Creating Self-sufficiency by Funding Small Businesses

Aid organizations in Idlib are shifting away from providing food baskets, but have this new approach succeeded?

Aid organizations started financing local residents to start small businesses. This marks a shift in aid culture away from merely distributing food baskets, and aid workers say it is an attempt to create self-sufficiency and help these communities survive the war. Our reporter in Idlib writes about these initiatives, and asks are these programs successful?

22 May 2019

Families while herding, December 2018. Livestock small business in the town of Bassamis in Jabal al-Zawiya. Credit: Ahmad al-Alka
Ahmad Al-Saleem (pseudonym)

A Syrian journalist based in Idlib.

 Muhammad Abu Adnan, a 38-year-old construction worker, had his arm amputated after a warplane targeted his city Ariha in northern Idlib province on September 1, 2015. Muhammad was injured while buying tools from the local market, since then he has been unable to work. Soon after his injury, he became dependent on food aid provided by humanitarian organizations.

Many humanitarian organizations announced new programs aiming to support launching a many small business projects to help locals achieve sustainable income. Abu Adnan registered with the Ariha City Council, to get support for his own small business. He was accepted as part of the “Good Earning” program run by al-Sham Humanitarian Foundation. He chose to open a cheese and dairy shop, with a cost of USD 2000 which was provided to him by the Foundation.

Abu Adnan's shop in Ariha, February 2019. Credit: Ahmad al-Saleem

Support for small businesses is part of a new strategy adopted by humanitarian organizations working in opposition-held north Syria. Instead of distributing food baskets, organizations offer opportunities to finance development-oriented businesses for those in need, enabling them to make their livelihoods without dependency on aid.

Idlib is the last remaining governorate controlled by the Syrian opposition. The population was one and a half million before 2011.  The United Nations today estimates the number of people living in the Idlib governorate to be nearly three million. Many Syrians from other areas have been forcibly displaced to Idlib over the last few years of conflict. A large number of those living in Idlib province today arrived there from Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta, Homs, Daraa and other areas the Syrian opposition had controlled for some time and later lost to the regime. Many were relocated to Idlib as part of agreements made with the regime, and many of those are children and widows who provide for their families solely.

Many humanitarian organizations started implementing programs supporting small enterprises in Idlib to create self-sufficiency for the beneficiaries.  The support typically involved the distribution of cows, sheep and chickens to small farmers, or financing retailer shops, or helping to establish manufacturing workshops; carpentry or clothes-making for example.  These programs also focused on supporting people with special needs, enabling them to be self-reliant and make their daily living.

Injured in the war, this beneficiary received a cow to help him earn a living. Kafar Roma town in Idlib, December 2018. Credit: Ahmad al-Saleem

Families planning to start their own project can apply for support, and the finance for each project range between USD 1500 and USD 2000. Accepted applicants also receive logistical support which includes, for example, supplying farmers with animal feed, or short-term monthly payments to newly opened shops.

These projects have been successful for a part of the beneficiaries, whose businesses flourished. However, others whose businesses failed and they had to sell them a few months later didn't consider this shift in aid to be a success.

We met with Muhammad Abu Adnan in his shop in Ariha. He is a young man, his beard is long and he was dressed in a simple black shirt. “I suffered poverty, and for a long time I didn’t have any income, my livelihood depended largely on the goodwill of people who gave me daily sustenance. I used to receive food baskets monthly from the local council, but it only lasted for 15 days,” he said to SyriaUntold

Abu Adnan added, “I choose my own project, and after the program accepted my application, I opened a dairy shop as a starting point. I then asked for further support from the funders to buy a refrigerator and an electric generator. Slowly, I managed to develop the business, and started stocking fruits and vegetables and other food items. Eventually, the store provided me with a decent living.”

The Good Earning program is among the earliest development initiatives to finance small enterprises in this area. Al-Sham Humanitarian Foundation continues to operate in the north of Syria in partnership with the Sheikh Thani Ibn Abdullah Foundation for Humanitarian Services (Raf),and previously it had launched the Good Earning  program in Daraa, Idlib, and Eastern Ghouta in 2016 (both Daraa and Eastern Ghouta were controlled by the opposition back then and has since fallen under the regime control). The Good Earning finances a series of small businesses and micro-finance enterprises based on  the “good loan” (fair lending according to Islam), These loans are given to families, with good experience in a specific field but have lost their livelihoods as a result of the conflict, to help them develop a business.  After the family fulfils all the conditions and pays back a part of the loan, they are eventually granted full ownership of the business. These conditions are set in accordance with mechanisms and standards appropriate to the situation in north Syria.

