Relief and Development: Ending the Zero-Sum Myth

Is it possible to economically empower both Jordanians and Syrian refugees? Two leading relief agencies believe so.

By Brian E. Frydenborg

Sadly, as 2018 opened, the world looked on yet another consecutive year of record displacement, with a staggering 68.5 million human beings displaced throughout the world, a 50 percent increase from a decade ago and building on the previous year’s record high of 65.6 million displaced.

This latest figure includes some 25.4 million refugees who, by definition, have been forced to flee not just their homes but their entire countries. Those refugees include 6.3 million people who have fled Syria, and, including people displaced inside Syria, some 12.6 million Syrians—over half of Syria’s population—have fled their homes, the highest number of any country in the world.

Of course such a mass movement of people would cause problems anywhere, and Jordan had enough of its own problems before the Syrian Civil War erupted in 2011.


As such, to say the war in Syria and the mass displacement it has caused have had a tremendous impact on Jordan would be an understatement. It now has over 666,000 registered refugees (over three-quarters of whom are women and children). But including unregistered refugees, Jordan’s government has been estimating since early 2017 that the number is at least 1.4 million, comprising roughly 20 percent of Jordan’s population. The Zaatari refugee camp on the border with Syria is now in effect Jordan’s fourth largest city.

The crisis is worsening still, with a new Syrian regime offensive (carried out with the direct support of their Russian enablers’ air force) in Syria’s southern Daraa province, the birthplace of the revolt against Assad. On the border with Jordan, it is creating some 300,000 new displaced persons and growing. Before that some 700,000 others had fled in just the first few months of 2018.

For Jordan, this is more of a continuation of history than a break from it, as the tiny, resource-poor country has absorbed waves of refugees throughout its short history as a nation. The Syrians have had major economic effects on Jordan, contributing heavily to all sorts of significant price increases (from food to rent) and costing the Kingdom some $2.5 billion a year, roughly one-quarter of its government’s revenue or 6 percent of the country’s GDP, according to a World Bank report from 2016. And, naturally, Jordanians are right to be concerned about these effects. Price and tax increases were in no small part a major contributor to the protests that rocked the Kingdom recently.

But too often, the economic effects of the crisis on the refugees themselves are forgotten, as with millions of people fleeing a chaotic situation with just what they can carry, the immediate priorities lie with providing safety, food, shelter, and medical care, and there is not enough funding to even provide that. But as this war drags on into its eighth year, economic empowerment of refugees is a vital task that will be essential to preventing the cycle of conflict and poverty that has wracked the Middle East for most of its post-WWI era.

While the economic empowerment of refugees is a formidable challenge for a number of reasons, there are many important initiatives underway in this vein, but the work remains daunting, and though a Jordan Compact was agreed upon between the government of Jordan and the EU in early 2016 to help increase economic opportunities for refugees in the Kingdom, progress has been slow.

According to a 2017 survey, 82 percent of Syrian refugees in urban areas were living under the poverty line, with 40 percent of urban Syrian refugee family income coming from humanitarian assistance, with only one-fifth of Syrian refugees able to obtain work-permits.

Despite these overwhelming circumstances, a variety of NGOs are operating to address these issues, among them CARE International. Operating in Jordan since 1948, few other organizations can match CARE’s experience or depth of ties to the Kingdom.  Despite the worsening situation in Syria and the major challenge of obtaining adequate funding in an era of increasing hostility to refugees worldwide alongside a rise in global nativist sentient, CARE forges ahead in its efforts to assist and empower the displaced.

CARE’s Jordan Country Director Salam Kanaan responded to my inquiries by first stating that “economic empowerment is one of CARE Jordan’s strategic directions,” noting that their goal was “to enhance empowerment programming for Jordan’s most vulnerable groups.”

Refugees and Jordanians alike are members of these vulnerable groups, and when it comes to refugees CARE’s particular focus is on women and girls. Kanaan elaborated on their general approach to economic empowerment, adding that CARE staff work “with government and private-sector partners through micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) in innovative sectors, vocational training, sustainable livelihoods programs, access to finance and loans, internships for employment, entrepreneurship training, resilience markets, and other programs that increase agency.”

In the last decade, Kanaan explained that CARE has established and scaled-up many programs, including ones that provided vocational and technical training to more than 15,000 refugees and Jordanian women and men. These programs have also ensured access to employment and obtaining of work permits for refugees, and have “supported the establishment of tens of home-based businesses over recent years for Jordanians and refugees through grants, loans, and providing startup kits.”

But lately, the Jordanian government has made some regulatory changes that encouraged the establishment of home-based businesses. These are particularly helpful for refugee women, as many cannot leave home because they must take care of their young children. In the short-term, CARE hopes that the government will allow Syrians to establish home based businesses and continue the policy of waiving the fees for the work permits for refugees. In the long-term Kanaan hopes that Jordan also will open up more sectors to Syrian refugees other than the current four to which they are restricted: agriculture, construction, garment, and services.

