Syria “Training” Republic.. workshops on building a civil society in exile

The establishment of the first known civil association in Damascus dates back to 1880, and much water has passed under the bridge since then. The current Syrian authorities, upon taking power around four decades ago, quickly worked to empty Syrian civil society of any meaning and subject it to the long arm of the security bodies, or contain it by establishing affiliated institutions dressed up as civil groups, known as GNGOs. Meanwhile, the activities of more than 80 percent of authorized Syrian organizations and associations are restricted to charitable work (compared to 53 percent in Lebanon).

With the upswing in popular protests beginning in 2011, voluntary civil associations sprang into existence, trying diligently to bridge the gap generated by the government’s blockade of their work and the interruption in basic services. They were active in nursing, sanitation campaigns, relief, and media services. The activists quickly became a preferred target of the oppressive authorities, and were later targeted by the violations of extremists classified as anti-regime. Some estimates put the number of Syrian civil organizations at around 2,000, both inside the country and abroad, but they exhibit low levels of efficiency and expertise; they lack clear administrative organizational structures and also compete for resources.

Moreover, everyone continues to suffer as Syria’s nascent civil society moves from the era of government-imposed weakness to one of militarization, caused by the revolution. It has been a painful jump and the impact of the shock remains visible for everyone to see. This has required “training” activities, represented mainly by the many workshops that are announced, seemingly around the clock. These workshops are trying to compensate for the lack of expertise, develop individual skills and create new, institutionalized structures.

Lebanon is one of the countries that has hosted a large number of such training activities, especially as the UNHCR updates on a monthly basis the numbers of refugees registered with the agency (currently at 832,000), while independent or conflicting numbers, all taken together, put the total number at around 1.5 million people.

However, many questions are being asked today about the efficiency of these training activities and the strategies of the groups organizing them. This came in for particular criticism by Akram, one of the many Syrians who have taken part in a number of training workshops. “About the only benefit we get from the workshops we take part in is networking,” he says. “I meet other Syrians and we have been able to form relationships that later lead us to joint activities that have little to do with the goals of the training session that brought us together.” The 30-something Akram, who finished university studies and found himself in prison for anti-regime activities, doesn’t hide his annoyance with “the lack of any organizing strategy for these training activities.” “The working projects that were suggested turned into individual projects,” he says, concluding: “It seemed like there’s no need for these workshops, since no one is left in Syria.

The activists who do remain there are now unable to move around. Where were all these training activities during the first two years, when there was still room for civil work?” Jean Corse, a Lebanese trainer and the director of the International Center for Organization Development (ICOD), has a different opinion when it comes to the usefulness of training, although he agrees with Akram about the lack of strategy and coordination. “Yes, things are always changing in Syria,” Corse says. “But our response as a civil society organization should take this into account, and we should be dynamic. What we need to do, when we’re talking about transferring skills, is to undertake a contextual analysis upon which we build our  response. Our goal is to develop individual capacities so that these people can carry out this analysis, and not just offer direct assistance. Capacity building is a developmental goal, and not a purely relief-related activity.” As for the lack of coordination among training institutions.

  Corse acknowledges that when he used to work as an international relief coordinator, there was practically “no coordination,” before adding that “the poor coordination applies to other sectors when it comes to the situation in Syria.” “This is one of the problems that we’ve suffered from in other countries as well. There are sessions that are repeated, and no oversight. We’re nowhere near the required level of integration, or where we should be when it comes to reducing the gap between the reality and our objectives. If some parties exploit these sessions, we don’t recognize them, and most of the people we work with know this.” For Akram, another problematic issue lies in the readymade models that some rich countries try to pass off on Syrian trainers. He cites the example of distributing food parcels in some parts of Syria, containing large quantities of rice. It appeared that this was based on a training model taken literally from the international relief efforts after the tsunami of 2005.

Corse disagrees with this, saying, “We don’t want to work according to pre-conceived agendas or programs, whether from the west or the east.” “Even when it comes to benefiting from other lessons, such as the Lebanese case, for example, we should pay attention to the fact that the local context should have the highest priority” he says. “A change in the data requires us to change the nature of the response. We always need experts from the region and the only expert in Syria is the Syrian people. Naturally, Syrians should examine other experiences and form their own opinion. What we’re doing is empowering people from the country with the skills needed to perform the tasks, and not undertake these tasks on their behalf.”

Akram insists that spending an informal evening with friends who are serious about their work can take the place of a training workshop costing thousands of dollars in a Lebanese hotel. However, Corse states firmly that, based on his experience, the trainings do have long-term development dimensions, and that the objectives of institutions committed to this approach aren’t just about trying to bring Syrians to Lebanon. “But since we can’t be present in Syria, our focus is to train Syrian trainers who can carry out these humanitarian missions themselves in their own areas,” he says.

Published in Peace Building - UNDP

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