Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Significant Demand for Microfinance in Syria


December 2009
DAMASCUS, Syria  Traditionally, banks do not provide financial services to clients without resources, meaning with the word resources little or no cash. Banks work for a profit and if a client does not guarantee them with an asset, it would be a very risky business for the banks to incur in some cost without a sort of insurance in relation to their activity. Microfinance can be defined as the provision of financial services to clients with very low income, including in this category also consumers and self-employed that normally do not have access to financial resources.

In the past centuries, different movements have tried to provide low-income people with financial services. Among them it is worth to remember the Franciscan monks, who in the fifteenth century founded the community-oriented pawnshops; then the members of the European credit union movement in the nineteenth century and lastly the founders of the microcredit movement in the 1970s. One of the founders of the microcredit movement is today's well-known Dr. Muhammad Yunus (2006 Nobel Prize for Peace), a Bangladeshi economist turned into a banker who has developed the concept of microcredit.  In 1976, in Bangladesh, Dr. Yunus founded the Grameen Bank, a microfinance institution and community development bank that makes small loans to poor people without requiring collateral. In the last thirty years relevant progresses have been implemented in the field of microfinance but the big problem is how to help those who earn less than $1 per day, especially those living in remote rural areas.   
In the Syrian Arab Republic there is a huge demand for microfinance, but this demand is only partially satisfied. In fact, according to a 2008 report ( by the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (C.G.A.P.), a policy and research center based in Washington D.C., just 41,500 out one million of potential estimated microfinance clients in Syria are obtaining today microfinance services.

In February 2007 the Syrian government introduced the General Microfinance Decree (Syrian Legislative Decree No. 15), which is the first of this kind in the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa). This legislation is important because it mirrors an important opening of the financial markets. The aim of this decree related to microfinance is to help the large portion of the population who is poor and probably also part of the Syrian middle class in order to have greater access to financial services (in other words, to give financial access to low-income and unbanked people). The decree authorizes the Credit and Monetary Council (C.M.C.) of the Central Bank of Syria to license Social Financial Banking Institutions (S.F.B.I.s) with the target of providing microfinance services like micro-lending, deposit-taking, and micro-insurance to the poor people. In particular, the decree would try to regulate all the microfinance actors like banks, S.F.B.I.s and N.G.O.s, and all the different models of action like charities, relief-oriented microfinance and S.M.E.s lending in order to get a very inclusive approach, capable of really helping the unbanked population of Syria. Decree No. 15 is the first and unique Syrian law related only to microfinance. Previous laws were not specifically linked to the issue of microfinance. It is worth noting that Private Banking Law (No. 28 for the year 2001) and Islamic Banking Law (No. 35 for the year 2005) permit to private and Islamic banks to implement all of the kinds of banking activity including also microfinance. The S.F.B.I.s are all registered as commercial companies. And for this reason, article 13 of the Microfinance Decree requires that all of the S.F.B.I.s have to be governed by Commerce Law (Law No. 149), which dates back to 1949. In fact, in the eventuality of a legal contrast between the Microfinance Decree and Commerce Law, the former shall prevail. The S.F.B.I.s should follow reporting requirements very similar to those set for normal banks. In fact, an audited balance sheet and a profit and loss statement have to be submitted to the Central Bank of Syria following the international accounting standards.   
Until now the most important actors in the field of microfinance in Syria have been both the state and the N.G.O.s. But it should be clarified that the Aga Khan Development Network (A.K.D.N.) is the only real provider of microfinance in Syria and the only one big player. In addition to this, there are very limited microcredit lines thanks to the United Nations Development Program (U.N.D.P.) and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (Unrwa), which both obtain funds through their parent institutions. The latter is serving Palestinian refugees in the cities of Damascus and Aleppo. Two local non-governmental organizations the Fund for Integrated Rural Development of Syria (Firdos) and Boosting and Inspiring Dynamic Youth Achievement (Bidaya) are also developing microcredit facilities. Firdos gets 60 percent of its funding from the European Union (E.U.) and the United Nations (U.N.), while the remaining 40 percent comes from local corporate social responsibility of Syrian institutions. Previously, the most important public microfinance provider was the Agency for Combating Unemployment (A.C.U.), but thanks to the Legislative Degree No. 39 of 2006, it has been transformed into the Development and Employment Commission (DEC) and will no longer provide credit. It will just service the agreed loans while its main task will be to provide job skills, training and employment opportunities. As it will be explained below, on the public side, today in the field of microfinance, the basic public institution is and will probably be Savings Bank. 

