Getting Syria back to work

The Syrian government’s admission in early December that the actual rate of unemployment in the country was anywhere between 22 percent and 30 percent testifies to the depth of the social crisis the society has gone through in the last three decades. The new estimates, provided by Radwan Habib, the minister of labor and social affairs, are at least twice the previously acknowledged rate of 11 percent. According to Habib, the new findings are the result of a field survey conducted by his administration. The fact that the range is so wide — from 22 to 30 percent— raises questions on the quality of the survey, but there is little doubt that the new figures are a more accurate reflection of the situation in the job market than the previous data based on the number of people registered with job offices. According to most analysts, the Syrian economy needs to be growing by 7 to 8 percent a year for its unemployment level to stabilize. This very high threshold is a consequence of the rise in productivity and in the size of the workforce, which increases on average by 3.5 percent every year. People entering the job market today were born 20 years ago, when the population growth rate stood at above 3 percent. Meanwhile, female participation in business activity is also on the rise and increases the number of people seeking to enter the job market – currently estimated at around 200,000 per year.

Indeed, since the early 1980s Syria’s gross domestic product (GDP) has almost never been sufficient to accommodate its expanding workforce. Put another way, Syria has witnessed almost 30 consecutive years of unemployment growth. The challenge before the government — the current one or any forthcoming one — is therefore huge: How to create the conditions for the economy to grow fast enough to meet the demand for jobs.

One solution to the problem would be to focus not only on the level of growth but on its quality, on how to attract investment in the sectors of activity that are most labor-intensive and potentially generate the most added value, such as agriculture and manufacturing.

This new policy would represent a shift from the priorities of recent years, when Syria’s decision-makers focused on trade liberalization and the development of the services industry. Indeed, finance, tourism, trade and transport, in addition to real estate, have been the main engines of growth in the last few years. Although Syria has much to gain from a strengthening of its services sector, the neglect of farming and industry has cost it dearly in terms of employment, and prevented it from building a strong production base. A lot has already been written on the catastrophic performance of the Syrian agricultural sector, which suffered from several consecutive years of drought starting in 2007 and from poor policy-making decisions, including a steep increase in the price of agricultural inputs when farmers were most in need of help.

The consequence of all this has been to force tens of thousands of farmers from their ancestral lands and to reduce the contribution of the sector from around 25 percent of GDP to 19 percent in less than a decade. Free trade agreements with Turkey and the Arab world, as well as a general reduction in custom tariffs, have also led to an ‘invasion’ of foreign-made products that put countless industrial plants and workshops out of business and consequently thousands of people out of their jobs. The textile sector, one of the most labor-intensive industries, has been particularly hit by the lifting of the ban on garment imports.

The resolution of this predicament is obviously not only an economic or social issue for the government but it is also political. Unsurprisingly, many of the protests taking place across the country since March 2011 are occurring in the areas most hit by poverty and neglect, such as  Daraa, located at the center of an agricultural plateau in the south of the country, and the poverty belt around Damascus.

There must be no illusions. A happy end to the current protest movement, including the establishment of a democratic political system, will not mean an end to Syria’s economic woes. Syrians must recognize the tremendous challenges ahead and adopt a new economic development strategy that puts employment at its center.


Note: This article appeared first in the January 2012 edition of Executive Magazine