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FEATURE STORY June 20, 2019

Rewriting the Rules to Support Refugees and Host Communities in the Middle East and North Africa


As the world marks World Refugee Day 2019, it is worthwhile to look at how the approach to refugees and the communities hosting them has changed dramatically over the last eight years, and how the World Bank -- and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region -- has been at the center of that change.

The shortcomings of the old, traditional approach of governments to forced displacement - of hosting refugees in large camps to wait out the conflict in their countries of origin - were especially apparent in the region. In MENA, 86% of refugees live in cities and towns. This places huge additional demand on all basic services, from waste management to health and education. It also leads to increased unemployment. The protracted nature of the Syrian conflict meant that simply warehousing refugees posed the risk of significant loss of human capital. An alarm was sounded by the international community over a potential “lost generation” of Syrian children, who by missing out on education and the acquisition of skills would struggle to reintegrate into society even after the fighting had ended.

It was clear the old way of doing things was not up to the challenges the region was facing,” said Ferid Belhaj, World Bank Vice President for the Middle East and North Africa, “we needed to rewrite the rules.

This began by recognizing that the refugee crisis that Jordan and Lebanon were facing required an urgent development response to complement the humanitarian operation. This development support was especially urgent to build up the resilience of Jordan and Lebanon to prevent them from succumbing to instability as a result of the shock waves emanating from Syria. In 2013, a project was launched to provide grants to municipalities in Jordan hosting large numbers of Syrian refugees. These grants supported the expansion of public services and programs to help improve living conditions for Syrians and Jordanians, and thereby reduce communal tensions and enhance social cohesion. A number of projects for both Jordan and Lebanon have followed since, focused on expanding health and education services for host communities and refugees, strengthening waste management and the supply of water, improving the reach of social safety nets and creating economic opportunities for all.

A further complication was that Jordan and Lebanon were middle-income countries, which meant they did not have access to concessional sources of financing. Expanding infrastructure and services required large investments, and Jordan and Lebanon were rapidly going into debt. To ensure the international community understood the full scope of the problem, an assessment of the social and economic impact on Lebanon of the conflict in neighboring Syria was produced in record time. Released in late 2013, the report revealed that as a result of the influx of refugees, 170,000 Lebanese had been pushed into poverty and the unemployment rate had doubled, while government expenditures had risen by US$1.1 billion as revenue fell by US$1.5 billion.

The Lebanon report provided the evidence for a global discussion on how to support middle-income countries hosting large numbers of refuges. There was an acknowledgement that Lebanon and Jordan were providing a global public good and should not be allowed to go into more debt for their generosity. The response required innovation and rewriting the rules on a global scale.  One of the most important changes was a shift in perspective to focus on the people in need rather than where they were located. The concept of “following the people” and providing the targeted aid to whichever host community provided refuge, regardless of their income level, led to a number of unprecedented actions and innovations.  In 2016, The World Bank provided Lebanon and Jordan each with US$100 million from IDA. The first ever such IDA concessional program for middle-income countries. The IDA project for Lebanon funded the expansion of the school system to ensure all Lebanese and Syrian children had access to education. In Jordan, the project funded improvements to the business environment to attract investment, with the aim of expanding economic opportunities for Syrian refugees and Jordanians.

in 2016, the World Bank also partnered with the United Nations and the Islamic Development Bank to create a facility that would provide Jordan and Lebanon with concessional financing. The facility makes innovative use of grants from donor countries, with $1 in grants leveraging about $4 to provide vital longer term and low-cost financing. By the end of that year, the facility had been expanded to become the Global Concessional Financing Facility (GCFF). It remains focused on Jordan and Lebanon, but the expanded facility ensures a coordinated international response to refugee crises in middle-income countries. In just over two years, the facility has unlocked over US$2.5 billion in concessional financing for Jordan and Lebanon.

The innovations launched to address the refugee crisis in MENA have now become part of the World Bank’s and the international community’s toolkit. A similar social and economic impact assessment of the effects of the Syrian crisis was launched in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. This year, the GCFF supported a concessional loan to Colombia, to help the country cope with hosting Venezuelan refugees. The focus on the development impact of forced displacement, and the need to build up the resilience of host countries, regardless of their income levels, now guides Bank support. This is coupled with the recognition that refugees must be given the opportunity to build their human capital, and to preserve their dignity by being allowed to work and contribute to their host communities.

This new approach has produced development gains even in the midst of hardship. A project to build Djibouti’s resilience as it copes with hosting Yemeni refugees has brought electricity to some rural communities for the first time. The town of Deir Abi Sayeed in the north of Jordan, a recipient of the grants to municipalities, has been creating employment opportunities for Syrian women in areas that were once the exclusive domain of men. Syrian refugee women are now helping to repair the city’s roads. “This type of work was previously restricted to men, but we opened it up to women,” said the city’s mayor, Ibrahim AlAideh, adding that it was the first project to challenge gender stereotypes.