The A.K.D.N. started its operation in Syria in 2002 under a framework of cooperation agreement with the Syrian government. In fact, in 2003 the Aga Khan Agency for Microfinance (AKAM) — the specific agency within the A.K.D.N. that works with microcredit — began to grant the first loans. Now this agency has been denominated the First MicroFinance Institution (F.M.F.I.) and has seven branches in the country (located in: Damascus, Tartus, Lattakia, Aleppo, Hama, Suweida and Maysaf). This agency has been capable of handing out more than 60,000 loans for a total value of 3.76 billion of Syrian pounds($80 million). Since 2007 this has been the most important microfinance operator in Syria. Moreover, it is interested in broadening its actions implementing up to 20 branch offices. The maximum amount for loan that the agency may offer is 141,000 Syrian pounds ($3,000). It charges a flat rate of 1 percent a month. By the end of 2010, AKAM would like to have a lending portfolio of $43 million and to cover all the 14 provinces of Syria with more than one office in the two big cities of Damascus and Aleppo. 

CGAP-Characteristics-and-Indicators-For-the-Five Primary-Microfinance-Providers-in-Syria-2008

In addition to external actors, there is also the microfinance action built up by the Syrian government through the state-owned Savings Bank. In 1968, the Syrian banks, which had been previously nationalized after the Ba’ath Party came to power, were reorganized into six state banks. One of them was the Savings Bank (the smallest of the state banks), that up to 1999 had been just a postal savings bank (with an average deposit of $950). In 1999, this bank was converted into a full-fledged bank with lending operations starting the following year. The bank since then has been quite successful and has considerably expanded its reach in Syria. In particular, this bank has decided to incorporate in its services also microfinance tools.  The experimental project of this bank started this year in the cities of Lattakia, Tartous and Homs with loans for a total of 15 million Syrian pounds ($319,150). The aim of this project is to help people to be able to own a small store. The people covered by this initiative are those who do not have survival problems and who can think of starting a commercial activity. According to the general manager of the Savings Bank, Haifa Younes, his bank will be in a privileged position because Syrians still prefer to deal with governmental banks. Savings Bank would like in the next four years to get around 33,000 clients with an offer of different loans ranging from 9,000 Syrian pounds ($190) to 1.5m Syrian pounds ($ 31,915). The bank will also have the so-called “My Lady Loan” that is specifically implemented for housewives.

Apart from the successful results of AKAM and the other agencies (at the level of S.F.B.I.s, N.G.O.s and state institutions), other operators are interested in microfinance and are planning to develop additional microfinance operations in Syria. Among them there is the Arab Gulf Program for the United Nations Development Fund (Agfund). This is a Saudi-based non-profit organization that was established almost thirty years ago in 1980 by Prince Talal Bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud. It is interested in developing mainly rural areas, distributing in five years up to 360,000 loans through a net of around 40 branch offices in Syria. Dr. Muhammad Yunus is also a partner in this enterprise.

The road for Syrian microfinance is not easy. In fact, there are at least four big issues to be tackled in the near future. One of the biggest hurdles will be to convince clients looking for Islamic banking products that microfinance is sharia-compliant. At the moment sharia-compliant microfinance is almost inexistent totaling less than 1 percent of the global market. A possible solution could be to explain clearly what microcredit is. In this way it could be possible to point out that the microfinance institutions are not accepting interest rates, but that what they take are just collective service charges in order to have additional funds to distribute later to other eventual clients. Another problem is that there are more people that want a loan than the available loans, an issue that will only be partially deflated given the additional microfinance providers that are interested in entering the microfinance market in Syria. The third issue is that in Syria it exists a big black or shadow economy. This is a huge problem on both sides of a microfinance transaction, the one pertaining to the bank and the one related to the client. In fact, the bank if it does not have an official working transcript from the client cannot provide him/her any loan, while the latter many times does not want to produce any paperwork and in this way renounces to the possibility of obtaining a microfinance loan.  Last but not least, providing microfinance loans is a very time-consuming activity and it requires a very well trained staff. Nowadays, it is not easy to find this expertise in Syria as it is also recognized by all the most important bank managers operating in the country, both in relations to microfinance and to the other classic sectors of the banking activity.

In order to continue to develop the microfinance sector in Syria four additional activities could be implemented by the main actors:

  • Training and awareness building. Through this it could be understandable for all the actors that it exists a commercial viability for microfinance in order to help the poor people and in the same time it could be built up locally the capacity to regulate and use microfinance tools in accordance to globally accepted good practice norms.
  •  Networking. Linkages between local, regional and international bodies are of paramount importance in spreading good practices and general know-how, facilitating transparency and encouraging innovation based on local realities.
  •  Alternative models for microfinance. Among them there are at least three main possibilities. The first one is to have greenfield microfinance banks. Given the potential size of the microfinance sector in Syria, there is room to grow the sector through greenfield investments. The second possibility is bank downscaling. The rationale for this is that downscaling could permit banks to really better interact with the local realities to which the microfinance loans are mainly addressed. The third possibility is instead the adoption of the bank servicing model as a very viable alternative to the N.G.O. approach. The bank servicing model will enable a private sector approach of managing microfinance portfolios, while in the same time capitalizing on the strengths of both the private and public sectors of the bank activity.
  • Technological innovations. Technological innovations in the microfinance sector could be of basic importance with reference to increasing operational efficiencies and expanding it to very remote areas of Syria.

