By providing 25-30 percent of both employment and gross domestic product (GDP), agriculture plays a dominant role in the Syrian economy. As a source of export earnings, it is second only to the oil sector, and its backward and forward linkages constitute the most relevant domestic source of stimuli for industrial and commercial activities. Over the past four decades, agricultural growth has been able to respond to the needs resulting from a fourfold population increase; the degree of self-sufficiency for most food staples augmented and traditional exports, such as cotton, developed while new export markets, such as wheat or fruit and vegetables, were entered. These factors concurred in ensuring to the population a per capita food availability comparable, in terms of calories, to those enjoyed in developed countries.
Agricultural growth has been accompanied by significant improvements in the living conditions of the rural population, as shown by current access to basic services and availability of infrastructures in rural areas. This, alongside a per capita income in agriculture comparable, on average, with the other economic sectors, highlights the high priority given to agricultural growth and rural welfare within the economic and social development strategy of the Syrian Arab Republic. Indeed, between the mid-sixties and early eighties, the rural population benefited from the agrarian reform, from substantial public investments in irrigation, land reclamation and infrastructures, and from significant input subsidies. Starting from the second half of the eighties, the shift towards export orientation involved a gradual removal of input subsidies. But this was accompanied by other important support measures for the agricultural sector: increases of procurement prices for the main staples and other strategic crops, a relative protection of the domestic market from international competition, the rapid enlargement of irrigated areas consequent to the investments of the previous decades, while the gradual unification of the multiple exchange rates system resulted in effective devaluation. Furthermore, the constraints deriving from the rigidities of the planning system and the state monopolies in marketing and processing were progressively relaxed.
However, the persistently high contribution of agriculture to GDP also demonstrates that agricultural growth, promoted by substantial public support, has not been outperformed by other sectors. This is reflected in the original pattern followed by the structural transformation of the national economy, which has been characterized by a slow factors migration from agriculture to other activities over the last two decades and by a peculiar reverse labour migration towards the countryside in the early nineties. The slow growth in other sectors poses increasing pressure on agriculture, because it leaves on this sector the burden of providing employment to the rapidly growing rural population, but it also implies slow developments of the marketing and processing activities that are crucial for shifting the focus of agricultural growth from quantity to quality as well as for enhancing competitiveness at international level. Accordingly, future support for agriculture development should be conjugated with sustainable growth in other sectors in order to face four main constraints: i) the demographic constraint, which calls for macro stability and the establishment of a conducive business environment able to attract the domestic and foreign investments needed to stimulate growth and employment, and for concentrating the limited public resources on human capital investment and the maintenance of the country's relatively good social and productive infrastructure; ii) the institutional constraint, which calls for the modernization of the public administration, and for further relaxation of the planning systems, so as to conjugate increased efficiency and effectiveness of the public intervention with enhanced possibilities for the private actors to flexibly adapt to the changing economic environment; iii) the external constraint, which calls for further economic opening to capture the potential benefits of international integration, but requires adequate improvement of national competitiveness; and iv) the environmental constraint, which demands the adoption of technologies and policies adequate to ensure a sustainable use of natural resources, by containing soil erosion and salinization as well as deterioration of rangeland and, above all, water depletion.
The Syrian Government has been giving increasing priority to facing these challenges, and has adopted proactive attitudes at both sector and economy-wide levels. Recent examples in the latter domain are the laws promoting private investment, including foreign investment, and small scale labour intensive domestic activities; the efforts to modernize the public administration; the reform of the banking sector, by strengthening the role of the central bank and allowing the creation of private banks; the reform of the customs duty system, the simplification of the exchange rate regime and of currency use regulations; as well as the accelerating negotiation of an Association Agreement with the European Union, the application for membership in the WTO, and an active stand in regional and bilateral trade negotiations. With specific reference to agriculture, the objective of public intervention has been shifting from self-sufficiency to sustainable self reliance, and focused on the enhancement of water use efficiency and on the development of the extension and research capacity, while continuing promotion of crops intensification, expansion of livestock production and mountainous land reclamation. Moreover, 90 percent of the state farms land has been distributed to former employees and other beneficiaries like sharecroppers. The private sector has been allowed to enter an increasing number of activities, including import and domestic marketing of inputs, foreign trade and domestic commercialization of some strategic products such as wheat. Price policies are showing an increasing concern for the cost of domestic support and for the incentives to private processing, as shown by the limitation of price support for an important product such as cotton.
Overall, public intervention has been gradually but consistently shifting from direct intervention in the production and distribution of goods and services, to the establishment of a regulatory framework and incentives' system needed to promote more effective involvement of the private sector. This changing relationship between public and private agents calls for the identification of new roles, objectives and instruments of government intervention, which, in turn, requires new skills in analyzing economic trends and in formulating, monitoring and evaluating economic policies.
To support this endeavor in the agricultural field, the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic received from the Italian Government, through the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), assistance for strengthening its technical and institutional capacity. The Government of Italy cooperated with the Syrian Arab Republic by providing technical expertise and generous financial support for two successive projects implemented by FAO. The first one, GCP/SYR/002/ITA Assistance in Agricultural Planning, Policy Analysis and Statistics, was implemented between June 1995 and September 1996. The second project, GCP/SYR/006/ITA, started its activities in April 1998, completing in October 2001 its first Phase denominated Assistance in Institutional Strengthening and Agricultural Policy. This phase focused on providing the training and institutional support needed for establishing the National Agricultural Policy Center (NAPC), a new institution of the Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform specialized in applied economic analysis of agricultural policies. While training the cadre and designing the institutional setting for the NAPC, the Project supplied international expertise to conduct a series of studies covering the main aspects of Syrian agriculture with a threefold objective: providing a systematic overview of main agricultural issues in order to identify feasible policy options; contributing to the elaboration of a proposal for an Agricultural Development Strategy for the Syrian Arab Republic; and enhancing capacity development by promoting the collaboration between national and international experts. These studies are currently used as baseline for the training and research activities that the NAPC is conducting with the assistance of the second phase of the Project GCP/SYR/006/ITA - Assistance for Capacity Building through Enhancing Operation of the NAPC.
In making these studies available for wider readership, I am grateful to all those who contributed to this volume, certain that enhanced knowledge of Syrian agriculture among scholars and practitioners can promote further exchange and scientific support to the Syrian development endeavour.