Week 1: SME Conference

This past week, I was able to participate in the second annual conference for the promotion of domestic SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprises) at the Meridien Hotel in downtown Amman. This conference represented the culmination of a year’s worth of cooperative work between the Jordan Chamber of Industry and the Confederation of Danish Industry. Consequently, attendees of the conference included local Jordanian SMEs, local government officials, and international business consultants/advisors.

Given that over 96 percent of Jordanian businesses would fall into the SME category (meaning that they employ less than 500 employees), the importance of maximizing the potential of this business sector is paramount to any long-term plan of promoting Jordanian exports and market welfare. For this reason, the theme of the conference focused on the establishment of stronger bilateral relations between the Jordanian private and public sectors. Despite the fact that they comprise such a large proportion of the Jordanian GDP and employment, the nature of many of these businesses makes it so that they are difficult to regulate and consequently provide legal protections for. Additionally, because so many of these SMEs are so tightly connected to their proprietors, there is little legal difference between the finances of the owner and those of the company—something that is crucial in limiting individual financial liability and promoting a more entrepreneurial spirit among SMEs.

With the ultimate goal of strengthening these legal protections and promoting a friendlier economic environment for these businesses, the conference hosted speakers who spoke to the need to promote better dialogue between regulatory ministries and SMEs. These included advisors from Canada, the United States, and Germany. Though each extolled different benefits of a strong SME sector, all emphasized the need to establish private trust in the public sector through the creation of equitable tax policies and the elimination of state corruption.

Also of particular note was the repeated and stated need for a greater entrepreneurial spirit among younger Jordanians as a means of combatting youth unemployment as well as regional security. Youth unemployment in Jordan, despite the fact that 97 percent of the youth population is literate with a high college graduation rate, is estimated to be above 25%. With recent estimates also suggesting that over 35.8 percent of the population is under the age of 15, the need to combat escalating youth unemployment is paramount. One potential solution to this problem would be a concerted effort to promote a stronger entrepreneurial spirit amongst young Jordanian college graduates—whereby instead of simply looking to find well-paid and prior-established (and rapidly dwindling) jobs, college graduates would be more comfortable striking out on their own to establish new businesses and ventures. Should such a long-term cultural shift occur, it would have widespread benefits both for the reduction of youth unemployment en masse as well as reducing the potential for youth radicalization among the heretofore disenfranchised.

Such a concerted effort, as some speakers suggested, would include better legal protections for SMEs in the event of bankruptcy, more responsive public officials through better public-private dialogue, and smarter loan practices among Jordan’s many established traditional banks through a renewed focus on venture capital. Although certainly not a silver bullet for the many long-term problems facing Jordanian SMEs, this certainly holds some promise.

– Aateeb

Week 1: CBO Celebration

One workweek down and I’ve made it through many language, cultural, and directional barriers. I’m working at the Jordan River Foundation, which is an enormously successful non-profit NGO headquartered in Amman. JRF is primarily focused on child safety and community empowerment, and has created numerous programs in Jordan to address these issues. With the increased influx of Syrian refugees, the programs have become so much more vital. Let me tell you about what I learned on my second day at work.

I met up with my boss, and she said I could tag along to a CBO (community based organization) celebration happening in East Amman. JRF uses community mobilizers and staff to help institute these incredible community programs through the Makani project. When I arrived, I sat and watched over a hundred children cheering as Jordanian, Syrian, Iraqi, Palestinian and Circassian groups performed traditional dances. I was given the camera for a bit, and logically went on a mission to make kids smile. There was so much happiness in this tiny park–my job was easy.

The different cultures each set up booths with traditional art, food, games and more from their home countries. The goal is to bring all these immigrants, refugees and Jordanians together in order to strengthen the community and empower the people. This was strikingly relevant to some problems in the US, and I was incredibly impressed that this community had been able to tackle an issue that we tend to ignore. They now have a greater priority of improving the community, and that priority has a prerequisite of acceptance.

Overall, I don’t think I’ve ever smiled that much in a 3-hour period. A few days later, I tagged along on a trip to Karak (south of Amman) to check up on a center JRF created. The building had three rooms that were used to teach Arabic, English and Math to Syrian refugees and poor Jordanians. I learned that the public school system is overwhelmed and has little room for all of the Jordanian children, let alone the increasing refugee population. But the kids so badly want to learn, want to make their teachers and parents proud. I have to tell myself that the efforts of NGOs and local governments will make this a possibility.

I’m absurdly lucky to be able to see first hand what I’ve read about in the news. While I sit in the office doing research and reading proposals, the kids put everything into perspective. Here’s what I’m learning: Happiness knows no language, love knows no religion, respect knows no borders. Jordan is an incredible country, in more ways than just its culture and beauty. Jordanians have embraced their neighbors in an incredible turbulent political time for the Middle East. This is easy to say, but it’s difficult to comprehend how much time, effort and resources are expended to help those in need. And this help is being offered to other nations while Jordanians are still suffering from poverty and unemployment.

I’m looking forward to working on proposals to institute and fund additional projects and facilities for JRF. The need for psychosocial support and child protection is extreme, especially in refugee populations. For the 54 days I have left here, I’m letting my priorities be challenged and changed. Here’s to doing my little part to help the people here, and letting everyone I meet teach me about the world.