If well carried out, these four activities will strongly help improving the results of the microfinance sector in Syria with the final target of integrating the country into the global microfinance industry.   
This paper has been republished by C.G.A.P. Microfinance Gateway

Monday, December 7, 2009

Comment — Damascus' December 2009 Bus Explosion

December 7, 2009

DAMASCUS, Syria  On the morning of December 3, 2009, an explosion occurred to a bus parked at a gas station in the Syrian capital Damascus. According to Syrian officials three people died in the accident, which was due to the explosion of a probably damaged tire while it was being pumped. The Syrian interior minister, Said Sammour immediately ruled out the possibility of a terrorist attack ("There was no terrorism factor behind the bus incident", he said) and he explained that the three dead people were the bus driver plus two gas station workers who were inflating the tire. The minister added on the Syrian TV that the bus was carrying a group of Iranian tourists, but at the moment of the blast the pilgrims were not on-board. Damascus hosts the Sayyida Zeinab Mosque, which is dedicated to the granddaughter of Prophet Muhammad and is one of the most important worship places for the Shiites. In fact, in every season of the year this area of Damascus  around ten kilometers out of the central part of the city is invaded by Iranian buses transporting thousands of Iranian pilgrims.

Source: AP

The bus explosion took place while Saeed Jalili, the chief nuclear negotiator of Iran, was visiting Damascus for meetings with Syrian officials. Syria is the most important regional partner of Iran and the two countries are linked by thirty years of good political relations. Immediately after the explosion and well before the declarations of the interior minister, the common idea was that what happened was probably the explosion of a bomb.

 Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

The images of the blast showed a bus badly damaged in its rear part with clear signs of fire. In addition to this, several witnesses suggested that it was not a tire explosion, but the explosion of a bomb that killed at least six people and caused some damages to the nearby buildings. One report from the Al-Manar TV (managed by Hezbollah) claimed that the blast was caused by a gas canister in a passenger's luggage. Reuters was told by one of the witnesses that body parts were scattered around the bus. A member of one of the Western embassies, speaking under condition of anonymity, had the opportunity to see the damaged bus and explained that according to him a tire explosion would have never being capable of damaging so badly the rear part of a bus. So it is quite possible that, instead of an exploded tire, the accident occurred because of a rudimentary bomb.  What is interesting to point out is that the images broadcast on TV were all related to the body of the bus with no general view of the areas around.

Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque: Exterior  (A. BACCI, 2009)

After a few days, here in Damascus, no one talks at least publicly anymore of the accident, which in the news it is not mentioned anymore. In general, Syria is a very safe country with very tight security controls; a place where bomb explosions are a rare event. All this said, it's true that in the last years something started to change for the worse with reference to acts of terrorism  regarding normal criminal actions Syria is still today a very safe country. As the British newspaper The Guardian says “until recently Syrians were used to seeing such blasts on their television screens rather than on the streets of their own cities, which they considered a rare stable point in the Middle East”. In fact, Syria in recent years started to be hit by bomb attacks. As a simple remainder, in 2008 three important terrorist attacks happened in Syria.  In January, General Mohammed Suleiman, a high-ranking aide to President Bashar Assad was killed in the city of Tartus, in February happened the assassination of Imad Mughnyah, a high-ranking military commander with Hezbollah (some said that it had been the Mossad to kill him), while in September a car-bomb attack on a security complex close to the Damascus airport killed 17 people and injured 14. The latter attack was attributed to a Sunni Lebanon-based Islamist group linked to al-Qaeda. In addition to these main events, both the U.S. and Israel have completed in the last years some raids against targets in the Syrian territory. For instance, three explosions alongside the Israeli raid on a suspected nuclear facility in 2007 and the late 2008 U.S. attack on the eastern border of Iraq.

Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque: Internal Decoration (A. BACCI, 2009)

All these accidents with no doubt risk derailing the process of escaping international isolation, a position in which Syria has been confined for the last decades.       

