Perceptions of Governance – The Experience of Local Administrative Councils in Opposition-held Syria

Executive Summary

This report provides new insights into Local Administrative Councils (LACs) in five case study areas in opposition-held Syria. It explores their evolution, practices and influence and the way that they are perceived amongst citizens in the communities in which they exist. LACs constitute key institutions in service delivery in opposition-held areas in Syria. In some locations they also fulfil, to a certain degree, other governing functions such as collecting revenues and running the civilian registry. The majority of LACs grew out of popular mobilization efforts following the 2011 uprising, with the first known LAC starting in 2012. Initially they began as relief agents and evolved over time, attempting to fill the vacuum left when the Syrian government retreated from certain areas of the country.

This research utilized semi-structured interviews and focus group discussions to study the experience of the LACs in the opposition-held cities of Daret Ezzeh, Ma’aret al Numan, Zamalka, Kafr Takharim and Nawa. The report highlights the LACs and their governance patterns and trends, revealing the following insights:

  • Without a centralized body to apply unified strategies, guidelines, rules and regulations, the LACs have emerged and operated in a highly ad hoc and independent fashion. Nevertheless, as shown in the report, common approaches have emerged regarding the structuring of the municipal LACs with increasing levels of formalization of governance methods.
  • The LACs have, at the beginning, prioritized short-term responses to humanitarian needs over longer-term development and governance goals, leading to an administrative focus on alleviating immediate deprivations by improving access to water and electricity, repairing roads and utility infrastructure and addressing waste management. This immediate-term focus has also been driven by a revolutionary ethos, local security and international political context and funding policies that have disallowed longer-term planning and enhancement of subnational governance capacities. Yet, gradually the LACs’ focus shifted to include also more longer-term activities.
  • The LACs have utilized various methods for public participation and transparency. However, they were often influenced by available means and local dynamics. The security and contextual challenges have limited the LACs external visibility and engagement with all segments of society.
    With regards to inclusion, (s)election processes have changed over time, but are still limited to a small pool of influential families and individuals. Women, in particular, have been overwhelmingly excluded from participation in LAC leadership positions.
  • The availability and agenda of external funding have been a major influence on the direction of the LACs. Donor priorities, rather than community needs, have often driven the direction of the LACs’ work. This has had two main consequences. First, there is some evidence that LACs have also limited transparency because they avoid publicizing challenges that might impact donor support.
    Second, dependency on often short-term foreign funds has led the LACs to work project-to-project rather than according to longer-term or integrated community-wide plans.
  • In most case study areas, the LACs have very limited or no enforcement power. Armed groups and the police mostly wield such power. In cases where coordination with armed groups is strong, the LACs have been able to exercise more decision-making power, including being able to arbitrate local disputes or represent communities externally.
  • Citizens’ perceptions of the LACs have been influenced by their historical experience living under an authoritarian government, leaving average citizens suspicious of biases and inequities in how governance systems may serve communities. Persons who have had direct contact with the LACs presented more awareness of and contentment with the changes the LACs underwent.
  • Flight, death and brain drain due to low pay have also undermined the human resource capacities within the LACs’ executive leadership and staff. This clashes with the strong public desire for enhancing employement in the LACs based on meritocracy and experience.
  • After the withdrawal of the Syrian government, a multitude of actors started to engage and compete over service delivery and the power and resources associated with it. The LACs were, in the case study areas, able to establish themselves as the leading agency in service delivery and are strongly associated with it in public perception.