hard throughout the last year talking to the organisations in the country to make sure that it is their needs that are reflected in the design of the platform.
In December we had a large national dialogue workshop with 30+ organisations participating. After an introduction of our work and surveys conducted on civil society in Syria the participants broke into working groups to discuss what they needed from a platform catering to NGOs. The outcome has now been formulated into a 3-year project we are hoping to initiate in the spring.

During these 3 years we will be setting up the actual platform including membership criteria, organisational structures and applying for legal registration with the government. Additionally, the platform will be offering several services identified by the members themselves. First and foremost, we will concentrate on establishing networks for the organisations to participate in. A network can be focusing on specific developmental issues such as women’s rights, environment, etc. This all depends on the interest of the members. The NGOs can then come together to discuss how to address these issues and learn from each other. Civil society in Syria is very scattered and diverse. Often they are not aware of the work or even existence of other organisations working within the same field or in similar areas. During our many meetings with organisations last year including the national dialogue this came out very clearly and already several ties between organisations have been established in informal ways. Establishing networks for the NGOs to get together will be very beneficial to the members of the platform.
Finally, the platform will work with developing the capacities of the organisations. As with many newly established organisations the NGOs in Syria is often characterised by a few persons getting together with a interest in making a difference in their community. The will and interest is there but often there is a lack of capacities to do the actual project management, to report back to donors and to apply for the funds. The platform is hoping to be able to address this issue through capacity building activities and the establishment of a grant clinic.

All in all, it is a very exciting project. The past year has been very interesting in terms of having the possibility to work with these organisations and learn more about the situation of the organisations and the challenges they face as well as the opportunities that are present now. It has been hard work to develop this new 3-year project and we have often had to change certain things based on the input we received from the organisations. Based on this process however we are certain that the project developed is based directly on the needs and wishes of the future members of the platform.

As mentioned this is only the first step on a long road. It is well known that in Syria nothing happens overnight and just like Rome was not build in one day neither will this platform be. The next 3 years will be interested and exciting. I have one year left in the country and will not be able to follow the project all the way. However, this is the life of a development worker and hopefully the platform website will be up and running within this year and I will be able to follow the process online from wherever my next job will take me.