Week 4: On the Issue of Foreign Aid

Despite a slight Ramadan lull (to be expected when the air is suddenly clean of tobacco haze), work began to pick up this week. Given events in the U.S., I was glad to have a busy slate to keep me from poring over updates on the New York Times. My projects this week at work ranged from translation of Arab League documents into English to the beginning of writing a (somewhat daunting) USAID grant for my organization’s operational costs.

One of the more interesting moments of the week, however, came when I was invited to a nearby hotel for a meeting with a group of Danish CEOs. In the aftermath of JCI’s cooperation with the Confederation of Danish Industry, representatives from DI were touring a group of said CEOs around the country to show them potential investment opportunities. Of course, JCI was there to provide the best possible perspective on the potential for FDI into the country. What made this group of CEO’s different, however, was that they all represented various humanitarian aid-oriented companies. Their products ranged from sustainable toilet systems to cheap shelters.

It goes without saying that the need for such goods is paramount in Jordan. Besides the fact that the country hosts over 2 million refugees, it also suffers from crippling resource shortages that hinder opportunities for growth and humanitarian support (more on this later). As it turns out, this group of companies was here in order to observe these problems and figure out innovative solutions to them. Now, I won’t pretend to be anywhere close to an expert on foreign aid, but my experience at this meeting highlights one of the many difficulties that comes along with corporate humanitarian work.

To say that these companies were here strictly on a humanitarian basis would be a false assertion. To say on the other hand that they were here with a profit seeking motive would also be inaccurate. Instead, their mission seemed to straddle the two seemingly contradictory motives. As it turns out, they were here with a negotiated grant of aid from the Danish government to provide humanitarian assistance to Jordan’s refugees. In order to have this grant be politically feasible, however, the money apparently needs to go towards the operation of Danish companies in Jordan.

Herein lies the conundrum. While it is by no means a bad thing that the Danish government has opted to fund the work of Danish companies to help Jordanian refugees, this mechanism of corporate humanitarianism leaves much to be desired. Namely, because these funds go directly from the Danish government to Danish workers, there is little chance for capacity-building among Jordan’s local industries and companies. As mentioned in earlier blog posts, Jordan’s economy suffers from crippling levels of youth unemployment. One of the main causes of this unemployment is the chronic under-development of local industries and businesses—all of whom are vastly underprepared to utilize growing labor supplies in the kingdom. It’s a classic case of teaching a man to fish vs. giving him a fish. Unless the issue of jumpstarting Jordan’s economy is addressed, no amount of humanitarian aid will make a large enough dent in the country’s deficits and refugee problems. In the end, then, it appears that this solution is more Band-Aid than actual panacea.

Though employing this corporate model of aid is certainly better than the alternative of no aid at all, it seems to have already had a crowding-out effect on local Jordanian aid efforts. Though I have nothing more than anecdotal evidence to support this claim, I have already seen this first hand when it comes to looking for supplies for our own small aid project.

We first came into contact with the families at the al-Mafraq a little while ago. The 10 families living now on the al-Mafraq farm come from varied backgrounds. Having previously resided in camps such as al-Zaatari- and before that the Syrian cities of Homs, Aleppo, and Damascus- the refugees here are a hardy and generous group. Currently, they live outside the farm in a camp set up and- in exchange for their labor in tending to the farm- receive food, electricity, and a place to stay.

When we visited the farm last week, we found that its condition left much to be desired. Though the residents of the farm do receive food and water in exchange for their work, their living conditions consisted of repurposed UNHCR tents and makeshift shanties. Additionally, the farm laborers have to weed, till their crops, and maintain farm facilities under a blistering sun and arid, desert conditions. Regardless of this adversity, they continued to maintain an overflowing sense of hospitality upon our arrival. Despite the fact that many of them were fasting during Ramadan, they continuously offered us coffee and water to quench our thirst.

As we begin to try and help these refugees, we began to look into their needs. Among requests for food and clothing, we received behests for deliverables like air conditioners, water coolers, sustainable toilets, and cheap, easy-to-set-up housing. As I sat down this week to search for suppliers for these items, it became increasingly clear to me that no local Jordanian suppliers could be easily found. Now, this may be because there simply hasn’t been the need for them. That doesn’t seem likely. Instead, it’s hard for me not to make a connection between the aforementioned funding model and the lack of demand for Jordanian-made humanitarian goods. Because all these goods are imported anyways from well-established and well-funded companies in other more developed countries, the demand base has never been enough to seed home-grown businesses. Now, this may all just be a load of bunk, but I feel like I might be on to something here. In any event, someone with a strong background on development/aid literature probably knows the answer to this.

On a somewhat related note, I wanted to mention a whimsical incident on the home front that makes the issue of resource limitations feel very real. Our house’s water supply comes from a water tank at the top of our apartment building. Due to water sharing policies, this tank is resupplied by the government once a week through underground pipes. Under normal conditions, this system seems to work pretty well. Indeed, as long as you’re reasonable about your water consumption, there’s rarely any problem.

This week, however, my roommate forgot to pull the plug on the toilet stopper by accident. This meant that quite literally all of the water in our tank flowed through the toilet and back into the system, leaving us with no water for the rest of the week. Beyond this initial dismay, we had to call a water truck to come early this morning and haul its water delivery pipe up 5 stories to refill our tanks. When all’s said and done, there was no harm at the end. It was just another reminder that, even for the most privileged of us, water scarcity is never very far away.

– Aateeb

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