Mercy Corps: Having Mercy for Jordan’s Beleaguered Economy

Another NGO that also sees the importance of a holistic approach is Mercy Corps. It has been working in Jordan since 2003 and currently has one of the most private sector focused strategies to economically empower refugees of any major NGO whose work in Jordan I have examined.

For whatever reason, the real philosophy behind, and details of, these particular efforts are not laid out on its website. But a wide-ranging chat with Khaleel Najjar and Lina Shahin, Mercy Corps Jordan’s senior program manager for youth impact labs and project coordinator for access to justice and jobs, respectively, will provide Venture readers with an inside understanding of this unique programming that few others have.

For Mercy Corps, the problems plaguing refugees and Jordanians are basically one and the same: a poor economy with few good job opportunities and very high unemployment among both refugees and locals.

In fact, Jordan has one of the highest unemployment rates in the Middle East, and in the first half of 2017, the overall unemployment rate was 18.1 percent (up from 15.3 percent in 2016), with 90 percent of the unemployed in 2017 being younger people aged 15-39. Jordanian youth are, then, unsurprisingly particularly pessimistic, with 88 percent of them feeling things are moving in the wrong direction, nearly the highest in the Arab world, according to this year’s Arab Youth Survey.

Mercy Corps dug deeper, Najjar and Shahin explained, and engaged in several surveys as part of the preplanning for their program’s designs that yielded telling results about youth unemployment here, which, according to their results, is not a Syrian or a Jordanian problem, but a youth problem. Employers feel young adults are not focused or committed, and question their work ethic and sense of entitlement. Even the young people doing the surveys came away feeling their attitude and those of their cohorts needed to change. Many youth just assumed they would not get a job because they did not have wasta (connections), but employers surveyed said they valued drive, flexibility, and interpersonal skills over wasta.

Najjar further explained how if organizations only focused on developing capacities of refugees, such an approach will not get beneficiaries far in a weak Jordanian economy (weak even before 2011) and will lead to frustration. He explained that Mercy Corps’ fairly unique economic empowerment approach focused on a broader sense of economic development that would seek to help refugees and Jordanians alike by jump-starting the economy in a number of micro-ways that could add up to more macro change. These changes would over time have deeper impact than directly giving training or resources to individual beneficiaries.

Najjar emphasized the need for effective matchmaking and advancing a sharing economy of freelancers and, like CARE, homebased workers, but through a marketplace or a digital platform that would provide ample opportunities in both the physical and digital marketplaces.

Shahin, in turn, emphasized the lack of opportunity which was a problem even before the refugee crisis. Even before, 2011, Syrians here were perceived as taking jobs away from Jordanians, but the truth is more complex.

Both Najjar and Shahin explained that Jordanians and Syrians come from very different educational and economic systems. Because of peculiarities of history, Syria ended up being diplomatically isolated from the West while Jordan did not; as a result, Syria became very self-sufficient and trained many of its people in technical, blue-collar jobs. While Jordan often depended on access to foreign markets, imported labor, and sent its young people to university for aspirational, white-collar jobs. So even before the Syrian crisis, Syrians were working in the Jordanian economy in jobs that often suited their skill-sets better than many educated Jordanians. They could also be more flexible because they had left home and their families and work long hours in ways that local Jordanians, who needed to be with their families, could not.

At the same time, the Syrians who were self-selecting to work in Jordan fit that mold. But now, with many refugees arriving in a process that can hardly be described as self-selecting, some Syrian refugees face the same problem as many Jordanians: their skill-sets, like those of many Jordanian college graduates, do not fit the market needs, and they need to be with their families. Thus, in trying to create better and more diverse jobs for Jordan as a whole, Mercy Corps improve everyone’s lot.

Shahin believes Jordan needs to get out of the mentality that it is in a state of emergency and it must adjust to the new reality, while NGOs needed to advance development projects further.

Mercy Corps currently facilitates matching capital from social impact investments with social entrepreneurship that employs both refugees and vulnerable Jordanians in fields like coding, quality assurance and customer service. Both Shahin and Najjar noted that in Jordan, investors are not taking enough risks and startups are not getting the money they need, and that bridging this gap on a significant scale could be key to jumpstarting the Jordanian economy.

Without question, Jordan and the refugees living in it face many challenges. CARE and Mercy Corps are but two of a significant number of organizations trying to address the issue of economically empowering both refugees and Jordanians in general. And while it will certainly take time and a lot of change to adequately address these issues, both organizations understand that the private sector matching the services they provide is key to transforming the Jordanian economy in needed ways. Both are also aware that funding their efforts, and the funding of all such efforts in Jordan, falls far short of where it needs to be for that necessary change to happen. The hardest question is still the most obvious one: where will the money come from? Both Mercy Corps and CARE are doing their part, but it is painfully obvious that many more organizations and people need to join this effort.


Brian E. Frydenborg in an American freelance writer, academic, and consultant from the New York City area currently based in Amman, Jordan. The views expressed herein only necessarily represent those of the subjects and/or author.