Syria is seeking World Bank financing for infrastructure, a senior economic official said, in a major departure from decades of Soviet-style economic policies that excluded international institutions.
‘Negotiations have started with the aim of identifying strategic projects that need financing from different parties and the World Bank could be one,’ Amer Lutfi, head of the State Planning Commission, told Reuters in an interview on Sunday.
‘We have to focus on infrastructure if we’re to lessen the development disparities among the Syrian regions,’ Lutfi said.
The move reflects an acknowledgement of the enormity of the challenges facing Syria, which officially needs $85 billion of investment in the next five years alone to overhaul dilapidated infrastructure and curb underdevelopment.
Droughts since 2006 in three main provinces in the east of the country of 20 million people have resulted in the internal displacement of hundreds of thousands.
Illegal digging of ground wells to plant subsidised crops in the region, such as wheat, have also drained the water table.
Lutfi said a five-year plan the government will start in 2011 puts infrastructure, education, health and a social safety net as priorities while trying to revive agriculture and expand industrial production as ‘real sectors’ of the economy.
Syria has been ruled by the Baath Party since it took power in 1963, banning opposition and imposing an emergency law still in force. Bans on trade and private enterprise have been lessened since President Bashar Al-Assad succeeded his late father, Hafez Al-Assad, in 2000.
But independent economists have argued that the economic liberalisation did not improve the lot of the poor, partly because it was not accompanied by government investment.
They point to Syria coming at the bottom of the heap in international tables measuring the quality of basic services, such as education and infrastructure.
Lutfi said the government will be putting in its own cash into projects it hopes to finance internationally, and that Syria can comfortably raise its foreign borrowing ratio, currently at less than 10 percent of the gross domestic product.
The World Bank has been making more contact with Syria since US President Barack Obama began a rapprochement with Damascus soon after he took power last year.
Its international division, the International Finance Cooperation, is advising the government on tendering for a power generation concession, but there has been no project financed directly by the World Bank, Lutfi said.