While Syria’s government is killing hundreds of pro-democracy protesters, the United Nations Development Program, or UNDP, is considering whether to approve a $38 million, five-year aid program for Damascus, to continue what it calls “a well-functioning partnership with the government.”
Approval of the plan is on the agenda for the next meeting of the development agency’s 36-member Executive Board, slated to begin on June 6.
The U.S. is among a dozen Western nations that are board members. Among other things, the program calls for UNDP to “continue to work closely with the government of Syria,” led by President Bashar Assad, while strengthening its collaboration with “NGOs [non-government organizations], the private sector, the donor community and local authorities”—all of which may be impossible to do amid the Assad regime’s ugly crackdown and its aftermath.
The proposal says little about political conditions under the Syrian dictatorship, except to note mildly that the country’s “democratic governance needs strengthening.”
When queried about whether the program would be approved as scheduled, a UNDP spokesman told Fox News that the question of whether to go ahead with the approval “is currently under discussion.”
Members of the U.N.’s on-the-ground country team in Syria, which is lead by UNDP, “will revert to us on their recommendations soon,” the spokesman added.
Draft documents outlining the Syrian program, along with those for a handful of other Arab nations currently facing political turmoil, are not available on the UNDP website, even though similar programs for countries ranging from Ethiopia to Honduras are already posted.
Fox News obtained a copy of the Syria document, which optimistically projects that by 2015, with UNDP “enabling” support worth about $12.4 million, the Assad regime will be embarked on a major administrative reform program, “and will ensure increased participation of civil society and the private sector in the reform process.”
The same document projects that by 2015, “the Government will have ensured food security for all, and will have elaborated adequate mechanisms for addressing the consequences of climate change.”
The UNDP program for Syria, like almost all of the development agency’s programs around the world, is “nationally executed”—meaning, it counts on the Syrian government itself to carry out the plan, with supervisory and technical assistance from the UNDP’s local team.
In fact, according to the UNDP’s draft country program, the U.N. group’s activity in Syria is “largely based” on the regime’s own, upcoming five-year plan for 2011-2015, and involves mostly carrying out the wishes of the government itself, through intertwining relationships with many of the key ministries that assure the regime’s control. Among them: Justice, Information, Communications, Social Affairs and Labor and Foreign Affairs, as well as Economy and Trade, Tourism, Transport, Electricity and Environment.
The UNDP document characterizes the Syrian national plan as “a vision of the country characterized by equitable and inclusive human, social and economic development and fuller regional integration.”
In the draft country document, UNDP emphasizes the positive elements in its “cooperation,” including “the simplification of government processes for greater accountability and transparency” in the judiciary and municipal government, as well as support for such new institutions as a “Young Journalist Network. It also calls for creation of a “Media Training Institute effectively implementing training for male and female journalists.”
This would not be UNDP’s first joint venture in journalism with the Assad regime. In 2008, the aid organization signed a five-year, $400,000 project to “provide an influential and widespread English-daily newspaper to English-speaking Syrians and foreigners seeking Syrian news.”
The newspaper, the Syrian Times, would have the “capability of giving the Syrian account of events and news to an international audience seeking the perspective and news from the local source.” UNDP’s task was to offer strategies to “improve the efficiency and intellectual potential of the newspaper,” as well as revamp its business model.
Whatever positive role UNDP lauds itself as playing, however, according to the U.S. State Department 2010 report on Syria, it hasn’t translated into less repression, more accountability, more democratic governance or much noteworthy efficiency.
Along with a lengthy list of brutalities committed by the Assad regime, the State Department notes that “the government imposed severe restrictions on civil liberties: freedoms of speech and press, including Internet and academic freedom; freedoms of assembly and of association, including severe restrictions on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs); and freedoms of religion and movement.”
In the most recent national and municipal elections in Syria, in 2007, the report notes that the balloting was “neither free nor fair,” and according to human rights advocates “served to reassert the primacy and political monopoly of power Assad and the Ba’ath Party apparatus wielded.” It adds that outside observers “uniformly” dismissed official voter statistics as “fraudulent and not representative of observed participation.”
The report also says that “the judiciary was not independent,” and that “approximately 95 percent of judges” were adherents or associates of the Ba’athist party. It notes that “an atmosphere of corruption pervaded the government.”
How UNDP will square those observations with its proposed new program of support for Syria, if and when it is discussed and voted on, remains to be seen. According to the UNDP spokesman, “the finalized program will reflect and depend on developments in Syria.”
George Russell is executive editor of Fox News