Syria and the Middle East hold urgent painful lessons for development

Published on 8 June 2016

With the Syrian Mission to the United Nations recently approving the delivery of humanitarian aid to a number of beseiged areas, new research highlights why aid to Syrians in the Middle East is not working. The article forms part of a collection which both challenges existing approaches and understandings of the links between conflict and development, and highlights the important and urgent lessons the Middle East hold for development.

The recent World Humanitarian Summit acknowledged that “the current international humanitarian system can no longer adequately address today’s humanitarian crises”. With conflict, unjust governance and fragility at the heart of many humanitarian crises, the Middle East holds particularly important and urgent lessons for those working in emergency aid, and in development more broadly.

In a recently published article in the IDS Bulletin Ruptures and Ripple Effects in the, Dawn Chatty highlights how “humanitarian assistance coupled with an unsustainable policy of regional containment have only created greater poverty and misery for Syrians fleeing civil war.”

Focusing on Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, Chatty points to the “disparities between perceptions, aspirations and behaviour among refugees, practitioners and policymakers in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.”

Her article highlights three such disconnects:

  • the ahistorical approach to engaging with displaced people in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, which has led to the implementation of international blueprints of humanitarian support that are disconnected from people’s needs
  • the imposition of an encampment policy at odds with displaced people’s need for temporary settlement enabled through their own social networks
  • the redundancy of humanitarian practitioners’ background and experience in dealing with the particularities of displaced populations in the Eastern Mediterranean, and the failure to build on practices that work.

The protracted nature of the Syrian conflict has directed international and local organisations’ attention to the ‘lost generation’ of school-age Syrian refugee children. Shelly Dean’s article examines the factors that shape formal, non-formal and emergency education provision, and addresses accelerated learning and best practice provision to help the next generation of Syrian refugees thrive.

She argues that “the education deficit among Syrian refugees will undoubtedly have profound negative impacts for economic growth and regional security in the future. Addressing this deficit is not only a duty in and of itself, because education is a fundamental human right, but, crucially, the provision of high-standard, good-quality education is also of critical importance to the building of a post-conflict Syria, and the long-term stability, security and economies of its neighbouring states.”

Violence and politics in Egypt

Taking Egypt as a case study, Akram Alfy’s article Rethinking the Youth Bulge and Violence finds no positive correlation between youth movements and violence per se. Instead, he concludes that “a constellation of factors…made the youth bulge predisposed to resorting to violence in the post-2011 transitional period, most notably the high percentage of education among young people, and the sizeable proportion of youth who migrate to the city in search of employment.”

Magdy Rezk’s article digs deeper into the political economy of violence in Egypt, probing behind the faltering liberal economics generating increasing poverty and unemployment, and argues that it was “Egyptian citizens’ perception of the political dynamics behind the economic situation that drove them to revolt.” In 2011 it was “intolerable levels of corruption”, and the prospect of their continuation under Mubarak’s son, Gamal, and in 2013, the “scale of disappointment at the unmet promises for economic betterment”.

Ali Bakr’s article challenges the mainstream narrative on Islamist movements and violence in the Middle East. He writes that “contrary to analysts’ forecasts of a ‘post-Islamist age’, one of the ripple effects of the Arab Spring was actually the revival and proliferation of Islamist movements on a grand scale”.

Bakr also challenges arguments that radical militancy has arisen at the expense of democratic politics through the emergence of counter­revolutionary forces. Instead, he argues that the Arab revolts in fact created the political and security environment that allowed radical Islamist movements to flex their muscles.

The “Rojava Revolution” – an alternative model for development in the Middle East?

Can Cemgil and Clemens Hoffman, by contrast, analyse the extraordinary social and political ‘experiment’ is taking place amongst the Kurds in Rojava, northern Syria.

Drawing on the social anarchist philosophy of Murray Bookchin, which inspired the intellectual and strategic transformation of the Kurdish Liberation Movement (KLM) after imprisoned Kurdish political leader Abdullah Öcalan read his work, the Rojava Autonomous Administration (RAA) is in the process of implementing a “democratic self-administration and confederalism, a form of stateless democracy.” At the core of its emerging social and political system are the principles of subsistence, autonomy, locality and sustainability – even though these are being pursued within the context of complex geopolitical alliances and war.

In their article, Cemgil and Hoffman share unique insights into how Rojava has come about and how the RAA functions, with reflections on its future.

8 Myths of Conflict and Development

This unique collection of articles is introduced by Jan Selby and Mariz Tadros, who ask “what does the contemporary Middle East tell us about development, and its relationship with conflict?” They reflect that the region and its politics represent a significant challenge not only to Western policy, but also to many established ideas about the ‘conflict-development nexus’.

Selby and Tadros identify eight myths of conflict and development, some specific to the Middle East; others more “global” myths that regional developments contradict. They cut across a great deal of academia, policy and practice, and provide underpinning assumptions for development thinking and interventions, even when they are only implicit.

All these articles are free to download and are distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original authors and source are credited.


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