Damascus // Thousands of impoverished Syrians began receiving cash payments from a multimillion-dollar aid fund this week, as part of a government effort to tackle persistent high levels of poverty.
The step comes less than a month after heating fuel subsidies for two million public sector employees were unexpectedly raised by 72 per cent. The government had previously been in the process of cutting back subsidies, which it can ill afford to pay because of dwindling oil reserves.
Import duties on various staple foods, including rice, tea, coffee and powdered milk, were also cut this week in a move designed to lessen the impact of rising food prices that have hit ordinary Syrians hard.
Although the social aid fund has been in the pipeline for years, and the cabinet approved an outline of the programme in December, analysts in Syria say its implementation was accelerated after the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, when entrenched rulers were toppled in protests fired, at least in part, by widespread public outrage at growing economic hardship.
Syria, like Egypt, suffers from significant poverty, with 14 per cent of its 22 million population living below the poverty line. Years of crippling drought in the nation's eastern agricultural heartlands have exacerbated the situation, robbing hundreds of thousands of farming families of their livelihoods.
Damascus insists it does not face the same kind of broad-based popular opposition that is sustaining protests across the Middle East, in part because it has not aligned itself with US foreign policies. Despite that, a Syrian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said regional uprisings had been noted and would have domestic repercussions.
"What is happening [in the region] will push us to move reforms faster, they'll be sped up," he said.
A Syrian economics expert confirmed the authorities were showing signs of moving with additional haste. "There is no direct link between Tunisia or Egypt and the social aid fund - we had been expecting a package of some kind since last year," he said, on condition of anonymity. "But they sped it up because of events in the region, which explains why the poverty fund was suddenly announced without having any clear structure, although they have put the money there for it."
Under the social aid fund, US$250 million (Dh918m) will be distributed to 420,000 of Syria's poorest families, as assessed by a UN-supported household survey. The amount of money given to any family depends on its financial circumstances with a typical allowance of $76 per month for the poorest. Those considered slightly better off but still in need of help will get the equivalent of $32 per month.
The first round of aid distribution began last Sunday, covering 67,000 people who picked up their money at post offices nationwide.
Given the scale of poverty in Syria, with many respected economists here warning that the gap between rich and poor is dramatically widening as market reforms take hold, the social aid programme has been criticised as insufficient.
"The fund is not supposed to be charity; it's meant to support development but it's hard to see how such small sums will do that," said Aamer Abdal Salam, a Syrian journalist specialising in economic issues. "The amounts of money involved in the social fund are not enough, it's not real help and the heating fuel subsidy is also not enough, we are talking about millions of people needing assistance."
Another economic analyst said that government programmes currently in place would not prevent deepening poverty.
"This year will see the poor getting poorer and the rich getting richer," he said. "We have 10 different socioeconomic classes in this country. One of them is rich, the rest are poor, and the poor are slipping down, down, down."
Khalid Aboud, the secretary of the Syrian parliament, said the social fund would be reviewed and potentially given more money, but he warned the government did not have the financial muscle to quickly solve all of the problems it faced.
"There's a gap between the citizens' needs and the government's ability to help them," he said. "The government hopes to increase the salaries of its employees but the big question is how to pay for that. The government doesn't have enough money to help the poor as much as it would like."
Syria has been pushing through reforms, shifting from a heavily subsidised socialist system to a market-based economy. For decades, the old subsidies were funded for by oil exports but, as Syria's supplies dry up, the government has been unable to meet their soaring costs.
Economic growth has been robust in recent years, according to government figures and international monitors, but still falls short of the level officials say is necessary to provide sufficient jobs and incomes for a rapidly growing population.