Assuming that the bus the explosion was not accidental and was due to a bomb, it is not easy to identify the possible culprits. In fact, there are at least four hypotheses, all having a certain degree of probability.  They are:

1) Internal or external Sunni extremists linked or sympathizing with al-Qaeda. They hate Shiites, they hit in the past and they always try to create problems to the Syrian government.
2) Israeli Mossad. In this case the Israeli intelligence service wanted to send a signal to the Syrian authorities. In fact, the explosion happened in the same moment when in Damascus there was Said Jalili, who is the Iranian chief nuclear negotiator.
3) Palestinian factions separated from the Syrian intelligence services.
4) A possible fight between different members of the Syrian security services.   

Of these four hypotheses, probably the first one is the most plausible. The Syrian authorities are really scared by the dangers of Sunni extremism. The father of Bashar Assad destroyed Sunni extremists in the 1980s. In particular, on February 2, 1982, the day of the Hama Massacre, the Syrian Army bombarded the city of Hama, which was at that time a stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had started to wage an armed rebellion against President Hafez al-Hassad. Between 7,000 people to 40,000 people died and large areas of the old city were destroyed. After the Hama uprising, the Islamist insurrection was defeated, and since then the Muslim Brotherhood has operated in exile while other factions surrendered or slipped into hiding. Now, there are signs that the movement is rising one more time. At the same time, Shiite power increased in Syria thanks to the Iranian influence and Hezbollah, although it needs to be underlined that Syria’s Shia population is very small, i.e., around 13 percent, of whom many are the not very religious Alawites.

A good possibility is that the bus explosion may be linked still in relation to hypothesis A, to locally based militants who operate independently of external militants or powers. This possibility is well supported by the fact that the explosion was very rudimentary. Syria in the last years has facilitated the passage into Iraq through its borders of Sunni combatants desiring to fight in favor of the Iraqi insurgence. These people going back and forth from Syria to Iraq now strongly criticize two points: Syria's alliance with Iran (a Shia country) and the rapprochement with the West that President Bashar Assad is trying to implement. Within hypothesis A, the involvement of external forces is less credible because Syria has recently obtained positive successes in international politics and has partially escaped its decades-long international isolationism. Not long ago, Syria has implemented a d├ętente with Saudi Arabia (with which the relation were quite strained only in 2008) and in addition to this, in Lebanon the newly formed government now includes pro-Syrian elements. In other words, the possible involvement of external backers for terrorist attacks in Syria has decreased during the last year.    

All this said, it is true that following the bloodshed events of the last two years, it's understandable the fears that President Assad and the government have in relation to the future Syrian political development. In the short term the Syrian regime may use the explosions of the last two years to bring about two actions. First, Syria could portray itself as a victim of Sunni extremism and, thanks to this stance, it could continue to march through the international political rehabilitation path. Second, it could control, in an even stricter way, its own Syrian population. Instead, the problem may linger in the long term, when it will be completely understood that this tough and harsh way of governing Syria is providing good results with reference to petty crime but no positive results at all in dealing with terrorism. In fact, Syria is becoming more and more like a chessboard where different radical groups risk fighting one another. A good idea could be for President Assad and for the government not to rule by force but to develop a political strategy involving all the different Syrian groups. With no doubt a very daunting challenge.  


Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Syria & Higher Education: A Battle to Win

October 7, 2009

One of the most important issues that the Syrian government has to face urgently is how to strongly increase the level of higher education (or tertiary education) in the country. In fact, the current university facilities are absolutely inadequate for a growing number of people demanding a university education. Syria has a population of around 18.5 million and around 36 percent is aged less than 15 years. This means that in the coming years more and more young Syrians will demand higher education courses. The aim of this article is to describe the current situation of the Syrian educational system with a specific attention given to tertiary education.

Notwithstanding the fact that Syria is a low-income country it has a good educational system. And in the last ten years the government has increased the expenditure in order to provide a better and improved educational system. As a good example it could be considered that, in year 2000, 12.6 percent of government total expenditure was allocated for education, while after just five years the percentage was raised to 15.7 percent (in the MENA region the percentage is around 18.3 percent). According to data provided by the World Bank, (W.B.), while in 2000 total expenditure for the education stood at 35 billion Syrian pounds, this amount was more than doubled in 2005 when 4.3 percent of G.D.P. was allocated for education. 

Syria in the Human Development Index is ranked 105th out of 179 countries, but it is important to underline that it is one of the very few Arab countries that obtained the result of providing universal primary education. In 2004, the literacy level stood for young people aged 15–24 years at 92.4 percent. 

The Syrian Ministry of Education has the responsibility of supervising the educational system and of deciding the curriculums and targets of the teaching activity. In specific, the ministry has to provide educational services to all of its 14 directorates in the governorates. The 14 directorates are the bodies materially responsible for the schools in their governorates.

The Syrian educational system is based on the old French system. Education is given free of charge in public schools and it is mandatory up to the 9th grade.

