U.S. Corporate Leadership Amidst the Refugee Crisis: A View from Jordan

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of leading a ten-member U.S. business delegation to Jordan representing a broad array of sectors, including infrastructure, consumer goods, financial services, and informational technology. The objective of the trip was to expand trade and investment ties with a key strategic partner in the Middle East while finding ways to help employ and integrate Jordan’s refugee population in the face of a global humanitarian crisis. The delegation was an extension of my office’s mandate at the State Department to promote U.S. commercial interests, while executing on the White House Call to Action for Private Sector Engagement on the Refugee Crisis to which over 60 leading U.S. firms have already responded.

We began our meetings in Amman with the Prime Minister followed by the Minister of Trade, Chair of the Jordanian Investment Commission, the Royal Court Director of Investment, as well as industry leaders and key business associations. The message we consistently received was that U.S. companies not only have unique commercial opportunities in Jordan building on the success of the U.S.-Jordan Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and Jordan’s potential as a regional hub but also that U.S. private sector engagement is key to helping Jordan cope with the strain caused by 16 percent unemployment and the inflow of hundreds of thousands of refugees.

Jordanian Prime Minister Hani Al-Mulki (center) welcomes the U.S. delegation. [State Department Photo]

One specific avenue we explored for our firms to “do well and good” in Jordan was a new Jordan-European Union (EU) agreement under which firms operating in Jordan’s 18 Special Economic Zones and employing 15 percent Syrian refugee labor will enjoy preferential access to the EU market. To explore how our firms might leverage this deal, the delegation met with the CEO of the King Hussein Industrial Zone in Mafraq -- one of the zones encompassed by the EU deal and near the Za’atari refugee camp. The delegation toured the Zone and a factory of Petra Engineering that makes air conditioning units with imported U.S. steel; whose clients span NASA to Facebook; and is a potential beneficiary from the EU deal and partner for U.S. firms.

The success of the EU deal and, more broadly, U.S. companies operating across sectors in Jordan turns, in part, on the ability to access skilled labor. Given that the Information and Communications Technology sector accounts for nearly 10 percent of Jordan’s GDP, the delegation visited ReBootKamp that trains Jordanians and refugees to be software engineers and subsequently places them at top IT firms. One inspiring individual we met was well on his way to successfully completing the program  despite being a Syrian refugee with a sixth-grade education and wheelchair-bound from a sniper’s bullet.

Delegation tours Petra Engineering factory in Mafraq Industrial Zone. [State Department Photo]

Even still, plenty of talent remains untapped in Jordan. In a visit to a refugee community center in Amman, we met with several Syrian refugee volunteers who shared their stories of fleeing Aleppo, Dara’a, Homs, and Damascus at great cost. Teachers, electricians, and accountants, they were keen to work yet a number of their professions fell into closed work categories for refugees.

Informed by a deeper understanding of the opportunities and the challenges of doing business in Jordan, the delegation yielded a range of outcomes. One delegation member plans to launch a fund to support tech start-ups and will now also focus on start-ups led by or hiring refugees. Another member plans to leverage the connections made on the trip to obtain university scholarships and employment commitments for refugees. A third member was able to parlay the delegation into a meeting with senior officials to discuss digitizing government services and financial inclusion products for refugees. Yet another member was able to initiate discussions with a Jordanian company on a major power project -- the type of deal that has the ability to “lift all boats” in Jordan by providing a boost to the economy.

In short, the visit succeeded in highlighting concrete business opportunities for U.S. firms in Jordan, as well as the opportunity for them to help respond to the refugee crisis. For a crisis of this scale, with the largest group of displaced people since World War II, requires an “all hands on deck” approach.

Special Representative Haider meets with refugees at Danish Refugee Council community center. [State Department Photo]

As I have previously described, our private sector has not just a philanthropic but a compelling commercial interest in engaging amidst the refugee crisis; many of them have already admirably risen to the occasion in response to the White House Call to Action. Next month, Secretary Kerry will be recognizing one such company as part of his annual Award for Corporate Excellence: McDonald’s for hiring 900 refugees in Germany since 2015 and providing over 20,000 online German language learning course licenses to refugees.

As I approach the end of my tenure as the Special Representative for Commercial and Business Affairs, I take great pride in the corporate leadership that our firms have shown to date. With the Tent Foundation having assumed a lead role in coordinating private sector engagement in response to the refugee crisis , I am optimistic about the momentum created by the Call to Action and the potential for such corporate leadership to become self-sustaining and for other firms to step forward.

About the Author: Ziad Haider serves as the Special Representative for Commercial and Business Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

Editor's Note: This entry originally appeared on Medium.com.

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Delegation visits ReBootKamp training Jordanian and refugees to be software engineers. [State Department Photo]
Posted by Ziad Haider
December 21, 2016

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