The new minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation in the Netherlands, Sigrid Kaag, is a diplomat with a long track record in the Middle East. She is not only a good but also a logical choice for the position, given that Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq have been added to the list of focus countries in Dutch development cooperation policy.
ICCO sees opportunities for stimulating entrepreneurship among refugees in the region – a structural form of development that Kaag should be in favor of.
Refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq
Under the coalition agreement of the new government the list of countries that receive Dutch development assistance is up for review. Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq will become new ‘focus countries’ – countries that Kaag knows well from her time as UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon. A frequent criticism is that the Dutch government has chosen to focus on these countries to keep as many refugees as possible in the region, in the vain hope that fewer refugees will come to Europe.
The intentions of the new cabinet aside, however, it is clear that countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq are barely able to deal with the huge numbers of refugees they are now hosting. The huge influx of refugees has disrupted their economies and as a result there are fewer employment opportunities, lower wages, a growing informal labor market, higher housing costs and increased scarcity of products (ILO, 2017).
The refugees in these countries also need assistance from other countries. It is not realistic to leave their welfare to Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq alone. We should not forget either that the number of refugees who actually choose to attempt the journey to Europe is very small. Many refugees choose to remain in the region, in the hope that they will be able to return home – that is what they want most.
And this is gradually starting to happen. When it is safe enough, Syrians are already starting to return to their region. The question, then, is what is the best way to offer structural assistance to the refugees (and the host countries) that will also be of use should they manage to return home? ICCO believes that the way to do this is through entrepreneurship, and that the new Dutch government could support this kind of initiative through its policy.
Stimulate refugees’ entrepreneurship
Many refugees had their own shop or business back home. And they should have the chance to start a business again – while they may have lost their business and their capital, they still have their entrepreneurial experience. And as such they are a potentially interesting group for investors.
If these refugees start a small business in the host country where they are living, it’s not only a way for them to earn a livelihood, but it helps them to integrate socially and economically. More economic activity leads to new jobs, for Syrian refugees and for the Jordanian host community. It also creates future prospects, in particular for young people who are most susceptible to the lure of richer countries or of extremist groups.
Business Recovery Services & Fund for refugees
Refugees face many obstacles when starting up a business: legal obstacles (employment quotas for refugees, high start-up capital requirements) and financial obstacles (insufficient collateral, no proven track record, lack of familiarity with local finance possibilities).
ICCO is therefore setting up a Business Recovery Services & Fund for refugees in Jordan, a country where ICCO and Kerk in Actie together have extensive experience in providing regular humanitarian assistance to refugees. The new program scouts entrepreneurs and offers support in the form of trainings (for example on cultural awareness, legal frameworks, investment prospects) and access to networks and start-up or restart loans. The focus is on ‘mobile’ businesses, which can be continued if a person returns to Syria and have upscaling potential, for example mobile apps, Wi-Fi installation or processing tomatoes for puree. This is also a way to contribute to reconstruction.
New ‘country policy’ for Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon
These kinds of initiative are ways in which the Dutch government could implement its new country policy for Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. They are initiatives that empower people and work towards structural solutions and building a future. In addition, it is of prime importance that these initiatives are implemented by organizations that are familiar with the region, so that use is made of local knowledge and expertise on the ground rather than having to reinvent the wheel every time – something that Sigrid Kaag understands better than anyone.