There are three levels of school:
  • 1st to 4th grade: Basic Education Level I (mandatory)
  • 5th to 9th grade: Basic Education Level II (mandatory)
  • 10th to 12th grade: Secondary Education (not mandatory, it is equivalent to high school in Western countries). 
In 2007, the student population was around 8 million students, with 4 million enrolled in basic level I, 1.4 million in basic level II and 2.3 million in tertiary education.    
At the end of 9th grade all students have to take the final exams. Their results will decide whether students are entitled to attend general secondary schools or technical secondary schools. In fact, Syria has a large number of students attending the so called technical and vocational training. These vocational schools are: industrial schools (for males), agricultural schools (for males), craft schools (for females), commercial schools (for both males and females) and science schools (for both male and females). The vocational system is particularly rigid and there is no possibility to go back to general secondary school. Instead, students that go to general secondary schools at the beginning of the 11th grade have to decide whether they want to study in the literary branch or in the scientific branch.

At the end of 12th grade students have to pass the baccalaureate and also in this case according to their results it will be decided which university the student will attend and in particular which his/her faculty will be. This system is called Mufadalah.  It's probable that some students will be forced to study at faculties they do not like. The tradeoff is that the fees are really very cheap ($70 a year, all included) for students with good marks. Instead, if students do not get good results with their baccalaureate exams they may still enroll in a faculty, but they have to pay higher fees ($1500 to $3000). In addition, are now being created private schools and colleges, but, as it will be examined below, fees are much higher. 

In 1966 it was established the Ministry of Higher Education with the specific task of supervising the scientific and educational institutions. In other words, the ministry has the supervision over universities, academic councils, the Arab Language Academy and educational hospitals. The majority of public universities in Syria follows the French model of higher education with a three-stage system.
  • The first stage is the license, which is awarded after four years to six years of study according to the different fields.
  • The second stage is the DEA or DESS, which requires one year to two years of study after the license. 
  • The third stage is the doctorate, which requires three years to five years of study after the DEA or DESS.

Three are the main problems affecting the Syrian tertiary education and they are all linked among them. They are:

A) Too many students for too few universities
B) Providing quality assurance mechanisms
C) Almost free tertiary education

A) Too many students for too few universities  The most important challenge that public universities have to face urgently is the impossibility to physically accommodate and to guarantee high standards of quality to an always-increasing number of students requiring tertiary education. At the University of Damascus it is quite common to have 2,000 students to 3,000 students, who all want to attend the same lecture, which is normally given in classes that can physically accommodate a maximum of 500 people. In the period,  from 2003 to 2007, the number of students requiring higher education increased by 50 percent and this problem will be worsening in the following years given the fact that 36 percent of the Syrian population is now aged less than 15 years. At the University of Damascus in 2008 there were 120,000 students. It is indeed a huge number. Moreover, it should be considered that the body of students it is not well balanced among the different faculties. In fact, that there are some departments, like the English and Arabic language departments inside the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, that are hugely overpopulated. Domestic policies are trying to push some students to enroll in the faculties of engineering and medicine, but when at secondary schools many students choose the humanities track then for them it is a natural choice continuing to study literature once they are at the university. 

In the year 2008-2009 the universities accepted 264,550 students (these figure were released by the magazine Shabablek and the Ministry of Higher Education. For just five public universities, it is indeed a huge number and for this reason the public universities have started to apply some measures in order to cope with so many students. Two solutions have been: introducing multiple-choice exams and canceling some research sessions. It's manifest that these are not real and long-lasting solutions.

In order to reduce the overcrowding, the Syrian government is moving toward a very drastic decision: limiting the number of people admitted to tertiary education. As a result of this action, at the University of Damascus in the last two years students have decreased by 10 percent each year. This is a tough decision, which is compensated by the intention of increasing the number of the teaching staff. At least an increased staff will improve the student-to-staff ratio. This has been possible through a recent decree issued by President Bashar al-Assad. This law permits to top students in every area to be immediately appointed as tutors without the usual selecting process, which is normally the required road for government positions. There is also the will to have more professors with Ph.D.s earned abroad.

A good solution  but very expensive could be an expansion of the facilities. This is exactly what the University of Damascus is doing on a large scale. Right now, at the University of Damascus, there are more than 200,000 square meters of facilities under construction. New departments, like the Spanish and German language departments, have been added recently, while the Italian department will be open in 2010. Many of these projects are being developed through the support of foreign countries and this could be the way to gain sufficient funds and resources.

