Damascus, Feb 20 (IANS) The Syrian government has started giving out cash payments to thousands of poor people in an effort to tackle the high levels of poverty over fears that the regional uprisings in the Middle East would have domestic repercussions, media reports said.
A UAE newspaper Sunday reported that although the social aid fund was in the pipeline for years, analysts in Syria noted its implementation was accelerated after the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, where the rulers were toppled after widespread public outrage at the growing economic hardship.
According to a Syrian opposition website, the Dubai-based all4Syria.info, hundreds of Syrians protested police violence Thursday after traffic officials reportedly beat up a young man in Damascus.
The crowd chanted: “The Syrian people will not be humiliated.”
Opposition groups have been calling on Syrians to protest what they call the “oppressive regime” of Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
Thousands of impoverished Syrians have now been given cash payments as part of a government programme to tackle poverty.
Import duties on food items, including rice, tea, coffee and milk powder, were cut to lessen the impact of rising food prices.
Around 14 percent of Syria’s 22 million population are living below the poverty line.
Though some officials said the country does not face the same kind of popular opposition that is being seen across the Middle East, an official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said regional uprisings had been noted and would have domestic repercussions.
“What is happening 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 was quoted as saying by The National newspaper, 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, $250 million will be distributed to 420,000 of Syria’s poorest families after an assessment by a UN-supported survey.
An allowance of $76 per month will be given to the poorest. Those considered slightly better off but still in need of help will get an equivalent of $32 per month.
In the first round of aid distribution, 67,000 people picked up their money at post offices nationwide.
Given the scale of poverty in Syria, 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.
“The amounts of money involved in the social fund are not enough, it’s not any real help, we are talking about millions of people needing assistance.”
Khalid Aboud, the secretary of the Syrian parliament, said the social fund would be reviewed and potentially given more money, but added that the government did not have the financial muscle to quickly solve all of the problems it faced.