The Syrian Economic Forum (SEF), an innovative think tank dedicated to strengthening the Syrian economy and promoting democratic and sustainable development is faced with an extraordinary challenge ahead. With nearly 5 million Syrian refugees and 6.6 million internally displaced persons, SEF must operate in an increasingly uncertain and volatile landscape, amidst a war that has ravaged the country and impaired both political and economic institutions. To rebuild Syrian society and empower a new generation that has suffered the consequences of war, SEF (based out of Gazientep, Turkey) has embarked on a campaign to create a new educational model focused on entrepreneurship, leadership, and civic engagement. This new model involves training and equipping youth with the knowledge and skills to be productive citizens and to re-imagine what it means to be a Syrian citizen. SEF has succeeded in becoming a leading voice for the Syrian private sector, even though managing a think tank amidst widespread conflict is a difficult task.
It has been done before. In 1995 in Pristina, Kosovo, a small group of economists working out of a garage came together to establish the Riinvest Institute for Development Research. With only four employees at its outset, Riinvest served as one of the few reliable sources of policy input on the ground when local policy capacity was minimal. During the conflict in Kosovo and the political repression of the late 1990s, Riinvest conducted a comprehensive study of Kosovo’s economy and the role of private enterprise in democratic development. After analyzing existing data and polling over 300 enterprises, it developed an economic reform strategy which later served as a blueprint for development during the post-war period. Riinvest has emerged as one of Kosovo’s premier independent think tanks with a mission to promote economic development and an emphasis on entrepreneurship.
Responding to a request from SEF in 2013, CIPE facilitated consultations between SEF and Riinvest through the Free Enterprise and Democracy Network (FEDN), a network of international experts and private sector leaders committed to the principles of free enterprise, economic freedom and democratic governance.
Building off of CIPE’s ongoing technical assistance and support for SEF, FEDN members Lumir Abdixhiku and Alban Hashani, Riinvest’s executive director and research director respectively, travelled to Turkey in 2015 to meet with SEF board members and staff. In a series of workshops, Abdixhiku, Hashani, and CIPE staff advised SEF leadership on communications and advocacy and facilitated discussions on think tank governance and management, including formulating internal policies and procedures, diversifying funding sources and creating a long term strategic plan. Using examples from Riinvest’s experience as a think tank that successfully operated in a conflict environment, SEF was able to pinpoint important issues and audiences, articulate key messages and ultimately develop more robust policy and advocacy activities. SEF staff and researchers subsequently conducted a survey of 1000 factories in northwestern Syria to assess the extent of damages. Their report helped identify needs of the private sector and strategies to rehabilitate these factories.
Since then, the FEDN members have continued to maintain contact with SEF, offering council on governance and management issues and sharing best practices for collecting data during a conflict, research methodologies, building partnerships and constituencies and more. Leveraging the expertise and experience of FEDN, SEF has grown into a key policy player in the region and was selected to be the official Syrian host for Global Entrepreneurship Week in 2015.
Founded in 2012, FEDN has steadily grown into a robust network for leaders and advocates of economic reform to exchange ideas and support. FEDN members continue to provide expertise and technical assistance on market reform in democratic transitions around the world.
Srujana Penumetcha is the Research Assistant for Knowledge Management at CIPE.