Creating a Million Jobs in Displacement Contexts…Challenge Accepted!

Mohamed from Kobane, was unable to follow his family to Europe because of a physical disability. The IRC connected him with a tailoring apprenticeship to help him manage on his own in Beirut.. Jacob Russell/IRC

Since the start of the Syrian crisis in 2011, more than 6.5 million people have been uprooted from their lives, families, homes and places of work. Nearly 5 million people have crossed the Syrian border, seeking a better life in nearby countries like Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey. As refugees struggle to support their families and contribute to their new communities, finding regular, safe and decent work to buy food, send their children to school and pay medical bills continues to be one of their most urgent needs. Regular and decent work supports refugees and host communities to emerge from debt, accumulate assets, and access critical services such as healthcare. Employment helps these vulnerable communities to recover from stress and shocks when bad things happen, and contributes to an overall sense of self-worth.

Let’s start with the good news. Governments and donors around the world have their eyes on the prize, prioritizing employment and job creation investments and earmarks for refugees and host communities. Now more than ever, the United Nations, non-governmental organizations, governments, and private companies are committed to improving livelihoods for those affected by mass displacement. At the Supporting Syria Conference in February 2016, donors pledged $11 billion through 2020 to respond to the refugee crisis with employment a key focus of pledges. Host countries in the region, including Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey specifically made important commitments to support employment aimed at hitting targets close to a million jobs created and/or work permits accessed with plans to address refugee access to legal and decent employment by 2017.

But there is also some bad news.

  1. We have not seen the international community turn their commitments into tangible reality. Despite public announcements, donor governments have not yet fully followed through on their funding promises. And while some countries have taken meaningful steps — for instance, the Government of Jordan has issued over 26,000 work permits for refugees so far this year — they are a far cry from the scale needed and fail to address the cumbersome process to permit access.
  2. Even if these commitments do more quickly translate to action, clear-cut solutions are hard to come by. It turns out that creating jobs and securing employment in protracted displacement contexts — especially in countries that were struggling pre-crisis — can seem like a Sisyphean task.

Take Jordan, for example, where high unemployment, estimated between 15–22%, coupled with a slow 2.7% economic growth rate since 2005, has made it difficult for both refugees and Jordanians to find job opportunities. Jordan’s economy is hollow meaning the majority of jobs — around 74% — are in micro businesses or large enterprises. And due to limited access to capital to support growth, small and medium businesses (SMEs)— typically the largest job creators — are unable to thrive. Jordan ranks among the last at 185th on “Getting Credit” according to the World Bank Ease of Doing Business statistics, highlighting how difficult it is for SMEs to access support. Unemployment affects Jordanians across the spectrum, with the two largest groups of unemployed workers at the tail ends: literate, but uneducated workers, and highly educated workers, often out of work for a year or longer. Refugees face additional challenges, such as having to navigate a complex bureaucratic process to access work permits.

Creating employment solutions that addresses these complex demand-and supply-side dynamics is extremely challenging. A solution that may apply to a specific segment of the population might not fit for others — each requiring another attempt to roll the boulder up the hill.

Facing the Challenge Head On.

The IRC has committed to facing the employment and job creation challenge head on by both continuing to build on our learning and evidence-based programming successes on the ground, and by thinking bigger and bolder about the challenge through our Research and Development work.

Evidence Based Programming

The IRC currently serves over 20,000 clients through our livelihood centers in Lebanon and micro and small business support programs in Jordan and Iraq. These programs not only substantially change our client’s lives, but are also rooted in evidence.

Timea Fauszt/IRC
Um Laith (above), a IRC small business grant beneficiary in Jordan, started her own bee keeping business with a wait list of clients ready to buy batches of honey. She has been selling out her supply and even has business expansion plans in place.

Our services are bundled because evidence from the US context shows that offering multiple employment and financial services based on client need has greater impact then individual one-off services. Our services are also capital-centric because evidence shows that employment strategies that include capital injections are more effective than strategies that don’t include them. As the IRC’s recent study on urban livelihoods illustrates, these services are especially important as more and more displaced people settle in urban areas. The IRC’s approach to livelihoods within the Syria response has shown great promise with cost effectiveness modeling and evaluations under way.

Our programs are responding thoughtfully to the needs and challenges faced by our clients, and even when complemented with others’ efforts, we are still nowhere near addressing the scale of need in a sustainable way.

Big, Bold Thinking

Suzanne is a Lebanese woman from Bet Mery in Mount Lebanon. The IRC provided her with a grant to help her set up her own business selling homemade food. Jacob Russell/IRC

To this end the IRC has launched the Million Jobs Challenge, a process dedicated to developing scalable, replicable and innovative solutions to net job creation in protracted crisis settings. Building on IRC president David Miliband’s call to action for the issuance of one million work permits, the IRC is collaborating with private and public sector partners to better understand both the supply and demand side needs and to broker partnerships that can move innovative solutions forward.

We’ve selected Jordan as the first place to develop solutions, given the equal challenge and opportunity in the country. Our first phase of work has included interviews with over 100 experts, including world renowned economists, think tanks, donors and IRC staff. We have conducted an initial visit to Jordan, and convened a Blue Ribbon Panel with key private sector leaders to discuss our research and hypotheses. In designing solutions, we have seen the need for a portfolio of interventions targeting both supply and demand needs, as well new policy and investment approaches. The current make up of the portfolio includes foreign direct investment enhancements, such as rapid export accelerators in sectors like textiles and manufacturing, tech-enabled job information sharing, gig economy models, business process outsourcing pilot development, and a re-imagined work permit processes. We will be diving deeper into these areas over the coming months.

We recognize there is no one simple solution to job creation in protracted crises. Now is the time to follow through with commitments to building livelihoods in the Syria region and setting models for other displacement contexts. The IRC is continuing to do its part to identify key solutions and calls on others to join our challenge.

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The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and 26 U.S. cities helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future and strengthen their communities.

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