1. Country Context
1.1 Socio-economic outlook
The Syrian Arab Republic is facing one of the world’s most complex emergencies, with unparalleled levels of humanitarian needs, significant internal and external displacement, widespread destruction of civilian and agricultural infrastructure and disastrous impacts on development gains in the country. In 2021, 13.4 million people in Syria are estimated to be in need of humanitarian assistance - a 21 per cent increase compared to 2020 - with needs increasingly being exacerbated by economic decline. Given the well-documented increase in people’s needs, including around basic services and livelihoods, as well as the new challenges posed by the impact of COVID-19 pandemic, this document sets out key areas for the United Nations Country Team to contribute, in coordination with the Government of Syria, to meet the needs of the people of Syria through multi-year resilience and recovery programming that is complementary to the large humanitarian assistance efforts.
The Syrian people continue to suffer immensely from a crisis that is now protracted and compounded in nature, although “a relative calm now exists, at least in terms of front lines not shifting for a year now.” Since 2011, countless lives have been lost, the economy has experienced an unprecedented downturn, and widespread damage to physical infrastructure, including the electricity, agricultural, industrial, health, education and housing sectors, as well as water resources, severely decimating the availability of and access to basic social services. The crisis has had a profound impact on society, with continued high levels of internal displacement , while according to the UN, 5.6 million registered Syrian refugees remain outside the country.
The government continued to subsidize basic commodities and services, particularly bread, food supplies, electricity and drinking water, and sought to maintain subsidies for all components of household support despite the economic effects of the crisis, the impact of external factors and the higher costs. The total subsidies volume was estimated at about 1,360 billion Syrian pounds in 2018, representing nearly 15% of the GDP in 2018. However, this protracted situation caused damage and deficiencies to public services in two aspects: the first is the quality of services, and the second is the gaps in coverage. The Government aims to prioritize these two dimensions in future national plans. At the same time, accredited humanitarian actors in Syria are continuing to provide direct assistance to a considerable part of the people in need, across different sectors. Over 5 million sought refuge abroad, including more than one third of health care personnel and teachers. The crisis is having particular consequences for women, many of whom have become the sole breadwinners and primary caregivers for their families, in addition to the increase in poverty rates and the difficulty of accessing reproductive health services, securing livelihoods, and food security . COVID-19 has further disenfranchised women with access to specialized and social services such as malnutrition monitoring and screening, reproductive health and responsive counseling falling by as much as 50 per cent before and during the lockdown 2020.
Children and adolescents have also experienced significant and distinct impacts. The under-five mortality rate, neonatal mortality and maternal mortality rates increased significantly since the crisis began. Likewise, Kindergarten enrolment declined from 12 per cent in 2011 to 8.9 per cent in 202110 and point at 1.90 million out-of-school children (ages 5–17), among a school-age population of about 5.52 million. Further, this prolonged period has widened the scope and scale of protection issues affecting children. Additional diverse and deep-rooted protection issues affect children, including family separations and losses, trauma and depletion of family assets and coping capacity. Separated children and refugees, and internally displaced or returning children, are more vulnerable to gender-based violence and sexual exploitation. Fear, anxiety, and grief affect their mental health. The limited social workforce is insufficient to tackle new issues emerging from the crisis.
Before 2011, Syria had achieved progress in gender equality. However, these gains have retreated, and a gender gap has deepened in terms of results and development indicators. Young women and girls have become particularly vulnerable, with increases in child marriage reported.
Hence women and girls should be put as a key priority of United Nations organizations in promoting gender equality and in changing some discriminatory practices that emerged because of the crisis.
Gender transformative programming will be applied across UN programmes, in order to tackle the causes of gender inequality, improving the conditions of women and girls in their daily lives but also improving their social position and thus paving a path towards gender equality. This will include, without being limited to, identifying the specific needs of women and girls and how gender norms affect children growing up and women and girls in their lives under the current context; girls’ education and empowerment; supporting men and boys to embrace behaviours and attitudes that promote gender equality; ensuring women and girls full participation and contribution to peace, stability, resilience and socio-economic recovery. Prioritization of female headed households will also be needed.
The categories of vulnerable people has expanded since 2011, to include new demographics,such as internally displaced persons, persons with disabilities, vulnerable boys and girls, unaccompanied and separated children, orphans, and women heading their households.
Palestine Refugees hosted by Syria pre-crisis, as well as other refugees legally residing in Syria have also been impacted.
The crisis negatively affected service delivery, already harder to access for marginalized people.