Livestock giving to beneficiaries in the towns of Bassamis and Mashoun, December 2018. Credit: Ahmad al-Saleem

Muhammad Salem (pseudonym) is a 47-year-old emergency response officers working for an aid organization in northern Syria. We spoke to him by phone, and he said to SyriaUntold, “After the problems between Saudi Arabia and Qatar began, and the subsequent listing of Raf and Eid Charity among organizations accused of funding terrorism. Both charities work has totally stopped. Qatari relief efforts to Syria, in general, have since dropped by 70%, and are now confined to the Qatari Red Crescent which is a governmental organization.”

“The aid was never conditional, nor it was used to promote a certain religious ideology or political agenda. Support was humanitarian and was offered to all relevant groups. They even provided support to some institutions that were pro the revolution but are not considered part of the Islamist movement in Syria. They supported the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus in Kafranbel for example, and helped them operate their bakeries” he added.

The idea of ​​the good loan is that the beneficiary returns a quarter of the project’s value to the supporting organization over the course of the first year as monthly instalments. If a project was financed with USD 2000 loan, the beneficiary is required to repay USD 500 over a year. Some owners who cannot meet the loan repayments stipulation are exempted, after assessing their livelihood conditions.

We met with Jihad Bakour, a tall 37-year-old man from the town of Bassamis in Jabal al-Zawiya, in his office in Kafranbel. He was dressed in simple trousers and a red vest, Bakour is one of the staff responsible for development projects at al-Sham Foundation. “The Good Earning program sponsored until now 65 small businesses in a variety of sectors, including trade and crafts, agriculture and livestock, as well as manufacturing. They created 80 jobs, and provided services to around fourteen thousand residents in these areas every month. All these businesses received follow-up support  for a year, during which any assistance required by the business owner was also provided.”

All livestock businesses received follow-up visits and vaccination for eight months after the beginning of the project.
Kafar Roma town in Idlib, December 2018. Credit: Ahmad al-Saleem.

Bakour added that, “the Good Earning program aims to provide sustainable income for families. These businesses also produce new goods that contribute to meeting the needs of the market on a regular basis. It can also revive some basic crafts and trades which have been diminished as a result of the crisis, and contribute to reducing unemployment.”

This sweets and pastries shop was opened with support from the Good Earning program. February 2016. Bsakla town, Idlib. Credit: Ahmad al-Saleem.

Projects sold after a few months

Programs such as Good Earning have been widely welcomed by locals and civil actors due to their role in reducing local dependency on aid baskets, many quote the proverb “give a man a fish and you feed him for one day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” ” to express their approval.  However, some small businesses have failed, and been sold by their owners either due to their financial need or their inability to develop their businesses further.

Some beneficiaries called for reinstituting the aid schemes based on the distribution of food baskets, and not substituting them with development programs which require benefiting families to have some capital to maintain their businesses. They argued that most families targeted by such programs could barely provide their daily sustenance as a result of poor living conditions, let alone keep savings they can rely on in supporting their businesses.

We met Muhammad al-Quddour from Hass, a town in the southern countryside of Idlib. He is 48-year- old, unemployed and lives in a very modest home, where he spends the day in his black Jalabiya [casual outfit] smoking homegrown tobacco. He received support from the International Association for Relief and Development (Onsur), they provided him with several sheep for breeding.

“I chose sheep breeding, because the program I applied for was restricted to supporting livestock businesses. I received several sheep to raise and earn a living, but because I had no place to raise them and we did not have any experience in handling them, we sold them at low prices.”

“People need money, and they need to be cautious while choosing their preferred business, because each project needs to be studied and a proper location needs to be chosen for it to succeed. But if humanitarian organizations were to choose businesses with little consideration, they will inevitably be a failure, they will fail unless there are preparations made by the beneficiary prior to the launching of the business.”

Humanitarian organizations give priority to agricultural and livestock businesses while selecting which applicants to support in rural Idlib. This is due to the fact that locals in this area largely relied on farming and animal husbandry in the past, especially breeding cattle and sheep. Their experience in this field helps ensure the success and sustainable development of the business beneficiaries establish.

We met Muhammad Najjar, a 30-year-old who works in the Idlib office of the International Association for Relief and Development (Onsur), located  in Hass. He told SyriaUntold, “projects that usually succeed in generating an income and help create self-sufficiency are usually the businesses planned and proposed by the beneficiaries themselves, rather than ones suggested by us [funders]. The idea is to help people who have a skill or a trade and wish to develop it but have no finances to do so. Giving sheep or animals to someone who has no experience in raising them will certainly end in failure.”

“We visit the applicants, and study their situations. We select the families most in need, and then ask them to choose their business. Despite that, some beneficiaries still sold their projects after a short period, on the grounds that they needed more money,” he added.

