Syria facing worst economic crisis since start of civil war

The country has been hit by war, an earthquake and huge inflation

Foreign investment is vital if Syria is to survive the worst economic crisis since civil war began 13 years ago, an aid worker has warned.

Nicole Hark, country director for Syria for Edinburgh-headquartered charity Mercy Corps, said the country is suffering the worst financial hardship it has seen in recent years and said charities in Syria need to "change the narrative" around the war-torn country to encourage investment from outside.

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Average wages there have dropped to around $15 (£12) to $20 a month, from closer to $100 just four years ago amid soaring inflation, while the population is also battling with water scarcity, record levels of food insecurity, and increased prices of basic goods.

Mercy Corps is working with people in Syria during the worst economic crisis since the war began.Mercy Corps is working with people in Syria during the worst economic crisis since the war began.
Mercy Corps is working with people in Syria during the worst economic crisis since the war began.

Meanwhile, the country is struggling to recover from the devastating earthquake which hit its northwest earlier this year. Ms Hark said people found the natural disaster harder to come to terms with than the conflict, amid a feeling that they had been "forgotten by God".

The quake, which measured 7.8 on the Richter scale, killed around 50,000 people in southern Turkey and northeastern Syria, while destroying thousands more properties.

"We've got past those first couple months where it was regular aftershocks and that fear of it happening any moment,” Ms Hark said. “But I do think people still live with that in the back of their minds. Certainly, they have such a visual reminder.”

She said some people whose homes were so badly damaged by the earthquake that they have been forced to leave them, still travel back every day to the site of where their property used to be.

"How do you recover from that when you have such a tangible reminder of what you've lost?” she said.

In the northeast of Syria, where Mercy Corps’ aid efforts are focused, damage from the earthquake was minimal, but Ms Hark said it had still hit people hard, psychologically.

"There wasn't a large amount of physical damage, but it was interesting psychologically,” she said. “One of our team members described it that before, during the conflict, people always felt like: ‘God is on our side, God will take care of us, God will protect us’. They had this mentality that life is very difficult, but God is with us.

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"The earthquake was the first time that people really felt like God is not with us, he has turned his back on the Syrians. If a natural disaster shakes people's faith, and the foundation of that, that is somewhat harder to overcome than plastering the side of a wall that has a crack from the ground shaking.”

Inflation has hit prices and the currency has dropped in value. With over 90 per cent of the population living below the poverty line, many people cannot afford basic social services such as health care.

Meanwhile, local farmers are struggling to afford to buy seeds to plant crops and pay for equipment to irrigate fields and work the land, meaning the amount of locally-produced food has reduced.

Mercy Corps, funded by EU Humanitarian Aid, is providing multi-purpose cash assistance to 7,854 vulnerable people in northeast Syria to support them in meeting their basic needs. Those eligible for aid are given $120 a month over a six month period to help them get back on their feet.

"We definitely haven't seen anything this severe before in terms of day to day ability to cover basic needs, there's this constant struggle,” said Ms Hark, adding that enough vegetables for two days’ meals at a local market can cost $3 – more than a fifth of a monthly salary. “Earnings locally are low, then when you add that the cost of food is going up significantly, and the exchange rates continue to climb, it’s impossible.”

"The challenge is that it doesn't necessarily seem like something that will ameliorate over time with climate and water issues. There's normally sort of some political solutions or a change in seasonality: something that you say, ‘OK, in five, six months, this will potentially turn around the economic situation.

"But so much of this is tied into the broader kind of geopolitical dynamics and how Syria recovers and how the economy actually improves without significant sort of private sector engagement or market development.”

The Syrian conflict began in 2011, as part of the Arab Spring uprising, which saw protests against governments across the Middle East.

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However, it soon descended into full-scale civil war between the Syrian Arab Republic led by president Bashar al-Assad and domestic and foreign groups opposing both the government and each other. Millions of Syrians have since been displaced, some within the country and others to neighbouring countries such as Jordan and further afield.

Ms Hark believes external investment is necessary to help stimulate Syria’s economy.

“There's still quite a perception of Syria as a war zone,” she said. “So it has limited private sector investment and limited companies that are willing to invest because of the risk. We and others have certainly tried to encourage more of that local market development and you do see some donors investing more in trying to drive private sector growth, invest in some of those businesses and working together.

"That is the most viable path forward in terms of how we get there, because until there's a political solution, we won't be seeing large changes in terms of the overall kind of economy for Syria.”

University student Ward Shan Salama, 29, suffered serious leg injuries in a mortar attack on her home city of Raqqa, in northeast Syria, five years ago. Ms Salama, who lives with her parents and brother, had to have repeated surgeries over an 18 month period.

The assistance she has received from Mercy Corps has enabled her to continue treatment to continue her journey to be able to walk again..

“The assistance I and my family have received has been good,” she said. “I have paid for many treatment expenses, in addition to other expenses for my family’s needs, and it is helpful because it is every month for six months.”



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