Tackling the Syrian Crisis at #CGI2014

The opening plenary of the annual Clinton Global Initiative meeting kicked off today featuring discussion with World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, IBM President and CEO Ginny Rometty, President of Chile Michelle Bachelet as well as Bill and Hillary Clinton. However breaking from the traditional focus of CGI on innovation and development programs, the session also involved a lengthy discussion with King Abdullah II of Jordan regarding the toll on states in the Middle East from the spiraling humanitarian crisis out of Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.

Jordan is a small landlocked state with a population of 8 million, the majority of which is made up and descended from Palestinian refugees. Since the start of the Syrian War, the country took in another 600,000 refugees from Syria, pushing the state’s fragile economy to the breaking point. Since then Jordan has limited the ability of new Syrian refugees to enter by closing unsanctioned border crossings but the strain of taking on so many continues to weaken the state.

This raises an important question that former President Clinton poses to the audience: If Jordan fails for trying to do the right thing, what consequences will that have for the region and for the world as a whole?

Although applied only to Jordan in this discussion, it is an important question with wide reaching consequences for the entire international community. As High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres noted yesterday at the Social Good Summit, there are more refugees in the world now than at any point since World War II. This influx in the refugee population comes as international aid agencies face severe funding shortages and a growing number of humanitarian crises to address. In the case of Syria, after three years of taking in refugees neighboring states have largely reached their breaking point but the World Food Program is now preparing to slash food rations for Syrian refugees, as they simply do not have the money to continue to support them.

Apathy towards the plight of refugees is evident in the policies of states around the world from the current US “border crisis”, “Fortress Europe” policies and the Pacific Solution in Australia. In this context it is vital that those states who do step up not fail for risk that it may encourage further apathy by those who can afford to help but don’t want to.

For Jordan the stakes are considerably more personal. The economic crisis exacerbated by the turmoil of the Arab Spring and Syrian War is starting to subside but Jordan still faces numerous challenges. Without oil of their own, Jordan usually relies on a deal with Egypt for energy needs but the political instability of Egypt has ground this electricity and gas production to a halt. Moreover, the growing instability in Iraq threatens to unleash another humanitarian catastrophe that will likely spill over into Jordan much as the Syrian crisis has.

To this end, the Clinton Global Initiative is launching a multiyear effort to support Jordan much the same way it did with Haiti in 2009.  Encouraging investment in renewable energy, initiatives for youth employment, better service delivery and humanitarian assistance are all ways to boost the capacity and resilience of Jordan, which can potentially serve as a model for the region.

Numerous pledges to aid in the humanitarian crisis were also announced, including the creation and deployment of modular schools to serve Syrian refugee populations by Pilosio S.p.A. and the creation of a resiliency fund by Global Impact, which aims to raise $1 million to help support other commitments made by CGI members in the fields of healthcare, education and job training.

Although the size of the problems coming out of the region seems unsurmountable, these are important steps. King Abdullah pointed out that the payments offered by ISIS  to foreign fighters represents an upper middle class income in Jordan and can be incredibly appealing for young people who often have difficulty finding work under the current economic conditions. Aid agencies have warned of a “lost generation” for Syria as children miss out on educational opportunities and lack access to mental health professionals to help them deal with the trauma of the war. By addressing the underlying motivations and problems fueling conflict in the region, Jordan and CGI hopes to contain a problem before it develops further.