Getting Syrians back to work – a win-win for host countries and the refugees


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 John Speakman l World BankFor the last six weeks or so I have been more or less full time engaged in thinking about how we can generate employment opportunities for Syrians in countries that are hosting them, particularly those located in Syria’s near neighbors.  I have reflected on my experience in working on private sector development in Syria nearly a decade ago.  As someone who had worked in virtually every country in the Middle East I was amazed at the country’s industrial potential.  My senses – my eyes, my tongue, and my ears enjoyed walking the souks of Aleppo and Damascus observing the amazing artisanal capabilities in furniture, handicrafts, fabrics and confectionaries. So in thinking about how the Bank can help the Syrian refugees, my mind quickly turned to the question of finding the entrepreneurs and artisans behind this wealth of capabilities.  What could the World Bank do to help Syrian entrepreneurs?  Could we for example replicate our efforts with the Pashtuns of Khyber Pashtoonkhwa a few years back?  There we had helped small businesses get back on their feet after their livelihoods had been destroyed by the Taliban.  Was something similar possible?

The thought became even stronger when last week I was driving around Jordan and visiting some economic zones which the Jordanians have offered as places where investors could set up and employ Syrians.  There we met some Syrian investors, such as Ahmed.  Ahmed was an early mover – a manufacturer of footwear he moved at the beginning of the crisis and reestablished his small enterprise in the Jordanian town of Ma’an.  From a small beginning, he now has 30 staff who are for the most part Jordanian.  We then went to Karak and met Moustapha, another Syrian with a similar story who manufactures confectionary, selling to various places around the world including the Dominican Republic.

As I was driving back to Amman later that afternoon – I thought whether we could find more Ahmeds and Moustaphas.  We had heard of another 10 or 20 such small to medium enterprises in Jordan and some others in the Gulf, Turkey and Egypt.  These were the lucky ones – investors whose businesses were not destroyed, and who were able to move some capital, machines and know-how out.  What about the unlucky ones – those whose businesses have been destroyed? Estimates are that over 50% of Aleppo’s manufacturing capacity was destroyed . Aleppo: this manufacturing center  in the Middle East – the place  that manufactured ‘manufacturing capacity’, like tools and dies – was lost.  What could be done?

​​​​​​Courtesy of John Speakman l World BankCould we build some small buildings  like the one Ahmed occupies in the picture – could we help finance replacement equipment?  What could we do to help get these entrepreneurs back on their feet and contribute to the economies of their host countries?  First we needed to find them – so I began to brianstorm on this topic with whomever would listen.

Omer Karasapan, a fellow blogger on all things linked to refugees from the Middle East, and I  talked about this challenge. We know, from our experience in fragile environments, that it is often the diaspora that are the first movers.  So we looked at the data first.  The Syrian diaspora itself is a phenomenan that is now multi- generational (originating as far back as the 19th century)  with the majority in the Americas.  Brazil, USA, Argentina, Mexico & Canada account for 75% or more of the Syrian diaspora , with the rest scattered around Europe, Africa and Oceania.   The refugees have quite a different pattern. The largest concentration of refugees outside the region are in Germany and Sweden. The vast majority of refugees, however, are still in the countries neighboring Syria: Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.  What faciltiies might be needed to bridge this geographical divide, and match refugee populations with potential investors from the diaspora?

In short we need help and we would welcome ideas on this topic.  We hear of lots of informal activity in this space and as an institution, the Bank would like to find ways of supporting initiatives that will make a difference for refugees and the communities and countries that host them.  In particular we are looking for ways of bringing the skills, entrepreneurial acumen and capital if available to help solving the challenge of finding jobs in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.


John Speakman

Adviser, Trade and Competitiveness

Join the Conversation

Rosemary Jones
February 14, 2016

Hi John.
The new economics will be about the wealthy supporting the poor people to do climate change response work, and in order to be safe.
First though, it is necessary to ask ALL governments, ALL heads of state, to put forward their ideas for solving the climate problem, because that way there will be solutions which they can direct, which can command their intelligence, and as an alternative to the present circumstances which too often evidence putting tribalism before the needs of the planet.
Part of this effort could be asking the different rebel groups in Syria if they would prefer to be paid to plant trees in eco enclaves or to continue with killing and maiming people.
(Almost all refugee camps should be transformed into eco enclaves because their hinterlands need to be revegetated and reforested. Also, the human waste is available for composting the trees. The refugees need to be properly paid to do the work).
Secondly, it is necessary to set up a UN Climate Change Response Program, with the intent of restoring reflectivity and shading where ever possible, and as organized by a panel constituted of government, corporate, academic and NGO representatives.
(Unfortunately, the UNFCCC is not able to manage vast numbers of people, and the Secretariat does not include restoring reflectivity in the official definition of mitigation, and even though loss of reflectivity is now responsible for about half annual warming and can be mitigated separately by whitening and shading mechanisms).
Everything has to be said openly, climate work has to be seen as a challenge, so that heads of state know what is happening and how to contribute, how to move from an era of conflict to a new era of cooperation.
That contribution may well mean the defense spending goes to planet regeneration rather than to planet devastation.
All this has to be emphasized at the UN.
Please ask Dr Yong Kim to suggest to the Security Council that the UN Program is quickly set up,and advertised in the media outlets of banks and post offices worldwide.
Please also forward an email address so I may send details of some essential transition technologies, which could be the basis of local authority contributions to climate action, things like retrofitting all chimneys by replacing chimney pots with VAWTs, straightforward things, and also grid transformations.
Thank you.

February 16, 2016

Thanks for your comments. The green aspects are particularly important to us as this is a key value proposition for the markets Jordan is aiming at. Your ideas on what to do within the camps on the environmental front are probably best addressed by UNHCR who run them.

Rosemary Jones
February 14, 2016

P.S. The transition technologies need to be manufactured, which means employment.

Ruth Onyancha
February 15, 2016

Perhaps in this situation, the bank could engage the refugees on the ground, to ask them. This would lead to identification of various forms of trade in simple products required by refugees for daily susbistence, and at which they excel in producing.
Having grown up during a time of extreme turmoil in my own country, I found that those with an entrepreneurial spirit who went on to establish small enterprises supplying essential goods and commodities through trade showed positive results in terms of household incomes. They are the ones who established or knew what was needed by the ordinary person, what was appropriate in our circumstances and sold us those commodities in a reliable way and grew their small businesses to create employment and stemmed flight.
It was also necessary to get funding, so initial grants will be necessary, building of skills to manage these funds and opening up markets with the involvement of host communities for overall security and cooperation. This would work well in the middle east given their close community and family ties.
Hope this helps.

February 16, 2016

Ruth what you describe is indeed what is happening in the camps. There is a vibrant camp economy that is developing and can be supported.

Teju A
February 16, 2016

I believe vocational training or skills for person interested in building economic sustenance.Formal training for young ones and exposure to ideas that can eventually be utilised now within the community they are currently living in or when they finally settle back in their country. They will also need help in rebuilding or gaining dignity.