Page last updated at 16:26 GMT, Sunday, 24 January 2010

Is Syria ready to engage with NGOs?

By Lina Sinjab
BBC News, Damascus

A fruit juice seller reads a newspaper in Damascus. File photo
The concept of civil society is relatively new to Syria

Syria is trying to send a signal that it is ready to engage with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and development groups in order to promote a more active civil society in the country.

At this weekend's conference in Damascus which drew many international delegates, Syria's First Lady, Asma al-Assad, called on Syrian citizens to become more engaged in addressing the country's social and economic challenges.

"The government is partnering with these organisations [NGOs] … to try and develop the best development strategy for the country. It is part of a broader approach to development, clearly based on the idea that one party cannot do it alone," she told the BBC.

The concept of civil society is relatively new to Syria , where the government has long exerted tight controls over the involvement of non-governmental organisations in Syrian life.

More broadly, Syria has been governed under a state of emergency which gives the security forces sweeping powers since 1963, when the ruling Baath party seized control . Freedom of expression and association are severely curtailed and hundreds of people are imprisoned for political reasons.

The country has a small number of functioning NGOs in comparison to neighbouring nations: around 1,500 compared with 5,000 in Lebanon.

But their number is increasing, according to the Syrian government.

"This represents a political will. They wouldn't have increased, otherwise. They wouldn't have been involved or encouraged to be involved in sectors previously not encouraged," Mrs Assad says.

'Crucial role'

The keynote speaker at the conference, Lord Mark Malloch Brown, who is a senior advisor to the World Economic Forum, says that the region as a whole faces a "gathering storm" of societal problems, with poor economic growth, high unemployment, and low levels of education.

Asma al-Assad

"Civil society should be a partner to the state and indispensible part of the development process," he says.

In 2007 under the chairmanship of Mrs Assad, the Syria Trust for Development was established to work on rural development, female empowerment, and the promotion of Syrian culture.

The first lady believes that such organisations are playing a crucial role in areas that were previously perceived as the role of the government alone.

"Most importantly is the role these organisations are playing and the change they are influencing on the ground," Mrs Assad says.

'Real change'

Some are sceptical that the Syrian government will genuinely allow independent organisations to develop within the country.

Rami Khouri, director of Isam Fares Institute for Pulic Policy in Beirut and a delegate at the conference, said that that though the event was an important signal, only time would tell whether real change would happen.

"This is a moment where civil society and private sector have to challenge [the government] in a positive way to see how far the government is willing to open up the space."

And some local organisations still find it hard to operate in Syria.

Mayya Rahabi, co-founder of a committee to defend women's issues, says she doesn't believe there is real civil society in Syria.

"We applied for the registration three years ago and we haven't heard an answer," Mrs Rahabi says.

The Syrian government is working on new legislation that - it claims - will make it easier for people like Mrs Rahabi to operate.

"I am hoping that this conference and this new law will allow us to operate freely - that real change will come, not just words," Mrs Rahabi says.

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