Charitable Organisations and Welfare in Syria: From Ba’thist Etatism to the Outsourcing of Social Responsibilities

Aleppo Syria, 13 Mar 2017. Photo by Mohammad Bash for Shutterstock_Dossier_CERI

The sixth chapter of Syria’s Tenth Five-Year plan (2006–2010) starts as follows:

Historically, civil and volunteer activities have played an eminent role in building social solidarity through different development stages of the Syrian society. However, adopting welfare state and central planning policies, where government supervises everything during the past period, has much reduced the NGO’s role, constricting it to charity work.

Written with the support of the United Nations Development Programme and the German Agency for Technical Cooperation, this plan outlined in 2005 the new “vision” of Bashar al-Asad’s Syrian state. With regard to the role assigned to civil society, this “vision” consisted in a clear rupture with a not so distant past: while in the era of Hafiz al-Asad (1970–2000) attempts to establish a welfare state and centralised and repressive statist policies reduced the voluntary sector to highly restricted, localised and supervised charitable work, Bashar al-Asad’s Syria aimed to promote “a new social contract” based, at least according to the official narrative, on “partnership”. In this new context, the “participation” of social actors in the country’s development process and in the field of social welfare provision was, for the first time, called for. Indeed, whereas in the 1970s the Syrian regime had made the State’s assumption of social responsibilities a tool for development and a means of legitimisation, the economic transition to the “social market economy” promoted by Bashar al-Asad in the 2000s implied a new and increased role for charitable associations.

In this short and schematic contribution, I will look at the transformations of welfare in Syria through the prism of charities. Following a chronological order, I will first reflect on the dialogue between charities and welfare in the second half of the twentieth century. Then, I will show how, after several decades of paralysis, charitable work re-emerged under Bashar al-Asad’s rule, in a context of deteriorating and overcrowded public services that illustrated the weakening of the welfare state. To finish, I will turn my attention to the process of the “privatisation of the state” that was implemented in this new setting with the contribution of charities, which became the substitute structures of public institutions.

I will argue that Syria moved from a statist model of welfare management in the period of Hafiz al-Asad towards a model based on the outsourcing of social responsibilities (“décharge de l’Etat”, in Béatrice Hibou’s [1999] words) in the 2000s. By implementing this change, the regime of Bashar al-Asad failed to uphold the terms of the social contract inherited from his father which, as in other Arab states, was based on the State’s provision of social welfare and development in exchange for the population’s renunciation of political participation. By “social contract” I mean here not only “an institutionalized bargain among collective actors” but also “a set of norms or shared expectations about the appropriate organization of a political economy in general” (Heydemann 2007). This paper is based on fieldwork undertaken in Syria from 2007 to 2010, as well as on the ensuing PhD dissertation and book published with Karthala (Ruiz de Elvira 2019).

Charitable Work and Welfare Provision in Syria in the Twentieth Century

Charitable work dates back to an old tradition, both Muslim and Christian, strongly rooted in Arab societies. In Syria, charities’ formation goes back to the end of the Ottoman period (late nineteenth century) while their densification began during the French mandate (1920–1946). In the post-independence period, namely in the 1950s, they strongly increased, further diversified their activities and expanded the scale of their action. This development was the result of the excitement and liberalism that followed the proclamation of the country’s independence in 1946. Syria was then under construction and private and local initiatives, to which the State granted a large room for manoeuvre – or even encouraged – multiplied. Likewise, this unprecedented growth of charities can be interpreted as a sign both of the absence of a strong State and of the resulting political instability.

However, when the Ba'th Party took power and declared a state of emergency in 1963, the new regime began a process of bringing civil society “into line” and the expansion of the Syrian charitable sector stopped. This process took place in a context characterized by strong statism where public institutions flourished, income gaps narrowed and the principle of egalitarianism was favoured, thus directly calling into question the very principle of private social assistance, which became an anachronism (Pierret 2011). Charities’ work therefore declined, although it never disappeared completely. In the health sector, for instance, where charitable work is usually particularly active, their action became minimal. The regime made state control of health a tool for development as well as a means of legitimisation: health was then conceived as “an asset that the state provides to society” and as a “mechanism for the redistribution of wealth” (Boukhaima 1997). All these dynamics were further reinforced in the 1980s, when Islamic protests endangered Hafiz al-Asad’s regime and were crushed in Hama in 1982. Some charities linked to religious figures where then closed while other were nationalised. For example, the al-Nahda al-Islāmiyya network (the Islamic Renaissance) saw its local sections transformed in 1983 into Makātib al-Ri' āyya al-Ijtimā' iyya (Social Assistance Offices) (Pierret and Selvik 2009).

To sum up, before 1963 there was a burgeoning Syrian civil society in which charities played an important role. Associations—generally run by members of notable families or by religious leaders—were relatively autonomous. Furthermore, in the post-independence context, the incapacity of the ruling elite to build a broad-based social contract and the absence of a “strong state” favoured local and private initiatives. Their expansion was however halted and reversed when the Ba'th Party came to power and started building new state institutions. The social contract evolved towards a more populist model, in which state institutions and corporatist unions became the bodies responsible for implementing the Party’s socialist and state-centered developmental politics.

