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Think tank urges NGO-private sector partnership to better serve refugee community

By Elisa Oddone - Jul 16,2014 - Last updated at Jul 16,2014

MAFRAQ — Firms eyeing humanitarian crises as commercial opportunities are contributing more to bring relief than companies who solely provide financial aid, according to a research published by a Britain’s top international development think tank on Wednesday.

The report from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) said humanitarian responses like Syria’s refugee crisis can be eased if entrepreneurs think of them as business opportunities.

“Most people think philanthropy or forms of corporate social responsibility [CSR] are the best ways to help, but our research has shown that this is not the case,” said Steven Zyck, ODI researcher in the Humanitarian Policy Group and lead author of “Humanitarian crises, emergency preparedness and response: the role of business and the private sector”, commenting on the study.

The report, which includes research from middle-income countries such as Jordan, Kenya, Indonesia and Haiti, shows that where private sector companies are making money, it is because they increasingly offer quality and in-demand services.

“The private sector has transformed cash transfers, telecommunications and logistics in humanitarian crises,” Zyck told The Jordan Times in a recent interview on a visit to the country’s Zaatari Refugee Camp.

“For donor agencies, working with the private sector — especially local businesses — makes perfect sense as they can also benefit rather than suffer from increased refugee numbers and humanitarian efforts operating in their region,” Zyck added.

Jordan is currently hosting over 600,000 Syrian refugees who have fled the over three-year-old conflict in their country, UNHCR figures show.

Some of them have found refuge in the Kingdom’s two largest refugee camps, the newly opened Azraq Refugee Camp, some 100km east of Amman, and Zaatari, a few paces from the Syrian border.

However, about two-thirds of the refugees reside in host communities scattered across Jordan, swarming in northern governorates close to the Syrian border.

With a population of around 85,000, Zaatari camp is one of the largest refugee camp in the world.

“We are looking into solutions to make the camp more sustainable in terms of costs, and especially concerning the electricity provision since it roughly costs $500,000 per month,” Gavin White, External Relations Officer at Zaatari camp told The Jordan Times.

“The installation of a solar power station in Mafraq Governorate is currently under consideration, leading us to engage with the private sector. Once the solar power station is operational, it will reduce the cost of electricity for the host Jordanian population and, at the same time, reduce our operational running cost,” he added.

Current discussions to beef up infrastructures and services inside Zaatari involve the construction of a sewage and water pipe system inside the camp, which would start by the end of the year, and the implementation of a transportation network.

In the case of the solar power plant, there are currently talks with Missouri-based Sun Edison, which offered to provide $5 million of the $20 million cost to implement the solar power project, White said.

As for electricity and Internet connectivity early engagements were taken with Google.

The economy inside the camp is estimated to be JD10 million per month including the main thoroughfare of white tents at Zaatari Refugee Camp, the so-called Champs-Elysées, and about 3,000 refugees working in humanitarian capacities inside the camp.

“The camp has developed very fast within two years; it has become a thriving economy and who has done it? The Jordanian and Syrian private sector,” Zaatari Refugee Camp Manager Kilian Kleinschmidt told The Jordan Times.

“This is about bringing capacity together. Why should I task an NGO to hand out goods that could be made available on the market? Of course, the weakest would still refer to NGOs but the large majority of people would be able to get the items they need on the market,” Kleinschmidt said, adding that bringing solid partners in the humanitarian response would provide a quality of service.

Jordan Ahli Bank, together with the World Food Programme, has handed out prepaid debit cards to refugees substituting the former paper voucher previously used to buy food.

“We are 75 per cent the way through the transition from paper to e-voucher. We distributed the cards in the host communities and by the end of the month we hope to have provided all refugees with these cards,” World Food Programme’s emergency coordinator for the Syria Refugee Operation in Jordan, Jonathan Campbell, told The Jordan Times.

Jordan Ahli Bank provided this service in partnership with Mastercard through a CSR offering free of charge issuance and transfer of funds onto the cards. A nominal charge is applied in case of new issuances.

“We have 75 shops accepting these cards scattered across the country. As of the end of June we have put $202 million into the retail economy through the shops since August 2012. Now we are putting about $23 million a month into the shops. Each month, it gets larger,” Campbell said.

Systems to use the prepaid debit cards inside the camps were still on their way since a stable and reliable Internet line was needed ahead of the implementation, but Campbell said NGOs were currently working on this issue with Jordanian providers such as Umniah, Zain and Orange.

“It is not that the private sector will replace the traditional humanitarian community; it is about the two sectors complementing each other. The private sector’s technical expertise and resources offer great opportunities to innovate and improve services, while humanitarian agencies continue to have leading insight into what types of aid are needed and how to reach people in remote communities,” Zyck said.

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