He shifted uncomfortably on the hospital bed as we walked in. His eyes avoided ours. The doctor told us they were reconstructing his leg. I tried not to stare at the hospital blanket, wondering what lay underneath. The rest of my travel group peppered his mother with questions. Since arriving in Israel had they heard any news about their hometown, their community? Was it safe to return? Were her other children and her husband alive? She didn’t have answers. The doctor explained to us that as Syrian refugees, while the boy and his mother are receiving care in the Israeli hospital, they are not allowed to leave their hospital room or receive news from outside for their own safety and security.
“What’s your favorite subject in school?” I asked before we left. The boy smiled and looked down at his hands, then up at his mom. “Recess.”
This boy is not the only victim of the Syrian civil war. Actually, he is one of 13.6 million Syrians internally and externally displaced. Thankfully, he is not one of the 400,000 casualties. These can be just numbers. 13.6 million is about the population of Washington, D.C. metro area…doubled. Since I have met this boy affected by the Syrian civil war, these aren’t just numbers anymore. Each number has a face and a name. Each number is a person with memories of experiences no one should live through and dreams and aspirations erased along with limbs.
Why has this happened? I am not satisfied with surface level explanations for why there are millions of Syrian refugees. I am not satisfied with the solution to just “do more.” I don’t think more NGO’s will solve the problem. And I’m not convinced US troops can bring democracy and freedom to Syria. These solutions are lacking; they don’t address the root cause of Syria’s devastation.
Paul Collier studies development economics and his research areas focus on impoverished countries and those barely surviving. He is currently an economics and public policy professor at the University of Oxford. His most well-known book, The Bottom Billion, offers insight into the causes behind this global problem of conflict and poverty.
Collier lists four traps that countries can fall into and lead to cycles of poverty: the conflict trap, the natural resource trap, the bad neighbors trap, and bad governance trap. It is the conflict trap that offers insight into the Syrian crisis. Civil wars, like the one in Syria, start a cycle of violence that costs the country greatly in deaths of the population, the inability to support an economy, and the political uncertainty. War is perpetuated when insurgents and political leaders profit from the conflict. Collier calls war “development in reverse.” Many people talk about war in moral or defensive terms. After all, war is costly, so why would anyone willing stay in a war if not in pursuit of some greater cause? But this view ignores the incentives of many leaders (political, military, and businessmen) to continue the war. One example is the economy created by the war. Vast amounts of aid from rich countries intended to provide the people with basic necessities or even to provide the military with ammunition to defend themselves against the attack are instead appropriated by corrupt leaders. Tightly guarded borders means a high opportunity cost for merchants bringing goods. Those who do bribe soldiers and hire bodyguards sell their goods at high prices, profiting more on the black market than the legal alternative. These incentives show that war, especially civil wars, can be a trap.
The civil war in Syria started in 2011 and after President Obama instituted sanctions on Syria in April, the black market exploded to avoid sanctions by selling imported goods at exorbitant prices. Merchants bribed soldiers at military checkpoints to let their trucks pass through, individuals started private security companies to protect trucks carrying goods across the country, and soldiers recaptured towns only to loot them. Nour Samaha writes, “The profits made from the underground wartime economy [in Syria] by these individuals are likely to provide more of an incentive to allow the war to continue than encourage it to stop…these same people are also likely to be better positioned to benefit from the reconstruction projects that will come after the end of the war, and this will direct the reconstruction process in favor of vested interests rather than the interests of the general [Syrian] populace. While there is expected to be a legitimate economy after the war eventually ends, the illegitimate profits will linger.”
This is depressing news for the Syrians. Collier’s traps explain why the “bottom billion” people are not experiencing the same growth as the rest of the world, nor are they experiencing catch-up growth like China or India. These traps are what keeps individuals, like the Syrians, poor. But Collier’s theory doesn’t need to leave the world without hope. If Syria can end its civil war, it may be able to rebuild its society in peace and experience incredible growth. Studies have shown that people who have been exposed to wartime violence are more likely to cooperate after the war. The people act more “prosocially.” That is, they are more likely to act in ways that benefit their neighbors and communities to ultimately rebuild trust. Wartime violence has effects – PTSD, forced separations, economic destruction to name a few – but not all these effects are negative.
Nearly half of all countries in the world, including Syria, have experienced conflict. The World Bank reported that 2 billion people live in fragile states. We’re prone to think that these countries, damaged by war, will not be able to accumulate the necessary resources and materials to rebuild, let alone address the emotional and social implications. But, in fact, these studies have shown that communities within nations do not always lack what they need to prosper.
The boy never cried or complained in front of us. He smiled when he talked about football and the World Cup. He laughed quietly when we asked him how long he had been growing his mustache. His mother stood by his side the entire time. She mostly kept her gaze on her son, but for a brief moment, her eyes met ours. “We will return home,” she quietly repeated.
I hope one day soon the boy walks out of that hospital room, his reconstructed leg ready to kick around a soccer ball at recess. I hope his mother is reunited with her husband and other sons, each family member safe and whole. I hope the violence subsides enough that they return to their village, and find their home and garden intact, not just a pile of rubble and debris. I hope that their strength and resilience allow them, and their neighbors, to rebuild their community, piece by piece and escape Collier’s poverty trap.