The Rise of Charities in Bashar al-Asad’s Syria

With the arrival of Bashar al-Asad into power, in 2000, Syria entered a “post-populist” era (Picard 2005; Hinnebusch 2012) characterised by lasting transformations, in the context of a readjusting state and liberalising measures towards a “social market economy”. Indeed, despite a real increase in their budgets, public institutions could no longer meet the needs of the population. This difficulty was exacerbated, amongst other factors, by population growth and a corresponding rise in the demand for social services.

Against this background, charitable associations were encouraged by the regime, as long as they did not actively pursue a political agenda. Significantly, the al-Nahda al-Islāmiyya network, whose local sections had become “Social Assistance Offices”, regained in 2003 its private status, its name changing to al-Jam'iyya al-Khayriyya li-l-Ri' āyya al-Ijtimā' iyya (the Charitable Association for Social Protection). Consequently, their number augmented, especially in Damascus and Aleppo. According to official numbers, they represented in the year 2008 more than 60% of the whole associative sector, while in other countries of the region they were far less numerous. Likewise, the volume of their services increased in this period. The Sunduq al-‘Afieh (the Health Fund) for instance, a charitable project of the Damascus Charities Union, experienced a spectacular evolution: the number of beneficiaries increased from 536 in 1997 to 4,455 in 2006. Because of this initiative, during one decade 29,823 sick people had their medical care paid for (with 60,000 surgical treatments carried out), at a total cost of 953 million Syrian pounds (some 17 million USD). In the same way, the number of beneficiaries of the Sunduq al-Mouwwada wa-l-Rahma (the Love and Mercy Fund), a fund that also depends on the Damascus Charities Union, increased from 44 in 1999 to more than 550 in 2007.

Hence, these charitable structures became in the 2000s key actors both within the Syrian civil society and within the field of social welfare provision. The health sector is particularly eloquent in this regard. Indeed, charitable associations active in this field were not new, since they appeared before the 1990s. However, at the end of the century, and particularly in the 2000s, they were “solicited once again by the political authorities, which had until then tried to neutralize their action and limit their autonomy” (Boukhaima 1997). As Fouad Mohamed Fouad and Wassim Maziak put it: “while the public health sector presents itself as the guarantor of the health of the poor, the private sector contributes greatly to the health system, accounting for 49% of all expenditures” (Fouad and Maziak 2007: p. 291). Arguably, Syrians preferred to go to private hospitals rather than to public health structures, which were perceived as decrepit, even if the latter were cheaper. To be able to pay private rates, friends and families sometimes organised themselves into informal self-help associations. As for the most vulnerable, they were forced to turn to the growing number of clinics and charitable hospitals that offered medical services at symbolic prices—whereas in 2010 the cost of a medical consultation in the public sector neared 500 Syrian pounds, the price in the charitable sector was only 50 pounds.

Charities and the Outsourcing of Social Responsibilities

After four decades of statist socialism, the rapid growth of charities in Syria was the most visible proof of the “revival” of the ethos of charity as well as of the reconfiguration of welfare provision. The latter was also illustrated by the “association agreements” that were established as part of the new “managing the poor” policies. Through these agreements, the maintenance, management and often financing of certain public institutions—like schools or health centres—passed into the hands of charities. For example, the Qaws Quzah association, founded in 2002, signed an agreement with the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor to manage the only public Damascene orphanage. Similarly, the charity Jam’iyyat al-Bustan al-Khayriyya (1999), founded by Rami Makhlouf (Bashar al-Asad’s cousin) in the city of Latakia, signed several agreements with the Ministry of Health.

This new logic of transferring social responsibilities, which took the legal form of a “partnership”, was justified by the authorities by the will to offer a better service and to share the cost of social spending. The activity of charitable organisations thus appeared to be an effective means of “offloading” the financial burden of certain social services, at least partially, from the State.

Charitable associations were no longer conceived as dangerous counter-powers for the preservation of the stability of the regime, as in the time of Hafiz al-Asad, but rather as supplementary structures of public administrations that the State had to supervise and discipline and, if needed, repress. Furthermore, the limits between public and private became blurred, which is a sign, according to Hibou (1999), of an increasing “décharge de l’Etat”. Instead of fully retreating, the state outsourced costly services to private actors while maintaining control over these fields of action through informal, sometimes clientelist, arrangements. These agreements were indeed concluded, for a certain amount of time, with associations directed by figures close to the regime.

Concluding Remarks

The processes described above reflect a shift from a social contract that had favoured civil servants and peasants towards a more limited social contract, which increasingly concentrated on urban, middle-class professionals and businesspeople. Indeed, the larger the role of charities became, the more visible it was that the regime had abandoned the old social contract; even if charities had been capable of mitigating Syria’s rising poverty, by 2010 the retreat of the state from social services was obvious. Although the State certainly remained the dominant agent of redistribution and the main provider of social welfare, non-State actors became increasingly important in ensuring economic growth and social welfare provision to a growing and impoverished population. Moreover, this implied the shift from a universal right granted to the citizen by the State to a specific aid granted by a private institution to a person “in need”. At the end of the day, this generated discontent among the regime’s previous social base, as demonstrated by the spatial distribution of protests during the early uprising in 2011, which concentrated in small towns and in the suburbs of big cities.


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Cover image: Aleppo Syria, 13 March 2017. Photo by Mohammad Bash for Shutterstock

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