Hubs and Bubbles: Syrian civil society after a decade of conflict

The 2021 round of mapping has seen significant changes in the Syrian civil society landscape. A significant reduction in violence since the previous phase has enabled more Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) to emerge. The environment is now defined by distinct civil society hubs that are marked by the various territories.
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This research paper is based on the analysis of Phase IV of the Mapping Syrian Civil Society Organizations project conducted by IMPACT Research. Data for this round was collected between 2020 and 2021. The report is a continuation of previous mapping rounds conducted in 2015 (Phase I), 2016 (Phase II), and 2018 (Phase III).

Executive Summary

Despite significant changes in their operational environment, Syrian Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) continue to play an important role since the last survey was completed (Autumn 2018). Since then, the level of violence and combat operations receded, the economic crisis worsened and the region was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. On the military and political control level, Syria’s map, which before 2018 was dotted with different zones of control, became divided along three main lines—the northeast, the northwest, and government-held Syria. These divisions, along with the aid regime that has parallel responses in each region, largely frame CSO work. The territories dictate CSOs’ ties to each other and to international organizations.

This report is based on data collated in summer 2021 through a mapping of civil society organizations whose main activities or head offices were in Syria. In total, 767 CSOs participated in the survey, 90% of them headquartered inside Syria. 249 CSOs participated from government-held areas, 218 from Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) held Idlib, 61 from opposition-held northwestern Syria that is under de facto Turkish control. 96, 58, and 68 CSOs from parts of Raqqa, Deir Ezzor, and Hassakeh that are under the control of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AA/AANES). Due to restricted access, the so-called “Peace Spring” areas under Turkish control were not included. Below are some of the key findings:

Key findngs

Hubs
  • Many Syrian CSOs and international organizations operate out of local or regional hubs. While Damascus is the unequivocal hub in government-held areas, Gaziantep in Turkey plays that role in the northwest. In the northeast, the image is more complex. Local CSOs are mostly concentrated in the cities of Raqqa, Hassakeh, and Qamishli, whereas international organizations are congregated in the relative safety of Syria’s northeastern tip.
Minimal overlap between territories
  • Syrian CSO ties to each other, INGOs, and UN agencies are largely confined to the de facto boundaries of the three political projects. About 1 percent of the 767 CSOs implement projects in more than one area of control.
More CSOs
  • Since 2018, the number of newly established CSOs grew significantly. This is largely due to the contraction of ISIS and the subsequent proliferation of new organizations in parts of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor that are under the Autonomous Administration’s control.
Registration
  • There is a high tendency for official registration of CSOs, except in Idlib, where about 40% of 218 CSOs reported not having registered anywhere.
Small in size
  • Surveyed CSOs are mostly small with 30 members or less and reported strong reliance on project-based temporary employees and volunteers.
Dominated by men
  • Organizations with no women members constitute a small minority, except in areas in northwestern Syria that are under Turkish-backed forces. Nonetheless, men make up the majority of most CSOs.
Complex structures
  • A large number of Syrian CSOs have relatively complex organizational structures. At least half reported securing grants from large donors, which require strong institutional capacity.
Budgets and funding
  • Only about 50% of CSOs reported their budget figures. The total reported amount was strikingly small relative to the scale of the Syrian response.
  • Some 20% of all CSOs reported relying only on donations to secure funds while 55% reported that one of its three main sources of finance is donations.
Area of work
  • The most common work domain for CSOs (51% of them) is humanitarian aid and social services, followed by development work (49%), education, (36%), and health (35%).
Scale of CSO response
  • CSOs implemented some 2800 projects in the year that preceded the survey, which equals to about 4 projects per CSO.

Recommendations

To international stakeholders

Humanitarian and development aid

Donors are encouraged to continue to balance between humanitarian aid meant to meet basic and emergency needs and development aid that invests more in the long term given. In all parts of Syria, both kinds of support are needed. 

Increase direct funds to Syrian organizations inside Syria

The data shows that the percentage of funds that reach local Syrian CSOs is trivial in comparison to the overall budget. Main donors (EU/UN/USAID) are encouraged to diversify their benefactors inside Syria and increase their numbers.

Practice caution in financing informal CSOs in government-held areas

While informal CSOs that operate in government-held areas manage to escape the rigid rules and regulations of the central authorities either by working underground or with an informal agreement with it, such CSOs undertake considerable risks when receiving financial support from outside. The Government of Syria is highly suspicious of informal networks operating beyond its control. Authorities have tried to eliminate such networks or incorporate them into their ruling apparatus. Caution should be exercised to ensure the sustainability of networks and the security of CSO members.

Support internal development and growth

Most Syrian organizations are very small. To help Syrian CSOs grow, become more professional, efficient, and able to implement large projects, large donors are encouraged to support internal development by, for example, providing core funds. The larger and more professional the Syrian CSOs, the bigger their impact will be on the ground.

Fundraising

Despite the fact that raising funds is an issue for many organizations, very few have fundraising departments. As explained in the report, this could be because this practice—as done in the west—was not common in Syria. Donors who focus on capacity-building are encouraged to help Syrian organizations to train and hire fundraisers and establish fundraising departments.

Research

Donors are encouraged to support research on civil society organizations including the collection of quantitative data and field-based research which would help map Syrian CSO activity and understand the rapidly changing environment around them. In the humanitarian research domain, donors are encouraged to support and train CSOs to conduct assessments on the impact of humanitarian and development aid, including rigid monitoring and tracking systems.

Hubs, not bubbles

While local and regional hubs are crucial for organizing aid work, large donors, INGOs, and Syrian organizations that are concentrated in large regional or local hubs should be careful to not turn the hub into a bubble, which limits interaction to those physically located in the hub, and where informal relations flourish. This may come at the expense of organizations that do not have easy access to the hub

Improve legal environment

International donors and local authorities are highly encouraged to improve the legal environment to facilitate CSO work and support them not only to implement humanitarian and development projects but also think, write about, and advocate for issues related to social change, state-society relations, political power, and authority.

To Syrian CSOs

Diversify sources of finance

Syrian CSOs are encouraged to continuously look for new sources of finance and diversify them as much as possible. This applies in particular for some 28% CSOs which reported relying exclusively on donations and some 20% percent exclusively rely non-Syrian organizations. While the first category is encouraged to invest in skills and capacities that could help them access international aid funds, the latter category is encouraged to invest in raising private funds locally, from Syrian diaspora or non-Syrian sources.

Women empowerment

The data suggest that Syrian CSOs give considerable attention to “women” as a target group and “women empowerment.” However, men still dominate the CSO landscape in Syria. This in particular applies to parts of the northwest that is under the control of Turkish-backed forces about 50% of the CSOs surveyed have no single woman in their ranks. CSOs are encouraged to develop women’s empowerment within their own ranks.

Research and data gathering

Syrian organizations are encouraged to work with relevant data, and train staff to do so professionally, given that accurate information helps better plan and execute projects.

Advocacy, alliances, and access

CSOs are encouraged to form alliances and advocate for their cause. In areas outside government control, only one-third of the organizations that participated in the survey—that’s 185 out of 518—reported being in an alliance. Such channels for coordination and networking could help CSOs advocate for a common cause locally and internationally. It could also help share experience and better access to funding resources.

View the full list of Syrian Civil Society organizations

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