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Helping refugees makes business sense

Jan 18,2014 - Last updated at Jan 18,2014

Jordan is missing out on a significant opportunity to increase its businesses, expand its tax revenues and generate employment.

This can all be done while better serving the needs of Syrian refugees and the international community.

Rather than treating aid agencies and Syrians as new customers, all but a few businesses view refugees as a burden or a source of cheap and illegal labour. However, considering the sheer amount of aid to Jordan, businesses should begin viewing the international community — and the Syrians, Palestinians and Jordanians they support — as a valuable sector capable of contributing to a growing economy.

The latest UN Regional Response Plan for the Syria crisis requests $1.2 billion for aid agencies in Jordan, in addition to more than $400 million for the Jordanian government for 2014. This combined amount is equivalent to more than 5 per cent of Jordan’s 2013 GDP.

The UN-operated Financial Tracking Service reports that foreign donors contributed almost $900 million in humanitarian assistance to Jordan in 2013. This amount excludes hundreds of millions of dollars in unreported assistance from the Gulf, the Syrian diaspora and philanthropists.

One large international aid agency estimates it is spending nearly $2 million every day in Jordan on aid projects, salaries for Jordanian staff, rent payments and other goods and services.

Aid agencies are increasingly interested in market-based solutions to make their response more effective and sustainable.

In recent months, a number of non-governmental organisations, UN agencies and others began using programmes that provide cash — often on debit or ATM cards — to refugees, thus allowing them to purchase food, toiletries, school supplies and other items.

The Regional Response Plan requests more than $176 million for cash programming in Jordan for the first half of 2014 alone. At this rate, roughly one in four aid dollars provided to Jordan could support cash programming rather than handouts.

This amount will go not only to Syrian refugees, but also to vulnerable members of host communities in the hardest-hit governorates in, most notably, northern Jordan.

It is time for Jordanian businesses to more fully grasp this opportunity.

Research just released shows this can be done in a responsible rather than exploitative manner.

Two Jordan-based firms, IrisGuard and Cairo Amman Bank, partnered with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to develop ATMs that scan account holders’ eyes in order to allow them to access cash provided by the international community.

These companies have signed contracts, albeit with low profit margins, with the international community while also developing innovative technologies they can market to governments and individual banking customers across the region.

At a December 2013 conference on education among Syrian refugees in Beirut, the urgent need for collaboration with information technology firms in the region was raised.

These firms are required to develop interactive online classes that capture apolitical elements of the Syrian curriculum.

Research in Jordan reveals the tremendous opportunities for the Kingdom’s private education and healthcare providers to develop low-cost services that many Syrian refugees and others would be eager to use.

There are several other similar opportunities for “win-win” solutions that have yet to be realised because there is, simply put, an absence of basic opportunities for entrepreneurs and leaders in the aid community to connect.

Humanitarian aid workers and business figures do not have the same coordination meetings that NGOs and UN agencies do.

Jordan’s Ministry of Industry and Trade should take the initiative and bring the country’s chambers of commerce, industry associations, aid agencies and business leaders together on a regular basis.

Technical experts from businesses can demonstrate the solutions they can offer to humanitarian issues.

Such meetings will also provide aid agencies an opportunity to notify Jordanian firms of what goods and services they anticipate purchasing over the coming months — allowing Jordanian firms to prepare to bid for large international contracts alongside foreign firms.

Jordanian businesses need to be aware of the economic benefits that can come from this influx of refugees and the international community.

Through embracing new opportunities, local businesses can thrive, jobs will be created, refugees will have access to the services they need and the aid sector can meet its humanitarian obligations.

The writer is a research fellow with the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute in London. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

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