Jordan resilient despite Syria strain

Apr 08, 2016, 11:32 AM EDT
Zaatari Refugee Camp, Jordan.
(Source: Foreign and Commonwealth Office/flickr)

Jordan is an oasis of stability in the turbulent Middle East, but the country is under enormous strain. On Friday the IMF affirmed the country's positive economic outlook, but reduced its GDP growth projection for next year yet again, citing spillover effects from the conflicts in Iraq and Syria as key factors. It expects GDP to grow by 2.5-3% next year, a step down from the 3.2% projected last month and well below the 3.7% that the government predicted.

Violence in Syria and Iraq harms everything that Jordan needs, including trade, investment, tourism, and security.

Additionally, Jordan has absorbed some 638,000 Syrian refugees since the civil war broke out there in 2011. But providing for them is stretching the government’s finances and putting the country’s domestic infrastructure and services like health care and education under relentless pressure.

For example, Jordan has opened up its schools to children of all nationalities, believing that education is a universal right. As such, the Ministry of Education has spent over $845 million building about 5,000 classrooms to absorb the growing number of Syrian students, in addition to recruiting and training a large number of teachers. And the annual cost of educating Syrian refugee children in Jordan's schools is estimated by the Ministry to be another $352 million per year.

Likewise, the Mowasah Reconstructive Hospital in Amman is the only facility in the region that provides free facial plastic surgery and other health services; nearly two thirds of its 140+ patients are Syrian.

But Jordan cannot handle an unlimited influx of refugees, especially as there appears to be no end to the conflict in sight. It is doing its best to serve the refugees it currently houses, yet there are tensions on the border over how many more can come through. A military source said on Wednesday that over the previous 24 hours 310 Syrian refugees entered the country, were given medical aid by border guards, and sent to refugee camps, which is fairly typical. But last month Jordan blocked a much larger group -- estimated by the U.N. to number around 50,000 – from entering, leaving them in the desert on the Syrian side of the border with limited humanitarian access.

So the beleaguered country will host a big international financial conference on April 25 to try to boost the economy. Besides focusing on innovation and entrepreneurship, the event will analyze the main challenges facing the country, like its dependence on foreign aid, the need to provide jobs for the influx of refugees, and how the business environment needs to be improved. It will also examine the positive effects that lower energy prices and international support have had on banks and public finances.

On an optimistic ending note, there has been a vibrant tech startup and adoption scene in Jordan’s refugee camps. Given the chance, it can spread elsewhere.