“The most successful programs are those that support trades and handicrafts, such as funding hairdressers or phone and computer repair shops. In addition, programs that support agricultural projects has been successful, such as renting land for farmers or providing seeds and covering farming costs in full – especially that the Syrian north is famous for its agriculture.”

Recently, barely a month passes without new businesses being opened with the  support of aid organizations. There is an effort to empower women through these programs, especially those who are heads of household, mainly by providing them with training and workshops. Aid programs seek to help women start working in simple industries that do not require large amounts of funds.

We sat with researcher and social worker Faisal al-Okla, a 53-year-old former engineer who lives in Hass. He now works with Radio Alwan where he oversees opinion polls. “Through my interactions with people, while preparing for the radio programs we work on, I found there was a immense satisfaction with these projects. In fact, many people demanded  increased support to fund a bigger number of  projects and make them available to a wider segment of society, and eventually increase the number of beneficiaries.”

Al-Okla added, “The substantial amounts of funding spent on food baskets, psychosocial support programs, and even logistics by humanitarian aid organizations must be reallocated and used the right place. These funds should be used to support small businesses to help the poor and provide them with a livelihood. It must also attempt to fund larger business projects which can provide job opportunities to young people.”

Support for small projects also targeted female heads of households such as widows who are the sole providers for their families. In Hass, The organization Ihsan Relief and Development has supported around 20 business projects for women.

We met with Hanaa al-Omar (pseudonym), a 45-year-old housewife and a mother of six children, her husband died six years ago when a shell landed in their home in Hass.  Hanaa received funding from Ihasan to start a dressmaker business, and she chose her business concept six months after she registered with the charity.

Special focus on empowering women who solely provide for their household. December 2018. Credit: Ahmad al-Saleem

“They asked us, about 20 widows, to apply for business ideas ranging from USD 600 to USD 800,” Hanaa said to SyriaUntold. “Some of the women chose women's clothing stores, and some wanted sewing machines. Others wished to open grocery shops, while women who have experience in animal husbandry asked for cows and sheep to breed.”

“I have 20 years of experience in sewing, but I had worked with simple equipment. I did not have the money to buy modern machines to develop my work. So, I asked for two machines, one for sewing and the other for embroidery, as well as a solar panel for electricity generation, a working table and the fabric required to begin. I am now able to bring in enough income to help support my family.”

The campaign Halab Labbeeh (Aleppo, We Come to the Rescue), which includes seven Qatari institutions, gave training courses on livestock projects to locals in the Jabal al-Zawiyah area in the southern countryside of Idlib. These training aimed at promoting the concept of starting up and developing small businesses. As a result of the courses, the campaign supported  64 livestock projects, including breeding cows, sheep and chickens.

Halab Labbeeh campaign offered courses promoting livestock projects among locals.
Mashoun town, Idlib. December 2018. Credit: Ahmad al-Saleem

We spoke by phone with the officer responsible for supporting livestock projects within the Halab Labbeeh campaign, Muhammed al-Mustafa, a 43-year-old veterinarian from the town of Marayan in Jabal al-Zawiyah. “We distributed about 17 cows and financed 25 businesses breeding sheep, each involved distributing 7 sheep to the beneficiary.  We also supported 22 projects raising chickens.  These businesses were in the villages of Bassamis, Mashoun and Abdita in Jabal al-Zawiyah.”

“We also built barns for cows, sheep and chickens, and installed solar panels and rechargeable batteries, and provided beneficiaries with feed and vaccines for eight months. We offered 7-day courses to all beneficiaries to explain how best to care for livestock, and how to sustain the project and make it profitable.”

Animal feed was distributed to beneficiaries for eight months after the beginning of the project.
Abdita town in Idlib, December 2018. Credit: Ahmad al-Saleem.
Building barns as part of logistical support provided for businesses.
Abdita town in Idlib, December 2018. Credit: Ahmad al-Saleem.

However, humanitarian aid organizations have been unable to find decisive solutions to prevent the sale of businesses by beneficiaries. Most organizations make it legally binding for the beneficiary to retain the project for three months at least, during which program officers from the organization visit the business site to ensure that it was not sold. After that period, the owner has total control over the business.  Other organizations tend to sign contracts, placing the business under the supervision of local councils for a year and stipulating that during that time the owner has no right to sell, and is obliged to pay back one-quarter of the funding the project received in instalments.

Finally, these projects require substantial financing to continue, especially since the cost of each household project ranges now between USD 600 and USD 2500. Most of the support provided to these businesses in the past came from Qatari aid organizations; Raf Foundation and Eid Charity, before their activity was halted on August 18, 2018. Only the Qatar Charitable Society continues to support such development projects until this day.


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