Syrian refugee crisis: Can business deliver?

Fatima joins Syrian and Lebanese students in classes at the Mohammed Shamel mixed elementary public school in Beirut, Lebanon. Can new investments deliver the the quality over quantity needed for long-term education and job creation in the region? Photo by: Adam Patterson / Panos / DfID / CC BY

On the eve of the Syria donors conference in London, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development unveiled its ambitious plan to support refugee-hosting communities and strengthening local economies.

The bank is aiming for a 900 million euros ($1 million) financing package for Turkey and Jordan, and it hopes to finance up to 500 million euros in new transactions subject to mobilizing an additional 400 million euros in grants.

The package will support a key role for the private sector to help the two neighboring countries with infrastructure projects, small business initiatives and the provision of employment opportunities.

Is it too risky to wait and see?

With the lifting of barriers to refugee employment new jobs urgently need to be created. While employment opportunities will provide refugees with a much needed livelihood, steps must also be taken to avoid resentment building up in host communities, many of which are already experiencing economic depression.

In the Turkish city of Kilis, the number of Syrian refugees now outstrips the local population. “If refugees face hostility from local people they will look for alternative destinations and those will be Europe, the United States and Canada,” warned the town’s mayor.

“Refugees are facing a real danger,” explained the head of the Turkish Centre for Migration and Refugee Studies, Murat Erdogan. “Social acceptance of refugees in Turkey is high but is it sustainable? It is dangerous and risky to wait and see.”

Scaling access to education

The education sector forms a key part of the support for refugee-hosting communities. The operation of a shift system has helped 200,000 Syrian children to enter Lebanese schools but a further 250,000 are unable to attend. In Jordan 90,000 young Syrians do not have a school place while in Turkey that number rises to 400,000 according to Human Rights Watch.

As a result of this lack of education, too many refugee children in Syria’s neighboring countries face falling into child labor, growing extremism or even prostitution. The fear is that, if these children remain excluded from the school system, this ‘lost generation’ pose a future crime and security risk to the region and beyond.

This demand for both better access and quality in education has galvanized commitment and partnerships totalling $75 million from a diverse range of corporations under the Global Business Coalition for Education banner.

The coalition is using its business know-how to respond to the specific obstacles that governments in the region have identified to provide education for all, and its latest initiative seeks to harness the power of technology to find new solution for the education region’s education crisis with backing from major leaders in the sector.

Donors want to be part of the conversation

Yet if the international community fails to make use of the talent already existing within the region to deliver many of these interventions it will be a missed opportunity. The city of Amman is emerging as a tech hub in the region. How can Jordanian tech firms also compete to deliver services?

One long-lamented issue is the lack of a framework for public-private dialogue. In a letter to the Jordan Times, Overseas Development Institute fellow Steve Zyck called for Ministry of Industry and Trade to create opportunities for aid agencies and businesses come together on a regular basis to better understand one another’s needs and capabilities.

According to the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, donors are keen to be involved in conversations with communities and municipalities in Syria’s neighboring countries as they are keen to get a better insight into where the best impact may be made.

“As a donor country we are looking for partners and we are looking for good channels. It’s not that we are not happy with the bank but we also want to be sure that the investments we are making are also good for the communities they are engaging,” the agency explained.

Global brands pushing for decent work

It has been suggested that job opportunities will never be sufficient to absorb the entire additional workforce. Opening up access to international markets is an avenue that many in the region want to see addressed if donors are serious about job creation.

For all the talk of turning a challenge into an opportunity, it is clear that businesses keen to protect their global reputation need guarantees that they can avoid accusations of exploiting Syrian refugees or undercutting native labor.

One possible solution, which emerged from a recent private sector round table hosted by the NGO CARE International, was to ensure that refugees were employed in decent work to build business confidence and scale up investment.

A strong track record on PPPs

Jordan’s appeal to potential commercial partners rests not on the grounds of charity or corporate social responsibility. Rather the kingdom sees itself as a sound business opportunity for investing in the myriad of infrastructure and job creation initiatives that the EBRD hopes to bring on stream. The country has a strong track record of successful public-private partnerships on projects ranging water to waste management.

Tarek Zuriekat, a Jordanian entrepreneur explained, “Most sectors in Jordan have experience of managing PPP contracts. There is a good legal framework in place with the new PPP law and the likes of EBRD and [the French development agency] are encouraging private sector to take more risk in this area.”

Business fearful without a political solution

Yet Jordan’s past track record may not be enough to reassure nervous potential investors. Christopher Egerton-Warburton, a fund manager at Lions Head Global questioned which, if any, measures could be taken to insure investors against the region’s risks.

Given the latest announcement that the peace talks aimed at ending Syria’s five-year conflict have been suspended, albeit temporarily, the goodwill of the private sector may not yet be enough to generate investment in the areas that are so urgently needed.

“How can capital investment be protected if the war spills over into neighboring countries?” he asked.

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About the author

  • Zoe Smith

    Zoe Smith is a Devex correspondent based in London, where she works as a journalist and communications consultant. Over more than 15 years, Zoe has written for publications including New Internationalist, The Guardian and Rolling Stone. She established Full Fact, a U.K. nonprofit, in 2010 and continues to provide strategic digital communications advice to the nonprofit sector. Zoe holds a master’s of science in violence, conflict and development from the School of Oriental and African Studies.