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In Aleppo, the free market is the answer to Syrians' bare cupboards

With international aid money slow to arrive, Syrians are seeking ways to get cash fast to buy desperately needed supplies. Profit-generating endeavors have been paying off. 

By Correspondent / May 7, 2013

A Free Syrian Army fighter walks in front of a convoy carrying humanitarian aid from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent in Deir Semaan in Aleppo's countryside in January.

Mahmoud Hassano/Reuters/File

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Aleppo, Syria

Three months ago, Majid Atly got tired of waiting for promised foreign aid.

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Most of Aleppo's civilians were out of work and had spent most of their savings and what humanitarian aid Syrians did receive was not enough. Mr. Atly knew his community needed not just one-time help, but sustained assistance, to avoid going over the brink.

So Atly became one of many Syrians in Aleppo pursuing local aid projects that produce a profit, which they can then use to provide other types of assistance. This allows them to help more people or get more out of every dollar they spend.

“We only get promises and no one gives us supplies so we do what we have to do,” he says. “We imagined it would only take three or four months to end the revolution, but now we are making plans for a long revolution.”

Atly started his free enterprise aid efforts when he noticed that his local bakery needed electricity. He began supplying it from his generator at cost. When he saw the difference electricity could make – reopening a shuttered bakery at a time when bread is in short supply in Aleppo and also providing jobs – he rounded up the supplies required to power 20 small workshops and a dozen houses in addition to the bakery.

He wanted to do more, but needed more money. With the help of some friends he fixed up an old bakery, which now brings in $850 to $1,000 a month. He uses that money to fund a variety of public works projects, including repairing power lines and cleaning streets. Atly hopes to expand further, potentially investing in a small textile workshop.

In the absence of substantial outside funding, a number of aid organizations throughout Aleppo have adopted this model as a means of supporting their work. Bakeries are among the most popular businesses for aid entrepreneurs, but a number of organizations, including the opposition’s official government council, are looking to supply factories with electricity as a means of generating revenue and jobs.

Other groups are hoping to turn a profit, but are willing to lose money so long as it stimulates some economic activity. Abu Jassam runs a grassroots aid organization that operates a bakery, which usually loses about an eighth of what it costs to keep it running. “We don’t spend money to make money. If we lose money, that’s okay. The most important thing is to make people work again.”

Suffering under the weight of high unemployment, Aleppo has seen a sharp rise in criminal activity. Providing not just aid, but jobs may be key to stabilizing the city and surrounding area, alleviating the desperation felt by many residents, and reducing levels of need that are too great to be fully addressed by local and international donors. 

But there are concerns that some are more profit-oriented than humanitarian. 

For the last eight months, Abu Mohammad received support from an Islamic charity inside Syria to distribute food, clothing, and baby formula. He recently began exploring the possibility of opening a bakery in his neighborhood to generate more money for his aid efforts.

But when some other aid groups with similar plans learned that Mr. Mohammad was interested, he says he started receiving warnings not to open the bakery because it would interfere with their own plans for something similar. They weren’t explicit threats of violence, he says – just firm, high-volume admonishments, strong enough to make him abandon the idea.

“There are dishonest people around here who just want to be famous. They don’t have to serve the people,” he says. “I spend from my own pocket. If I run out of money then I will close this aid office.”

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