After more than four years of war in Syria, with little progress so far toward a political solution, the world’s attention has justifiably dwelled on the immense human and social cost of the crisis. Over 4 million refugees have fled Syria to neighboring countries, who have provided the global public goods of shelter and assistance.
These countries are to be commended for their willingness to commit the financial and operational resources required in this very challenging situation. But has the international community made a shared mistake by viewing the crisis narrowly as a set of challenges to be overcome, of burdens to be borne, of costs to be allocated — without identifying the opportunities to be seized?
Private sector players
The role of the private sector in the communities affected by the Syria crisis clearly illustrates the distinction between these two viewpoints. Challenges to private sector activity in these communities are manifold. Business and consumer confidence have been assailed by the ongoing hostilities, thereby constraining economic demand. The sheer scale of refugee flows has stretched social services, administrative and judicial processes and infrastructure to breaking point in some areas, thereby undermining the supporting institutions vital to private sector activity.
As the demands on these states have risen, their ability to draw upon assistance from the private sector has suffered from information gaps in both directions: a lack of targeted strategies for private sector engagement has impaired the ability of states to identify private sector players that could help meet their needs. For their part, companies in the private sector often lack information about where they can be most helpful and where the most desirable opportunities are.
And yet the opportunities for increasing private sector involvement are enormous. Social public-private partnerships provide a structure for governments and companies to forge partnerships that meet their central interests: for the public sector, the delivery of social services and infrastructure; for the private sector, the provision of services at a profit.
When structured appropriately, social PPPs are truly win-win solutions. For governments, host communities and refugees they facilitate the delivery of services faster, at a better quality, and at a cheaper price, thanks to the private sector’s experience and economies of scale. They provide faster expansion in crucial infrastructure, avoiding capacity bottlenecks and making use of cutting-edge innovations in building materials and processes. And by necessity they create a large number of high-quality jobs, delivering opportunity to a group of people particularly the young who would otherwise be at risk of becoming a “lost generation.”
For their private sector counterparts, meanwhile, the benefits of a well-structured social PPP are similarly clear. Because social PPPs are struck on commercial terms, they represent huge sources of potential growth for companies willing to engage. They represent crucial “proving grounds” for enhancing the credibility of companies with governments and international organizations, whose needs require the procurement of billions of dollars in goods and services each year.
Investing in entrepreneurship
The opportunities extend beyond social PPPs. In local areas where state planning and execution capacity is stronger, and both infrastructure and social services have already demonstrated resilience, there is a large opportunity for private sector players to spearhead area-specific flagship initiatives for job creation — again, on commercial terms. With public sector investments in skill-building for MSMEs and in entrepreneurship, upgrading of existing special economic zones, and export promotion for domestically produced products, the private sector will have extensive opportunities to “do well while doing good.”
The Syria crisis has posed numerous challenges for both Syria’s neighbors and the broader international community. But we must not limit ourselves to discussing the challenges. We must also focus on identifying and seizing opportunities — including opportunities for the private sector. Only once that happens at scale will these communities be on track for a sustainable economic recovery.