Probably the best tool the government has to provide to more students a good tertiary education is to establish new universities, which it defines as satellite branches of the most prestigious public universities. Syria has five public universities: Damascus, Homs, Aleppo, Lattakia and Deir ez-Zor. The regional branches are located in Dera’s, Suweida, Idlib, Tartus, Hama, Hassakeh and Raqqa. Obviously, because these new branches have been established quite recently, they do not have all the faculties that can be found in the five original institutions, but with time they will expand and the intention of the government is to transform the regional branches into new independent public universities. In addition to the original universities and the new branches, there are all across Syria 31 intermediate institutes. These are not universities, but they can provide to students two-year courses in some disciplines taught at the universities. Since the beginning of 2009 in Syria 8 new branches (with limited faculties) and 8 intermediate institutes in four governorates have started their activities. The fact of having tertiary or quasi-tertiary education all across the country is a very good option for all the Syrians who are not residents and are not living in one of the five places where are located the old public universities. In this way, students can save a lot of time and money. Moreover, at the new branches it is possible to enroll in departments where classes are very small. A reduced number of students may permit a better interaction between students and professors. In other words, it is easier to have a high level quality with reference to the taught subjects.
B) Provide quality assurance mechanisms 
Quality in Syria means to work with reference to two issues: Offering modern teaching methods and curricula and secondly tackling corruption. In fact, at public universities many departments have very old programs. A good example could be taken from several Syrian faculties of economics where still in 2009 the programs are based on Soviet-style central planning economics. The reason is that many professors in the 1960s studied in the Soviet Union.

A difficult issue to be tackled is the fact that in Syria it does not exist any independent body to examine universities and to assess the quality of their courses. Three years ago the Ministry of Higher Education started to work with the British Council in order to create a quality assurance system to be implemented in each Syrian university. The target was to be able to establish a center for evaluation, assessment and capacity building for professors. A similar cooperation agreement has been recently signed with the German academic state agency. The difficulties to set up this quality assurance center is that inside the Ministry of Higher Education some circles want this assurance center to be under direct control of the ministry while other circles would like to grant it a powerful independence. With this internal quarrel the center has not yet being created.

What the ministry has to do right now is to reform teaching plans according to what is required in the 2009 job market. Labor market is always changing. Economic courses based on Soviet-style central planning may be interesting from a historical perspective, but then they should be reformed in order to provide university courses spendable on the job market. In Syria, since the last years, there has been an important growth of both private banks and private insurance companies. These two modern sectors cannot rely on people who have studied program dating back to some decades ago. And for example if Syrians do not study the right and updated disciplines, the jobs in the two mentioned sectors will always go to foreigners. A good solution could also be to provide students in the last years of tertiary education with specialization paths, so that students after graduation could be considered as experts in the chosen field of study.   

In any case, although the quality assurance center has still a long way to run, every university has now a strategic plan with objectives and in every university there is a quality assurance center with a specific director. Good quality universities provide two good results for students: a positive studying experience and the possibility to find a first-class job after tertiary studies.

The second issue to be tackled is corruption that is an endemic problem in Syria more or less everywhere. In fact, at the moment of this writing, there are some professors at the University of Damascus under investigation for irregularities during their examinations. It is not easy to give some numbers to the problem of corruption at universities, but according to some interviews (done under the condition of anonymity) stories of corruption have emerged quite well. In general, this means two things: students paying money to pass an exam or a phone call done by a powerful person ordering a professor to permit a student to pass an examination with no serious test. It seems that the majority of these cases have happened at the Faculty of Law, the Faculty of Economics and the Faculty of Literature. The situation in the last years has partially improved thanks for example to multiple-choice exams.

Why is there so much corruption? A first reason could be the low salaries at public universities. In fact, at the private universities — where salaries are much higher — corruption is almost inexistent. But this is only a partial explanation because salaries at public universities for professors have improved and they earn more than $1,000 per month plus additional benefits. They are among the best-paid public servants. A second explanation could be that it is quite difficult to be punished so some professors could be lured by the idea of getting easily some extra money. Students and honest professors are scared and disillusioned about reporting corruption cases which they know. A possible reason could be that sometimes there is the idea that for public universities it is much more important to protect their reputation and avoid embarrassment than to take action against corrupted professors. This is true especially now that Syrian universities are expanding a lot domestically and internationally. It goes by itself that this way of thinking is only focused on the short-term. According to Minister of Higher Education Ghiath Barakat, there have been only 8,000 documented cases of corruption out of a student population of 500,000, but people say that the phenomenon is much more spread out.        
C) Almost free tertiary education
Another problem that the Syrian government will be obliged to consider is trying to understand whether also in the future it will be capable of providing public university with almost o charge. Given this situation, providing public tertiary education almost for free is a huge burden on the government’s balance sheet. Some suggested that it could be introduced a sort of low-cost or interest-free loans, which students would pay back only when they would start to work. But at the moment there are no serious plans for a real change. It is true that, with a per-capita G.D.P. around $4,700 there is not much room for Syrians to pay additional money for their studies. In the last year, there have been for Syria some political improvements on the international arena and as the executive director of the British Syrian Society, Ghayth Armanazi says "until recently perceived as a pariah state, Syria is now a country courted by many." This is absolutely correct, but Syria is still a low-income country with a big chunk of the population living in poor conditions and, before these political improvements may bring important economic upswings, it will take a lot of time.  

