Restoring the Power of Community through Participation: UNDP Participatory Local Recovery Planning in Syria

March 7, 2022

Participants from local community committees- Aleppo

By: Lourdes Gomez Rubio

UNDP Syria Program specialist –

Experience shows that in crisis contexts, resilience can be increased through integrated responses that are driven by the priorities of local communities and stakeholders; responses which go deep to address the root causes that prevent those communities from meeting their basic needs with dignity and which take into consideration and respect the complexities of their contexts.

After ten years of protracted humanitarian crisis in Syria, there is an urgent need for the international response to complement its lifesaving/emergency assistance with scaled-up early recovery and resilience assistance. However, it represents some unique challenges that, if not sufficiently addressed, would lead – at best – to limited impact and – at worst – to harming prospects for peace in the country.

The unprecedented damage, that has structurally undermined local economies and communities’ capacity to cope, the territorial and social fragmentation of the country after 10 years of crisis and violence, and the diminishing space for civil society and communities to participate in autonomous recovery processes, are the main challenges that Syrian people and the international organizations must consider.

To overcome these challenges and to lead the way for more effective early recovery assistance in Syria, UNDP is rolling-out a context sensitive, area-based early recovery programming initiative. The main characteristic of this approach is that it is participatory in nature by empowering diverse communities to jointly lead local recovery processes. Such an approach gives UNDP leverage to build local capacities for peace and prevent local conflict through early recovery assistance, thereby supporting the UN’s Sustaining Peace and Prevention agendas and operationalizing the Humanitarian Development Peace (HDP)  nexus in the country. It also allows UNDP Syria to have a more sustainable impact on local socio-economic recovery, by shifting from a project based to a more integrated programme approach that addresses interlinked early recovery challenges at the local level.

What is Participatory Local Recovery Planning (PLRP)

In a nutshell, the main features of this Participatory Local Recovery Planning (PLRP) process promoted by UNDP Syria are the following:

Context/Conflict Sensitive: PLRP promotes participatory, joint context sensitivity analysis in selected areas which involves communities, UN agencies, INGOs and humanitarian actors. Through this analysis, actors identify main dividers/connectors, risks and mitigation measures, as well as a stakeholder mapping to enhance social cohesion. This further encourages a collaborative approach among the UN Country Team (UNCT) and other humanitarian actors; it enables them to identify and address root causes of the crisis at the local level and contribute to the early recovery process and Leave No One Behind.

Area-based Approach: Area here does not refer only to the where but most importantly to how and by whom the process is carried out. The mobilization of local resources and identification of local solutions through dialogue and collective decision making, and the empowerment of local stakeholders, communities, and local administration are the key factors for an effective and sustainable implementation of early recovery initiatives.

Participatory: local communities, local people remain as the greatest source of the untapped peacebuilding process. The community potential can be utilized by moving from a top-down to a bottom-up approach ensuring we are leaving no one behind. To this end, the described approach ensures an inclusive analysis, raises the voice of traditionally excluded groups (women, youth, elderly, PwD, IDPs), and promotes trust building by creating a platform for dialogue between communities and local authorities/administrations, and among community members, to identify priorities, resources, and local solutions, and most importantly

PLRP Pilots:

Co-creation workshop in Hama

During 2021, UNDP Syria piloted the Participatory Local Recovery Planning approach in the district of Kadi Askar in Aleppo Governorate, and in the Old City of Hama in Hama Governorate, respectively. What has this approach shown us?

Progress in more integrated UNDP programming: We took significant steps towards more integrated UNDP projects in priority areas, in order to have more transformative and sustainable impact on recovery dynamics. We also witnessed progress in facilitating synergies with Area Humanitarian Country Team (AHCT) actors on the ground for joint impact in priority communities.

Greater and collective understanding of risks and opportunities for context sensitive programming: The joint analysis of risks and opportunities helped us to mainstream social cohesion outcomes across all programming in integrated area locations through a better understanding of dividers and connectors in the communities we serve and understand how our programming interacts with these factors.

Increased Local Ownership: Local stakeholders were no longer simply passive recipients and beneficiaries, but actively engaged in defining recovery challenges and solutions. Social responsibility has also been increased by identifying needs, but more importantly the process triggered self-organized initiatives with endogenous resources and solutions to face community challenges. Moreover, local administrations have included the communities’ priorities in their annual work plans with allocated budgets demonstrating the local administration’s buy-in and engagement to provide better service delivery changes and increase community resilience.

Promoted local dialogue: horizontal and vertical social cohesion has been increased by promoting the creation of a safe space and mechanism for exchanging views, examining assumptions, and strengthening relationships, including across social cleavages. Trust was built through local platforms/committees, among the local stakeholders involved, and between communities and local councils. Youth, women, PwDs were talking and raising their concerns to local authorities, often for the first time.

Inclusivity and empowerment of traditionally marginalized groups: inclusivity was promoted by engaging and empowering women, youth, elderly, PwDs, IDPs and other actors who are typically not at the center of policy making. Women’s leadership role was gradually enhanced during the whole processes, and this has been recognized within and by their communities.

The private sector representatives from the community (small entrepreneurs, shop owners, industrial workshops) were also engaged as a crucial asset to untap capacities to support recovery and livelihoods efforts. Not only big private sector actors (Chamber of Commerce etc.) but also small entrepreneurs, small shop owners, industrial workshops etc. from selected areas.

Promotion of community organization and implementation of local solutions mobilizing endogenous resources from the community, private sector and the municipalities without any international external aid, like the rehabilitation and beautification of public parks or rubble removal in the neighborhood. Thus, moving towards more bottom-up approach instead of a top-down.

Participants from both city council and local committees on the same table- Hama

PLRP is not a magic potion, it comes with challenges:  

We have observed that people and communities in Syria are willing to increase their participation in local decision-making processes and be part of the solution.  In this regard, the PLRP process is providing a great opportunity not only to enhance community engagement but also to tap into the opportunities to build peace at the local level.

With this approach, the process itself is the main product, the main focus is the promotion of horizontal and vertical social cohesion through dialogue, raising the voices of the communities, and a negotiation process to identify priorities, resources and local context-relevant solutions.

This process is not without its challenges. We need to keep working on generating ownership by building capacities for dialogue and enhancing participatory planning exercises instead of importing plans drafted by external experts at their desks. Also, to achieve gender responsive planning and implementation our efforts should support the generation of disaggregated data and the inclusion of different needs and solutions for women and men in community plans.

Even if the process of local early recovery is the main product, it can’t go without delivering results with local, national, and international support. Implementation of entrenched early recovery initiatives not only will contribute to better service delivery and livelihoods but will also contribute to build trust and give hope to the communities.

Finally, a participatory area-based approach offers humanitarian actors in Syria a common framework through which they can align their interventions with both local priorities and the UN Secretary-General’s Parameters and Principles for Assistance in Syria. In the challenging and complex Syrian landscape, this can make a critical contribution to reducing the fragmentation, duplication and transaction costs of early recovery programs.

This approach might not be the “silver bullet”, but it is certainly a significant and necessary step towards empowering communities and giving them back the ownership of their own recovery process that fits their own needs, dignity and context, and which will eventually lead to enhancing social cohesion and building peace at the local level.

This blog post is the first of a blog series that will feature the work of UNDP Syria on Participatory Local Early Recovery Planning (PLERP). The goal is to share finding, insights, lesson learned, and recommendations gained from the piloting that was done during 2021, and to highlight how UNDP Syria is planning to scale-up this approach in other areas during 2022.