[FULL TEXT] Salamah to SIDA Development Forum: Engage Syrian Civil Society for Sustainable Development


[Stockholm, 17 October]

I had the great honor of delivering the opening speech for the Swedish Annual Development Forum, held by the Swedish Agency for Cooperation and Development (SIDA) on Monday, 17 October.



Hej allihopa, jag är mycket glad att vara här idag! Jag skulle gärna prata svenska men jag vill inte att ni ska bli kvar här hela morgonen, därför tar jag det på engelska

February 2013, in a dark and snowy day I arrived to Sweden. It has been already around 4 years now. Time, is commonly believed, to heal all wounds, except for exile, time is a curse and a constant reminder of what one has left behind.

In the case of Syria, Yemen and many other war-ravaged countries, time is the most brutal of enemies. It continuously highlights the failure of the international community to protect civilians and day after day how devoid are our international instruments and human rights conventions. These instruments become worthless when war crimes and crimes against humanity become the norm and are perpetrated by UN members states, including Russia – a permanent member of the very body that is charged with upholding the law, the UN Security Council; and when there is no political will to enforce our hard-fought-for international laws.

Because of these failures, bodies of Syrians, Yemenis and others are being annihilated and trapped under the rubble of their regime’s or international coalition’s’ airstrikes.

The ongoing brutal war raged against Syrian civilians by their own government and other non-state actors has resulted in more than 470.000 deaths. This is a figure painstakingly verified by Syrian rights groups, and is undoubtedly conservative – the real figure is likely far higher. 11.5 % of the entire Syrian population of 23 million have been either killed or injured (that is 2.5 millions). The rest, 7 millions are internally displaced. Total economic loss up to the end of 2015 has been estimated at over $250 billion according to the Syrian Center for Policy Research. According to the center, the unemployment rate reached around 53% by the end of 2015 with around 3 million losing their jobs during the war.

When peace is not on the immediate horizon, we need to turn to civil society, in Syria particularly and elsewhere. In many of its publications and projects; SIDA recognizes the critical role of local organizations in democratic transition for instance through its partnership with The Arab Institute for Human Rights. Building on that recognition and on the ambitious regional strategy for the agency in the Middle East for the years 2016 – 2020, I come today with some 4 key points inspired by the views and practices of the Syrian grassroots civil society inside and around Syria:

1) Protect civilians

In Syria, there will be no end to the bloodshed until external actors stop the indiscriminate killing of civilians.  It is only then that aid and development will begin to be aimed at repairing the damage and building a sustainable future, rather than simply desperately trying to manage the fallout of war.  Protection is the first step to saving lives.  And it is the best route to a political solution.

2)  Involve Syrians in shaping policies at the earliest stages

Learning from our day-to-day reality for the past 6 years, the Syrian civil society is best placed to determine the priorities of the environments we operate.

So if we want to move towards sustainable societies, we need to move away from the treatment of Syrian civil society as an implementing partner. Instead, we should be seen as a partner in the conception, design and implementation of polices. Often, with our local partnerships, we are capable of creating new areas of work about which the international community might not be aware. For example, the mixed books clubs in North of Syria. Kish Malek (Check Mate) a Syrian organization in the north of Syria started gender mixed book clubs, although the environment is relatively conservative, there was a room for social change and breaking the cycle of segmentation. Donors are usually hesitant towards such projects but local organizations could sense the possibility of such progress.

3) On funding and sustainability: Contribute to the construction of a healthy and self-sustaining civil society.

We are already witnessing “the Syria fatigue” creeping into funding plans of many major donors. We need long-term investment in civil society, not 6 month projects that rarely lead to real societal change. According to ongoing research by Citizen for Syria, every year between 2012 and 2015 at least 130 civil society organizations were established in Syria; in 2016, it was the figure was only 13. We hope that Sweden’s regional strategy for development cooperation with the Middle East will take a long term approach.  According to the excellent research of the Syrian expert Rana Marcel Khalaf  civil society in Syria is treated more as a “project” with strict indicators, deals and deadlines, when working under conflict necessitates building relationships of trust with a community over time and often has to cover the direct needs on the ground to gain local legitimacy”.

Rana also found that “money available is mainly directed at large, often international, NGOs”.  But creating the kind of local relationships that can help generate more sustainable and balanced civil society requires a different approach.  So we hope to see more investment into alternative and innovative modules of funding.

4) Greater focus on education, especially inside Syria

I remember when I arrived to Sweden I was constantly busy figuring out how to come back to education. Many young men and women and children inside Syria have the same need; albeit bombardment and other hardships; education remains one of the most required services in Syria. Therefore, part of our focus should be directed towards working inside Syria and not only in its neighboring countries.

Many  donors are still trapped in the mentality of “relief as a priority”. Relief is undoubtedly crucial – but we mustn’t allow it to become a focus at the expense of other critical needs inside the country, such as education.

For example, there is very strong appetite for projects on women and peace building. This makes some sense at first sight. But neither peace building nor women’s empowerment happen in a vacuum. Many women won’t be able to take part in the projects aimed at them when they can’t send their children to school.  This is precisely the kind of problem that my colleagues face in Syria when they work with donors that don’t adopt a holistic approach to development. We need policies and programmes that target every single member of the family (1).

And we should not lose hope in areas where we think extremists have gained ground. For instance, in the north of Syria and following the takeover by extremists of large swathes of territory, funding into education programmes quickly diminished. But this just provides space to the radicals to enforce their fanaticism.  It is precisely in the areas where radicals have won ground that we need to focus greatest effort to deliver effective and creative education programmes – that is the frontline against extremism.

As an illustration, when radicals took over Kafernebel in the north, they were confronted with a strong and well-established civil society lobby there who managed to strike a balance. In contrast, in other areas, the extremists were able to fill a vacuum, provide services their way, leaving the population with no other option but to take the services on offer. We need as often as possible to cultivate and provide an alternative to what the extremists have to offer.

Last but not least, and in the light of the difficult moments we are living, we must also celebrate the success. I want to express my gratitude to many Swedish donors who supported the funding of holistic approaches to development. SIDA’s contribution together with the Olof Palme Center, and Tahdir (preparing leaders for Syria in three vital sectors: urban planning, local administration and the reform of the military and policing sectors) have been a great investment. And, a couple of weeks ago, the Syrian civil defense (also known as the White Helmets) were awarded The Right Livelihood Award, commonly known as the Alternative Nobel Prize. These have been some of the great contributions of Sweden.  And I know that we can expect much more to come.

Men en gång till Tusen tack.


(1) Sawa for Development and Aid in Lebanon has been a pioneering voice in the design and implementation of holistic modules in development work. Further reading.

The writing of this speech would not have been possible without the invaluable input of  Marcell Shehwaro (Kish Malek – Check Mate), Hozan Ibrahim (Citizens for Syria), Mariah Al-Abdeh (Women Now for Development), Rouba Mhaissen (Sawa for Development and Aid) and the indispensable research of Rana Marcel Khalaf about the Syrian civil society. Last but not least; the constant feedback of Aya Chebbi. However, any mistake or contradiction within the text is my responsibility.

Salim Salamah,

17th of October 2016

حاكيني وخود الغلة !

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