A certain number of IDPs continue to live in temporary accommodation, including collective shelters and unfinished and damaged buildings. In this context, international organisations have worked, in coordination with the Syrian Government, to provide education, food, water and medicine, in addition to logistical and psychological support to mitigate their suffering. Finding long-term and sustainable solutions to displacement, including through support for refugees and IDPs who have willingly chosen to return home, is critical to prevent humanitarian needs from deepening further.
Since 2018, with a relative increase of security and stability in over two-thirds of the territories of the Syrian Arab Republic, the Syrian government has worked to restore access to services in response to the basic living necessities, in coordination with international, local and national organisations. 1.95 million IDPs have returned between 2018 and 2020, due to “a mix of push and pull-factors, primarily the improvement of the security situation in the area of origin (stated by 80 per cent of returnees) and/or a deterioration of the economic situation in the area of displacement”. 14 Working on enabling conditions for a voluntary, safe and dignified return of refugees and internally displaced persons to their areas of residence and on reintegrating them into the life cycle and for their socio-economic reintegration is among the stated priorities of the future plans of the Syrian Government.
While relative price stability and a gradual rise in incomes had led for the first time since 2011 to modest GDP growth during 2017-2018, economic recovery has been hampered by the ongoing crisis and diverse internal and external factors. The COVID-19 pandemic has also exacerbated underlying weaknesses of the economy, further negatively affecting service provision and livelihoods in Syria. These effects need to be assessed over time, depending on the duration of the pandemic and the preventive measures taken to curtail the spread of COVID-19.
One additional important consequence of the ongoing situation is that the agricultural sector has become a principal contributor to GDP and yet remains one of the most adversely affected having suffered from climatic shocks, including drought as well as fires and flooding, and shortages of inputs (seeds, agrochemicals, tools and fuel). Farmers have been simultaneously hit by the loss of inputs imported into Syria, leading to the lack of basic requirements to boost wheat and other crops production; simultaneously, a substantial increase in prices for inputs (seeds, machinery and labour) has been noticed, resulting in an increase of the cost of production and a decline of the yields. Recurrent wheat shortfalls have, in turn, resulted in price hikes to the cost of commercial (private) bread as well as reductions in subsidized bread – with the former increasing by 325 per cent (to reach SYP 451/bundle) in 2020 alone.15 The sector has also been heavily affected by the widespread destruction of the irrigation infrastructure (estimated at USD 3.3bn in the 2017 FAO - CFSAM Damage Assessment). Food insecurity is on the rise with an unprecedented 60 per cent of the population now food insecure; while production of wheat – the main staple crop – is at 60-70 per cent of pre-crisis levels. The bulk of this is grown in areas currently outside of Government’s control (principally in the Northeast). Despite these difficulties, agriculture remains the key source of income, food security and social stability for millions across the country.
Concurrent with a renewed macroeconomic decline in 2019 and the socio-economic impact of COVID-19, the extent of humanitarian needs remains staggering. In 2021, it is estimated that more than 13 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, including over 6 million children and close to half a million Palestine refugees remaining in Syria, and the total number of IDPs stands above 6 million.16 Urban displacement has overburdened many communities, stretching already over utilized and under-resourced services further. The destruction of civilian infrastructure, depleted savings and limited economic opportunities have forced many to resort to negative coping strategies which affect in particular vulnerable people, including children, pregnant and lactating women, people with disabilities, older persons and other groups or individuals with specific needs or diminished coping mechanisms.
As mentioned, the COVID-19 pandemic has added further to the multiple challenges which Syria is facing due to the manifold crisis and has caused further decline of economic and social indexes, particularly the total estimated GDP decrease of 9.15% during 2019-2020 with increase of unemployment rates and 240% price rise since June 2019.17 Meanwhile, the “consumer’s prices index for 2010” increased from 1025.6 in June 2019 to 1900 in June 2020 and the average of workers in the micro, small and medium enterprise sector, which is considered a job generating sector and a driver of economic recovery, decreased. In March 2020, the Government of Syria and the UN agencies have started to coordinate in order to ensure the required preventive measures are put in place and to respond to COVID-19. Active control, mitigation and response measures to the longer-term impact of the pandemic will be a top priority in the implementation of the UN SF 2022-2024. Relevant specialized assessments would have to be undertaken to understand the nature and extent of the impacts on critical needs and long-term assistance.
In light of the above, the Government of Syria and the UN Country Team agree that creating enabling economic and social conditions and livelihoods opportunities and supporting basic social services and livelihoods are also key priority areas for future United Nations programs, as a necessary response to the most pressing people’s needs, and to complement its humanitarian assistance.As a final reference to the context, Syria has ratified most international human rights instruments, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which alongside the recommendations emanating from the human right mechanisms20 , constitute the basis for the UN human rights-based approach to programming in the country.