15 September 2012
A few weeks ago I found myself on the outskirts of a remote village in the Jordanian desert. One of my travel companions received a call on his mobile phone. It was a member of Jordan’s security services, saying we should call if we needed anything as they would have people nearby at all times. It was then I began to realize that the small projects I had come to observe had a global impact.
I am not a traditional international relief worker. I grew up in a small town in Kansas, became a corporate finance lawyer, worked on the management team of a movie studio, and ran a startup healthcare services company. Perhaps this corporate background contributed to my skeptical view of the value of the U.S. spending overseas during bad economic times. During my two-week trip to Jordan and Iraq, however, I witnessed first-hand how seemingly minor development programs can help support stability and international values.
Although Jordan projects an image of tourist-friendly calm, its location between Israel, Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia makes it a strategically important player in any Middle East peace process – or conflict. All its borders, except those with Israel, are porous, and the country has received over 750,000 Iraqi refugees since 2003. Recently, over 140,000 refugees crossed from Syria as that country’s conflict has escalated. In the small town of Mafraq in northern Jordan, I met a Syrian woman and her three daughters who had fled their home the morning after Syrian forces killed all of the males in the home next door, including children. She has had no contact with her husband and sons since she left.
The Jordanian people and government have responded compassionately, absorbing refugees into their homes and neighborhoods. A consequence of this kindness, however, is that communities are finding themselves overburdened. Jordan’s severe water shortage leaves most areas with running water only two days a week. Doubling or tripling the size of households turns water rationing from inconvenience into impossibility. The same is true for sewage, waste management, and public infrastructure as antiquated systems are pushed past their capacity. Even the free market works against the Jordanian hosts, as the swelling refugee population drives up the price of housing, food, and other commodities, while pushing down wages.
Jordan is now on its fourth prime minister in 18 months. One Member of Parliament told me the ministers focus every day on how to meet the population’s needs. However, the country lacks the oil and other natural resources of its neighbors, so it is not able to provide for all its needs, and this has created obvious disillusion in some areas. It is important that Jordan remain a stable country and not become a source of regional unrest or a staging ground for terrorism.
Fortunately, the international aid community has recognized Jordan’s strategic importance and has launched ambitious programs aimed at relieving some of its internal tensions. These efforts are low profile, often involve small expenditures, and are structured to provide long-term benefits along with immediate relief. I visited several of these programs, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and implemented by the U.S.-based nonprofit International Relief & Development (IRD), on whose Board I serve.
Using small grants, these programs are improving the infrastructure for Jordanian neighborhoods that shelter refugees. One UNHCR-funded program is replacing the old metal water tanks on rooftops with larger, longer lasting plastic tanks. This simple operation takes about two hours per household but immediately improves health conditions (the most important factor in preventing the spread of disease among humans is access to clean water). Other programs I visited provide basic home repair and upgrades, improve road safety conditions, and construct schools in poor regions.
Unlike aid that provides solely short-term relief, these programs provide long-term benefits for host families and communities. When the refugees depart, the hosts have homes upgraded for current needs and for the future. Buildings that were previously abandoned are restored and are contributing to community vitality rather than blight. In general, communities are better off for having taken in refugees. I met with many residents in these areas, expecting them to be angry about the stresses refuges place on their communities. Instead, I found people who were proud of what their communities had done, thankful for the benefits they received, and hopeful the next generation would have better lives as a result.
Installing plastic water tanks on poor peoples’ homes in a remote desert town will not solve all the world’s problems, but these programs are helping to improve the lives of refugees and ease the tensions in an area crucial to Middle East stability. In our current time of economic stress it is tempting to reduce foreign aid. What I witnessed, however, is that by investing relatively small amounts in fragile areas, we can help ease tensions and reduce the risk of instability that could lead to the need for much larger engagements down the road—with potentially huge costs in dollars and lives. Our tax dollars are helping people who themselves have extended kindness to their neighbors, and that is also a good thing.
We never did meet the officer who phoned my Jordanian travel companion, but apparently these programs had resonated well within his service, because he thanked us for all the help we were extending to poor communities in Jordan.
Robert Brada, Co-Founder and President of Blue Sky Building Systems, serves on the Board of Directors of International Relief & Development (IRD).