President Bashar Al-Assad authorized the decision to allow private universities in Syria in 2001 (Decree 36). Now, in the country there are 15 private universities. Previously, there was the idea and hope that the opening of private universities would have permitted to ease the burden of public institutions. It did not work out toward the mentioned goal because private universities charge students with fees that are absolutely unbearable for the average Syrian family. In some private institutions fees may reach the stellar amount of $10,870. According to the U.N.D.P. and the Syrian Central Bureau of Statistics, 16,000 students are registered at the 15 Syrian private universities. It is less than 4 percent of all Syria's tertiary students and this means that the burden is always and will continue to be loaded on the public universities. In other words, at the private Syrian universities there are enrolled just people of well-off families who previously would have gone abroad to study. The opening of private universities permit now to partially “solve the problem of having students’ future determined by their baccalaureate results” as the president of Kalamoon University, Assaad Loutfi, points out — Kalamoon University is a private university that opened in 2003. The problem of the high fees is always present although some systems to provide students with scholarships have been in recent times implemented. In any case, these account for a very small number of the studying body. Another manner in order to pay reduced fees for students consists in getting very good results. In this way, private universities can return students the paid fees or avoid asking for payments in relations to the following term. 

Private universities are treated as public universities. Also for them it is “the Ministry of Higher Education that sets lesson plans, curriculum, interior systems and employment process, as well financial matters” remembers the president of Yarmouk Private University, Fayez Kiwan Yarmouk Private University (Y.P.U.) opened in October 2008. What is really different between private universities and public universities is that in the former students have more flexibility in studying what they want. An important point is that in most private universities the taught courses are given in English and this could permit to students to later approach better the job market. The studying methodology normally follows the American credit-hour system and in general it is put a lot of importance on participation, team-working and the creation of solving-problem skills. In other words, private universities try to avoid an excessive reliance on rote learning. In addition, another positive feature of private universities is the fact that they have more cooperation agreements with both American and European universities and that they run exchange programs for both students and teachers. Also for private universities, exchange programs with universities abroad are based upon governmental agreements among countries.  

The problem for private universities could be the quality of the degrees they release. In fact, to date, many of these new institutions still have to graduate a class. As Syria Today magazine points out:
the legislative framework establishing private universities allow them to be set up as profit-making ventures. This mean that, unlike private universities in the West which are independent corporations of scholars, local private universities have an incentive to ease up on weaker students who would not pass elsewhere, at the expense of academic integrity.

Obviously, if private universities do not have a sufficient number of students there will be great problems for the universities in order to survive economically. This problem, as it was well explained above, can reduce that quality of the private tertiary education. Recently, a private university based in the city of Aleppo, in the northern part of the country, has been closed as a consequence of a quality gap in relation to its standards. All this said, there are some mechanisms for monitoring private universities. Normally, an academic committee check on the place whether a private university is adhering to the rules of quality assurance decided by the ministry.  
The steps the Syrian government has started to implement all go towards the right direction. In particular, the creation of new university branches located in different Syrian cities is probably the best move in order to reduce the number of students enrolled in every tertiary institution. In addition, it could be a good idea to provide means to assess and then to improve the quality of tertiary education in the country. Obviously, it should be implemented a strategy in order to tackle immediately all the episodes of corruption at the universities. If these corruption episodes were brought in the limelight, they would probably have negative short-term consequences in terms of bad reputation. But in the long-run, they would be important tools to improve the quality of Syrians institutions.

On the one hand, with reference to the new private universities they could be good quality institutions, but they won’t be able to reduce the overpopulation of public universities. Their fees are too high. On the other hand, private universities could be very useful to help public universities to develop modern programs, which are much more relevant when students enter the job market.

What is instead absolutely clear is the fact that Syria will need more and more economic resources devoted towards its educational system and, as such, Syria will have to divert towards the its educational system economic resources one time allocated to other areas. But it is true that if a country in today’s world wants to develop, it requires an ever-improving educational system.     


Monday, September 14, 2009

Arabic Language in Damascus: A Natural Blend

September 14, 2009
DAMASCUS, Syria During the last few years, Syria has increasingly emerged as the most important cultural center for teaching Arabic. As a matter of fact, every Arab country uses two different languages: Modern Standard Arabic (M.S.A.) and colloquial Arabic. This phenomenon is called "diglossia" and consists of utilizing two forms, which sometimes are very different, of the same language according to context.

