Rules-based, citizen-led recovery in Syria

May 14, 2015
Gregory J Wilson and Zane Kanderian
Bread distribution in Syria

Aid programming in fragile and conflict-affected environments is often hamstrung by the assumption that state systems always break down in conflict environments. This limits programming in areas where there are humanitarian operations, which are normally designed, managed and delivered by external parties and thus rarely start the process of rebuilding state systems or ‘state-like’ systems.

Our work in Syria over the last 18 months proves otherwise. Contrary to received wisdom, it is possible to begin early recovery and development in the midst of conflict. Recovery can be locally led and managed. There is an alternative to externally designed, managed and delivered humanitarian operations; this alternative can pass on the task of rebuilding society to the people best placed to do so – affected communities themselves.

In designing the programme, we dismissed the assumption of a complete breakdown of state systems, as in reality this is almost always untrue. Complete power vacuums only occur briefly, during the transfer of power from one dominant actor to one or several alternatives. Ungoverned space simply does not exist for very long. Revenue collection systems are often very quickly re-established or reformed. Public services quickly resume, provided either by armed actors, eager to assert their authority, or through organisations that are able to garner the resources together. What does break down is the monopoly of the state’s core powers and functions: tax collection, service delivery and the use of force. In effect, what develops is competition between different ‘state-like’ systems.

This was our starting point for the design and delivery of TAMKEEN, a UK and EU funded programme that is intended to support emerging governance structures in opposition-controlled and contested Syria. It was informed by a year of research into Syrian conflict dynamics, which helped to demonstrate to donors, diplomats and opposition figures in exile that there were many competing governance actors working within communities. Attempting to pick the ‘most legitimate’ local council within such situations was only going to create more tension and conflict within communities, thereby potentially worsening the conflict and delaying the rebuilding process.

Instead, we developed a more iterative and adaptive approach to programming. Our approach didn’t fix upon particular governance actors but instead sought to establish good governance principles and practices. Over time, these principles and practices could be absorbed into the governance structures that emerged as competition reduced and a monopoly – at the local level at least – was re-established. Donors had to abandon their plans to support particular actors and emerging institutions and, instead, accept that the politics were so complex and fluid that an ‘emergent’ strategy would be more appropriate. See Mintzberg, H. Quinn, J. B. Ghoshal, S. (1999) The Strategy Process. Prentice Hall. London, p.15.

The evolving situation in Syria

Where governance structures linked to the Assad regime have receded over the course of the last four years, a multiplicity of local governance structures have emerged, varying in legitimacy and competence. The scarcity of resources, the capture of supply routes by military groups and the unreliability of provisions all served to distort local council formation and empower the few that could secure the safe transit of aid. In some cases, multiple councils have emerged, with the resulting tension leading to a further breakdown of social cohesion and even to the emergence of ghost councils set up simply to receive international funds.

In other areas, communities have organised effectively, in some instances nominating representatives by consensus or through electoral means. However, despite instances of effective organisation, these emerging institutions are inherently fragile. Their legitimacy is highly dependent on their access to resources, which can be compromised by volatile security conditions or international sources withdrawing their support. They are also fragile due to the absence of experience within Syria of participatory forms of governance; furthermore, marginalised or vulnerable groups are rarely represented thereby accentuating the legitimacy gap.

The response in such circumstances of desperate need is, as one would expect, the expansion of humanitarian support where possible. Yet despite the vast sums being spent on humanitarian aid –the UK has now committed £800 million to help those affected by the conflict, the EU has committed €1.017bn – the obstacles presented by the scale and nature of the crisis mean there are large areas humanitarian aid cannot reach.

How TAMKEEN responds to the situation

The TAMKEEN Project builds basic service delivery mechanisms based on good governance principles that can be adapted to work under the aegis of a single, dominant local council or through a committee on which competing local councils can be represented. It does so by:

  • Assessing stakeholders, including the current legitimacy and capacity of newly emerged Local Councils and other service delivery mechanisms
  • Forming temporary committees TAMKEEN Committees (TCs) to plan and deliver basic services under the sponsorship of the newly emerged governance and service delivery structures
  • Developing a set of simple, flexible project options based on primary and secondary research in the communities
  • Supporting the TCs in:
    • identifying community priorities through public meetings and finding local experts to produce project plans/proposals
    • procuring services using transparent financial management mechanisms and publishing all financial documents online or discussing in public meetings
    • visiting project sites and monitoring project implementation
    • evaluating project performance using a wide range of inputs from the community

The above serves as a model for effective governance of service delivery that can sit within the emerging governance structures and influence how service delivery is conceived, perceived and received by communities. In brief, the above process mimics a participatory budgeting process by which communities can identify their priorities and work collaboratively to rebuild systems at the local level that would normally be provided by the State.

