Architects of Economic Reform: Building Syria's Social Market Economy

Friday, June 24, 2016: 4:15 PM-5:45 PM
205 Dwinelle (Dwinelle Hall)
Gozde Guran, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ
In 2005 the Syrian government announced that the country was transitioning from a socialist economic system to a “social market economy.” The move provided a political label to the economic reform process initiated under President Bashar al-Assad’s leadership. Thus, Syria became the first state to officially name its national economy after Germany’s social market economy model. Far from being a coincidence or a simple rhetorical tool to disguise an otherwise neoliberal turn, this labeling, I hope to show, is only the most visible manifestation of a far more profound technocratic alliance between Syria and Germany.

This paper unpacks the black box of economic reform by attending to the concrete ways in which reform practices reconfigure the field of economic policy and governance. As such, in studying reform as a process, I center my analysis on the architects of economic reform – the technocrats, development experts, and consultants who design and enact these policies. More often than not local and transnational actors are connected to each other through networks of expertise, through which they are able to mobilize economic and symbolic resources to enable interventions in the name of reform. Besides mapping out these connections, studying reform processes also entails examining the mundane artifacts that these networks produce – their white papers, reports, presentations, and emails – as they go about restructuring policy institutions and transforming models of economic governance.

By examining these actors and their artifacts, I expand the debate regarding economic reform and expertise and introduce a new set of questions: What are the processes and practices that enable economic reform? What are the political and institutional conditions under which reform can be enacted? How do reformers’ deploy their expertise and symbolic capital to define and maintain an arena for “competent” economic action and jurisdictional authority? More specifically, how do a set of ostensibly apolitical actors successfully bring about fundamental and, often, profoundly political transformations in the field and mode of economic governance?

I address these questions through a historical and empirical investigation of Syria’s transition from a centrally planned economy to a social market economy from 2000 to 2011. In doing so, I map out a hitherto unexamined set of connections between Syrian technocrats and German development experts, who came to be incorporated into Syria’s institutions of economic governance. Syria represents a strong case in which to analyze the unfolding of economic reforms because in many ways its experience does not conform to the narratives forwarded by either the neo-classical or anti-neoliberal schools. In Syria, economic liberalization was not precipitated by a crisis or imposed by international actors, but rather was a largely “home-grown” strategy initiated by the local political leadership. Moreover, the substantive content of the reforms and their gradual pace of implementation deviate from the standard narratives of market liberalization, which emphasize homogenous diffusion processes that fail to account for variation. The official branding of reforms encapsulates this point. Instead of standard neoliberal terms, the Syrian government chose to borrow the German government’s terminology and characterized its new economic model as a “social market economy.”

To tell this story I draw on a diverse array of sources, including interviews with Syrian and foreign technocrats and consultants involved in the reform process, Syrian government documents such as the five year plans, public speeches and statements by government officials, data on aid grants and loans to Syria since 2000, and media coverage on Syrian reforms. I also draw on the Syria files released and published online by the whistle-blowing organization Wikileaks; these releases provided a rare opportunity to gain insight into the activities and discussions occurring within the Asad regime, including with non-Syrian foreign advisers, regarding the nature and trajectory of economic reforms.

Finally, I conclude the paper with a discussion of how these networks of expertise have been reconstituted and repurposed in the context of Syria’s civil war. As a testament to their endurance, almost four years into the political and humanitarian crisis in Syria, the same networks remain critical to distributing aid, channeling humanitarian relief, and planning for post-war reconstruction. Tracing these shifts in the aftermath of the uprisings allows us to critically examine the flexibility with which these networks of expertise can be re-purposed and redeployed from one site of intervention to another.