M.S.A. is used in journalism, in modern literature, on radio, on television and in formal occasions like conferences and official speeches. M.S.A. is based on Classical Arabic, which is also known to be the language used in the Koran as well as in many numerous literature texts of the Omayyad and Abbasid eras (between the 7th and 9th centuries A.D.). On the one side, differently from Classical Arabic, which today is a static language, M.S.A. is a living language and continuously evolves. Moreover, between Classical Arabic and M.S.A. there are lexical and stylistic differences. And differences exist regarding some language innovations on which the classic authorities have not ruled upon. On the other side, M.S.A. is identical from Morocco to Oman and therefore it allows a perfect understanding among people from different countries. If the native dialects of two educated Arabic speakers from two different countries are incomprehensible (for example: Moroccan colloquial and Levantine colloquial), the two speakers will revert to M.S.A. and they will perfectly understand each other. M.S.A. is also one of the six official languages of the United Nations (U.N.).

However, there is no colloquial Arabic language that works well from Casablanca, Morocco to Muscat, Oman. Indeed, we found a number of local dialects. Among these one of the closest dialects to M.S.A. is the Levantine dialect (Lebanon and Syria). It should be noted that there are many sub-dialects across the Levant (in Syria they are three) but the Levantine dialect permits an almost perfect understanding among people from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine and even a good understanding with people from Egypt. Small problems begin to arise with the dialects of the Persian Gulf. But, also in this case, if a Levantine speaker may have some little understanding problems when dealing with the Persian Gulf dialects he may need just some time to be accustomed to different sounds — Gulf Arabs will immediately understand him. So, the Syrian-Lebanese colloquial Arabic is really a kind of passe-partout  valid for almost the entire Arab world, except for Morocco. Indeed between Syrian-Lebanese colloquial Arabic and M.S.A., there are differences especially in the usage of verbs (it’s very interesting the usage of the so called "helping verbs" in colloquial Levantine), but at the same time there are many vocabulary similarities allowing a student of Arabic to improve fast both M.S.A. and Levantine during a Damascene stay.

With reference to this point I want to debunk, once and for all, the bias that who wants to speak Arabic needs to decide whether learning M.S.A. or instead a dialect. In reality, it’s necessary to continue exercising both languages at the same time. Keeping going an everyday conversation in M.S.A. sounds really hilarious and deeply embarrasses the ears of native Arabs. Many of them might not even answer you. In addition to this, not being able to speak an Arabic dialect means losing everyday color and humor, which are present in songs, jokes, stories, films and in all the other aspects of popular culture.

My choice to come to Damascus prevailed over the option of going to Lebanon. In Beirut the Arabic dialect is very close to the dialect of Damascus, but in addition to Arabic a good part of Lebanese people speak English or French, if not both languages. Very often when a foreigner has some difficulties with Arabic, Lebanese people will immediately switch to English or French according to what their second language is. Syria has understood very well its language privilege and in the city of Damascus, many schools and centers that teach Arabic have sprung up in the last years. The main teaching centers are the University of Damascus (one-month courses), the Arabic Teaching Institute for Non-Arabic Speakers (three-month courses) and the French Cultural Center (much more expensive courses). These schools are perhaps a bit “messy”, because in the same classes there are students with very different Arabic skills, but in the end they really let you have a daily commitment of at least three hours, pushing the student to work with a language that especially in the beginning is very complex and has nothing in common with neo-Latin languages. Plus, a lot of Syrians offer to tutor students with face-to-face sessions for very reasonable prices. Some tutors are just offhanded professors who require cheap money, but that in the end do not teach well, while others are extremely well organized and allow students to get positive results in a short timeframe.

The motivations pushing students to enroll with the mentioned schools or private tutors are quite different as I have noticed myself. There are people who want to know Arabic for reading Quran and get closer to Islam, people who have to work with Arabic and, last but not least, (and this is not a small category) half-Syrian people (in general the father or the husband is Syrian) who want to learn Arabic because they do not want to lose their Arabic cultural heritage or because their family recently moved back to Syria.

The most difficult moment when studying Arabic when a lot of people quit studying is exactly at the beginning when students have to memorize a different alphabet, fresh sounds, unknown words and unheard grammatical constructions. But in the end, it’s living in Damascus that allows breaking the initial barrier, which is always present when the studied language does not have any overlapping points with students’ mother tongue. The key ingredient to speak Arabic after few months is mixing lectures in school, sessions with private tutors, radio, television and street chats. And in the end, as people say in Middle East, Inshallah (God willing) students will speak Arabic.