A further innovation is that the Project synchronises the budget cycle across all the communities with which it works so that they can, at some point in the future, form part of a provincial or even a national budget. The objective is to develop sustainable structures that can withstand the ongoing conflict through increased resilience and thus be better placed to support transition in the event of a brokered peace agreement.

Early results

The project was reviewed after the first cycle of intervention (9 months) by two independent assessors. The following provide just some of the interesting conclusions:

The project is creating a “buzz” about good governance. This is evidenced by other local entities (councils and NGOs) recognising the benefits of good governance practices and requesting involvement with the programme. Financial management, consultation and transparency appear to be aspects demanded by communities (as evidenced by results from the community interviews, see below). There is anecdotal evidence that well-placed stakeholders are aware of TAMKEEN and are talking positively about its values and approach;

Case Study: Commitment to good governance

One Community in Northern Idlib implemented a local census. It shows the commitment of Syrian people to good governance, even during a war where there are urgent competing needs. Another TAMKEEN committee was able to restore the public water supply of the town and establish a revenue collection office that makes the service fully sustainable, at the cost of less than one dollar per head. Equally two communities established education offices in their local councils, one community established a pharmaceuticals facility for Aleppo city and one TAMKEEN committee established a wheat fund in Rif Damascus. Such a large impact at low cost offered value for money for all stakeholders.

The project is not only spending money, it is spending it well. The programme spent $2.2m in disbursed grants in 18 communities. Despite sending money through informal channels (e.g Hawala systems) into conflict-affected areas, no money was lost. In addition, TCs largely procured items from within Syria, with some TCs procuring hundreds of items through a variety of suppliers, thus keeping investment local;

The project is having impact beyond service delivery. By being locally embedded it gives autonomy to local actors, demonstrating that local actors can successfully prioritise, plan, execute and report on projects to the satisfaction of their communities. Unlike most humanitarian programmes – which purchase goods from external economies through external agencies – the Project makes its more likely that primary benefits (i.e. the services being delivered) are appropriate to the needs of the community. The project also yields secondary benefits to the local economies, where many of the goods are sourced, and local institutions, which learn about management of service delivery through the project cycle.

The project has thus far avoided creating parallel structures. Local Councils, as members of TCs, do not report feeling undermined and community interviews show citizens think TCs helps legitimise Local Councils. Indeed in a number of communities, local councils have started adopting transparent financial procedures, posting financial reports online and participating in monthly public meetings with TAMKEEN to discuss their performance. In one case where the local council had struggled to gain legitimacy after twelve months of TAMKEEN implementation the community put significant pressure on the local council to adopt TAMKEEN’s approach to good governance including financial governance transparency and participatory planning.

The approach is appropriate. Adopting a process-driven approach that brings together governance and service delivery is proving to be adaptable and an effective way to build governance capacity and local resilience. Building governance capacity would not work without the carrot of $100,000 grants and clear procedures for implementation, which is widely appreciated by the TCs. The process has worked to varying degrees depending largely on whether there is active conflict and whether skills are available in communities. It has adapted to rural and urban areas, besieged areas and even survived the displacement of a whole community. In the cases where TAMKEEN communities have been displaced they have maintained the mechanism and processes within their new settlement;

Positive community feedback. Field Officers (FOs) have conducted community interviews as part of the end of cycle evaluation and general perceptions of TCs have so far been positive. Six Local Councils in Idlib that were not working with the Project have requested training in the Project’s financial management systems. The Local Council in one of the communities we work with in Aleppo Province demanded that a Women’s Training Centre, being established by another implementing agency, be developed using TAMKEEN’s project management processes. In another community in the same province, the Local Council was close to being closed down by the community before the TC provided training to the Council members on how to organise public meetings and provide information on what it was doing. More generally, there appears to be a general correlation between satisfaction levels and TCs that delivered a range of services to communities. Furthermore, TCs were overall considered to have helped increase the legitimacy of Local Councils.


In order to increase the effectiveness and value for money of aid budgets in conflict-affected areas, evidence suggests that more alternatives to simply humanitarian support should be made available. These options might include:

  • Handing over more responsibility for project identification, design and monitoring to local communities in appropriate situations;
  • Promoting rules-based, citizen-led recovery by local governance structures that have proven local legitimacy;
  • Paying more attention to legitimacy, authority and representativeness as well as capacity;
  • Keeping procurement local wherever possible;
  • Ensuring adaptability in the field, handing a good deal of responsibility to local staff, while practicing iteration with regard to successful ‘tried and tested’ methods of intervention.

Whilst stabilisation at the national level ultimately relies upon reaching a grand political settlement and peace agreement, local settlements and accommodations can allow local recovery efforts to prosper, bringing local people into decision-making processes in a way they have never previously experienced. What is really needed is a flexible, adaptive approach subject to constant updates as new information, experience and research evidence emerges. This is a real learning process.

Gregory J Wilson Phd is an Independent Peace, Security and Development Adviser. Zane Kanderian is Director of Afghanistan, Middle East & North Africa for Adam Smith International.


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