The economic x-ray of Jordan: a blog by Maddie Handler

This blog post was written by Arizona State University student Maddie Handler.

About Maddie:

My name is Madeline (Maddie) Handler and I am the first intern for The Alchemist Lab, founded by 2018 WE Empower Challenge awardee Hadeel Anabtawi. ASU's Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute Of Sustainability co-leads the WE Empower UN SDG Challenge and this year I served as a first round student judge. I am finishing my Master's degree in global affairs and management from Thunderbird School of Global Management (ASU) in Phoenix. I met Hadeel through my mentor Amanda Ellis, who recognized that as Thunderbird's Net Impact Chapter President I had a passion for social impact, specifically U.N. Sustainable Development Goals four (access to education) and five (gender equality).

I have moved to Amman, Jordan for the summer to learn first-hand the social enterprise business model in developing countries, while also providing career counseling and business development advice.Additionally, I am working with The Alchemist Lab team in their Girls' Empowerment Bootcamp program, where we travel to neighboring Jordanian cities to teach teenage girls about empowerment, career goals, STEM, and entrepreneurship. During my time in Amman, my passion for sustainable business models including The Alchemist Lab has flourished. I look forward to bringing everything I have learned back the States, as well as to China in November at the UN Unleashed Innovation Lab.

The economic x-ray of Jordan

When you enter Amman, it is difficult to understand why Jordan is classified as “developing.” It is a beautiful, mostly new city with several malls, restaurants and businesses boasting international brands. It has a vibrant, young and well-educated population willing to work in challenging career fields like engineering, pharmaceuticals and accounting. But not everything is as it seems.

As soon as you leave Amman, the developing world is in plain view. Between each city, there is nothing but open (mostly desert-like) space with the occasional gypsy tent or sheep herder. Jordan is a very small country, with few cities and fewer economic opportunities for workers. As the nation is only about 70 years old, the majority of people in Jordan are refugees from other countries such as Palestine, Iraq and Syria, which creates a major income gap.

When refugees first enter Jordan, they are either placed in a host community or a camp like Azraq, Gaza or Zaatari. Both options have benefits and drawbacks. Historically, Palestinian families escaping political injustice entered Jordan in host communities, which are communities within cities that are open to refugees. The family would then settle down and look for work. Some have done well enough to move into new communities, perpetuate their families and raise their now-Jordanian children. But, in other instances the influx of refugees has become too great, necessitating placement into designated refugee camps such as the Gaza camp in Jerash, where refugees have stayed for nearly 60 years! They are still Palestinian citizens but have since had children and grandchildren in Jordan. These people have never left the camp. Amman, to them, is a far-off city that is impossible to reach.

In the past, refugee camps have been a sustainable solution because they are fully funded by outside donors like the United Nations and international nonprofits. They are their own micro-economic system with living conditions that are affordable to the inhabitants since big cities like Amman are far too expensive. The drawback, however, is most find it difficult to re-enter their home countries and some don’t even want to leave the camps because the process is too much of a headache. What happens then is Jordan produces semi-permanent communities of refugees that are living inexpensively, and therefore, in slum-like conditions.

From a positive standpoint, refugee families who enter host communities do indeed have more freedom, but they are effectively attempting to work and live in expensive, established cities. Some, as previously mentioned, are successful and have lived for years as Jordanians. Others are not so lucky, finding that they must join a camp or return home in order to feed their families. Because of this, Amman displays both massive examples of wealth in neighborhoods like Da Bouq and Abdoun for the very few elites, as well as families struggling to make ends meet in communities around downtown.

The latter have well-educated children who cannot seem to find work in their fields of education, and therefore support the small family business, drive taxis, or, in most cases, look for work in neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia. So here we are in 2019, with the deceptively stable country of Jordan. How can we improve the economics of similar developing countries that are constantly under similar misperceptions? Enter the new model of social enterprises and fair, ethical business standards...