The Wages of War: Learning from How Syrians Have Adapted their Livelihoods through Seven Years of Conflict

Kimberly Howe, Roxani Krystalli, Vaidehi Krishnan, Jon Kurtz, and Reimar Macaranas

Mercy Corps, February 2018


This study explores why some Syrians have been able to adapt their livelihoods during conflict. Protracted conflict has had widespread impacts on people inside Syria: violent incidents causing property destruction, injuries and death occur on average twice per week; 90 percent of Syrians live with moderate to severe fear and psychological distress; 6.1 million Syrians are internally displaced (the average IDP has moved 3.7 times); two-thirds of households have lost one or more of their main income sources since the start of the conflict; and two-thirds of households do not have secure access to food. Security and access to livelihoods are primary push and pull factors for households to move within the country or to leave Syria.

Despite the widespread impact of the conflict, one-third of Syrians have found ways to adapt their livelihoods—achieving significantly better food security, higher expenditures, improved psychosocial wellbeing, and better housing conditions. “Adaptors” typically rely more on small business, trade, skilled labor and the private sector, while those who have not adapted depend more on agriculture and animal husbandry. Adaptors were not better off pre-conflict compared with the rest of the population. The study identifies factors that have enabled livelihood adaptation including: (a) access to functioning markets; (b) access to loans and remittances; (c) social networks; and (d) women and youth income earners (among households that have adapted their livelihoods, more Syrian women and youth are earning incomes outside the household than before the conflict).

The authors recommend several strategies to reinforce existing coping strategies and livelihood adaptation: (i) support the delivery of unconditional and unrestricted cash assistance; (ii) strengthen local markets and small-scale producers’ capacity to support food self-sufficiency; (iii) support business recovery, livelihood opportunities and skills training in key economic sectors; (iv) ensure humanitarian aid strengthens social networks; (v) design targeted livelihood programs for women and youth, without ignoring men; (vi) engage women and youth in community rebuilding, and engage with male community leaders to create more buy-in for these roles; (vii) support technology-based skills development; (viii) remove funding barriers that parse human needs into emergency, early recovery and development; and (ix) support learning based on market-driven approaches.