Published on Arab Voices

Stimulating the conversation on Syria: From art to action?

Fatigue, Bloodshed and Turmoil: Syrians Speak Through Art
If images spark conversation, can a conversation spur action? Or more specifically, can a discussion about art and Syria’s economy prompt the more than 100 finance ministers attending the World Bank’s annual Spring Meetings in Washington to dig deeper into their pockets and give more humanitarian aid to Syria?

Though the Bank doesn’t deal directly with humanitarian crises—as an organization, it focuses on development—it has been supporting some of Syria’s neighbors, such as Jordan, to provide basic services like health and sanitation in areas hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. It hopes to be able to do the same in Lebanon.

At the opening of an exhibition of Syrian paintings in the Bank’s Washington headquarters, the World Bank’s President Jim Yong Kim said the size of the United Nation’s appeal of US$6.5 billion for Syria, reflected the enormity of the crisis. So far, only about a third of the UN’s appeal for US$6.5 billion has been met with promises of aid, less than a fifth of that in the equivalent of cash up front.

Viewing the paintings, said President Kim, had made him think of his mother’s own experiences as a refugee from the Korean war. Kim said he had been forging closer links with the UN to bring more attention to Syria. Both Lebanon and Jordan had opened their schools to Syrian children, he said, referring to the consequences anywhere of a whole generation growing up without education.

By bringing the art to Washington, Inger Andersen, the Bank’s regional Vice-President for the Middle East and North Africa, hopes to stimulate debate on the impact of the Syrian crisis of people in the region as a whole. The Bank held a live event with a panel discussion to open the exhibition.

The United Nations estimates that 9.3 million people in Syria need humanitarian aid. They include Palestinian refugees trapped in Syria by the fighting. The UN says around 6.5 million Syrians are displaced inside Syria. Another 2.5 million Syrians have left, mostly to neighboring countries.

Amid the gloomy statistics, though, are more surprising facts: While half the workforce is unemployed inside Syria, says writer Jihad Yazigi, Syrians became the largest number of investors in Turkey last year.  As casual laborers, they also play a big role in the construction industry in Lebanon.

Politically, Yazigi said Syria was moving from “a centralized dictatorship to decentralized democracy.” Economically, he said the country had “a war economy” with many people profiting from it, including armed groups extracting oil from oilfields that now lie outside the government’s control.

Before the conflict worsened in 2011, Syria was net exporter of oil. Now it holds the distinction of being at the center of a crisis that has prompted the UN to launch one of its largest ever appeals for humanitarian assistance.

Whether the UN’s appeal will benefit from decisions made by finance ministers meeting in Washington is, as yet, unclear. But part of the conversation could be directed toward helping the many Syrians who could, according to Yazigi, cope better if they did not have to worry so much about opening bank accounts in countries outside Syria.

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