– Lindsey

Day 1: Navigation and Amman

On my first day of trying to get to the Royal Botanic Garden administrative office (where I am working this summer), everything possible went wrong. In fact, the problems began a couple days before, when I realized that I had no clue where I was supposed to go. The program heads had given me an address instructing me to go to “Khalada King Abdallah street, Royal Center,” followed by a string of Arabic characters, where the number “168” in the middle was the only part I could read. Having received this on the first day, I disregarded any uncertainty, assuming I would learn enough about Amman over the next week to understand what the English description meant before needing to use it. During the first dinner with my host family, my host mom and sister asked my roommate and I where we would work. My roommate told them that she would be at the third circle, and they nodded and commented about how that isn’t too far away. When I told them “Khalada, King Abdallah Street, Royal Center,” they looked at me blankly. I gave them the paper with the address, and after looking over it and discussing it between themselves, they finally give a sigh of realization and nodded with understanding. I, however, was not feeling as confident about where I was meant to go as before, especially since these two native Ammanians had initial hesitations about the directions.

After three hours of Google Translate, teaching myself basic recognition of Arabic characters, and pouring over the map of Amman we were provided with (all during which my roommate was sleeping off her jetlag), I determined two things. First of all, the English translation was wrong, and I was meant to go to the neighborhood of Khalda (not Khalada) to King Abdullah II St (not King Abdallah Street, which also exists). Second of all, the address was of no use, since taxi drivers in Amman use landmarks as means of navigation, not street names. Therefore, my plan of attack for the next day was to use the King Hussein Mosque as a landmark that seemed close to where I was supposed to go, and to direct the driver from there.

Being that this was my first time navigating a taxi on my own in Jordan, I was simply overjoyed that the driver understood what I meant by “King Hussein Mosque,” and sat back and gazed out the window for the entire ride over. I realized too late that we had passed the circle at which I had meant for the taxi driver to go straight—the most telling sign was that we were driving through a gate, into the park, and up to the guest entrance for those who wanted to visit the mosque, something which I had not intended to happen whatsoever. In addition, when I tried to tell the taxi driver to turn around (accompanied by many erratic hand gestures pointing behind us), the driver just gave me a look and kept going. Not knowing how to say  in Arabic but “yes,” “no,” and “hummus,” I just gave the driver the amount I owed him at that point (which I realized too late was 1.5 dinars too high, as I had forgotten to check if the driver had reset his meter), jumped out, and speed walked back out of the park.

julia blog

Having the attached picture on my phone, I somewhat knew what direction I was meant to go in, and judged the distance from the entrance I was at to my workplace as a feasible stroll. Thus, I started heading on the walk parallel to the highway toward my work. Within a couple minutes, I was sweating and forming blisters. All I could see along the wall I was following was a group of suspicious teenage boys and the haphazardly planted trees that Jordanians like having in the middle of their sidewalks. After about 20 minutes of honks and “Welcome to Jordan!”s sounding from the cars passing by, I made it to the main section where my work would be. Once there, I realized that the buildings were in connected rows, where large shops on the bottom had names in big letters, but upper floors were label-free administrative offices—one of them presumably being the one I was looking for. I went from shop to shop, asking for the Royal Botanic Garden, and showing the paper to anyone who couldn’t speak English. Only once I walked into the restaurant under the office I needed did someone recognize the name, and pointed me up one floor. I arrived 45 minutes late, but at least I arrived. I was introduced to everyone, and promptly forgot all their names. I managed to lock myself in the bathroom twice, and had to leave three hours early (I stayed for a total of about two hours) because I forgot a converter for my charger.

Fortunately, this first day was not indicative of my subsequent navigation experiences in Amman in any way, especially the stoic driver. Since then, taxi drivers have wholeheartedly encompassed everything I have come to appreciate about Jordan: openness toward foreigners, passion for life, friends, and families, and the ability to navigate incredibly eccentric traffic. They have sung Arabic remixes of Pitbull songs with me, proposed, shown me their children’s best friends, bought me everything from water to cigarettes to sandwiches (I politely refused all three), and discussed the refugee situation. They have taught me more Arabic than I have learned from anyone else here, and have enthusiastically communicated with me in a hodge-podge of Arabic, English, French, Spanish, and once even German. Within the following week, I learned the layout of West Amman to the point that I no longer rely on tourist maps. Many days I don’t require English to direct drivers at all.

Additionally, my work has been an incredible experience. The coworkers are all welcoming and patient with my transition in the new culture. They explained all the local holidays to me, invited me to their pizza party, and even introduced me to the princess who founded RBG (!!!!). Fortunately, my turnout on my first day did not influence their opinion of me, and I have learned how to follow basic elements of Arabic conversations by just listening to their chatter. I have been able to fall into a relative rhythm of work and home that allowed a quick and smooth transition to life in Jordan, something which I was expecting to take much longer based on my first day.

Having come from a tricultural background, I was anticipating myself to experience minimal culture shock when arriving to Jordan. In fact, it still has not been that overwhelming, being that much of Jordan reminds of me of Europe, with the southern US’s disposition to being open and hospitable. Now, I have acclimated to the navigation of Amman very well. However, I remind myself of this day as a representation of the necessity to incorporate improvisation and flexibility as a part of any plans I make, since foresight can only take me so far, and I am in a new country after all.

– Julia