Why millions in US aid may help few Iraqi refugees in the end

New Jordanian schools, built in part with US aid for Iraqi refugees, may end up serving few Iraqis. But some say that's OK – Jordanians often needed more help.

Khaled al-Hariri/Reuters
Syria and Jordan have gotten significant international aid for Iraqi refugees, such as this woman at a UN center near Damascus, Syria.

Jordan, one of two main destinations for Iraqis displaced by the US-led war, has received nearly $400 million in aid designed to help as many as 1 million Iraqis reported to have fled there. Much of the aid came from the United States and went to the Jordanian government directly.

The idea was that donors would help Jordan, and Jordan would help the Iraqis.

But it's now widely recognized that the actual number of Iraqis in Jordan is vastly smaller than originally thought. The inflated numbers mean more aid went to the Jordanian government, and some argue that that prevented the Iraqis from getting effective assistance.

"We could have dealt with 50,000 refugees, who had very little, much more effectively, provided the funding had been appropriate," says Harriet Dodd, who was country director for CARE International in Jordan during the crisis.

Indeed, many nongovernmental organization workers, academics, and independent researchers now say that the aid has failed to provide the help Iraqis needed, while significant funding went to programs that suited Jordan's national priorities – and thus, some argue, it aided Jordanians more than Iraqis.

Officials from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) counter that building up local institutions like schools, hospitals, and water systems is the only effective and fair way to help the Iraqis.

A 'revolutionary' school

A prime example is a school in Dahiet Amir Hasan in East Amman being built with help from USAID. It is only half finished, but it's clear that it will be offering a very different kind of education from that offered at Jordan's other government-run schools.

The classrooms are spacious, and there's a gym, an art studio, and a music room. Downstairs are science labs, equipped with vapor hoods, sinks, and Bunsen burners, and set up for students to conduct experiments in groups.

None of it would seem out of place to an American 12-year-old, but in a country where rote learning is still the basis of most education, it's almost revolutionary.

"It's really based upon a new philosophy of teaching," says Jay Knott, head of USAID in Jordan, which is behind the project. "In the 21st century, teaching kids by rote method is ... not going to advance you toward the vision of a knowledge-based economy."

USAID is putting up these incredible schools in low-income neighborhoods all over Jordan; 28 are currently in the works. The agency is also renovating and expanding 100 existing schools, boosting Jordan's government as it struggles to meet the educational needs of a young and rapidly growing population.

But a portion of this work is being done with money allocated by Congress to aid Iraqi refugees in Jordan.

All Iraqi children have, since 2007, been officially allowed to attend Jordanian government schools. Funding from international donors helped make that possible, and Mr. Knott says US funding is helping to relieve some of the burden those schools have shouldered by educating Iraqis as well as Jordanians.

While some displaced Iraqis will surely benefit from the new schools, many of the most needy have been resettled to third countries, and more will be gone long before the first of the schools that are supposed to serve them opens in September 2011. Schools built in expectation of hundreds of poor Iraqi students may end up serving only handfuls, or none at all.

"The schools in East Amman, where the most vulnerable populations were, just didn't have very many Iraqis," says Jason Erb, assistant country director for Save the Children in Jordan during the refugee crisis.

US, UN give aid straight to Jordanian government

The number of Iraqis in Jordan has been contested since the crisis began. When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, the Jordan office of the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, prepared for a flood of refugees fleeing the conflict. But Iraqis only trickled in slowly, fleeing persecution, looking for jobs, or waiting until things got better back home.

So UNHCR was surprised, in 2006, when some of its partner agencies started reporting substantial numbers of displaced Iraqis coming to them for aid. Early guesses suggested there were between 500,000 and 1 million Iraqis in the country.

At first, Jordan seemed dismissive of the reports, and was accused by human rights groups of trying to hide a huge refugee crisis.

But as the US and other international donors scrambled to respond, the crisis turned into a source of cash: From 2007 to 2009, Jordan received close to $400 million in aid officially directed toward Iraqis, much of which went either to the Jordanian government directly, or into programs like USAID's school construction program.

The lion's share of the aid came from the US. In 2008, Congress authorized $200 million in supplemental aid funding for Iraqi refugees; $110 million went straight to the Jordanian government, another $45 million went to existing USAID programs working in the water, health, and education sectors. UNHCR also gave 61 percent of its budget to the Jordanian government in 2007.

US and UN officials say that the aid contributed to creating "protection space" for Iraqis, meaning access to some basic services and protection from harassment and deportation.

Number of Iraqis likely far lower than estimated

A 2007 survey found only 161,000 Iraqis in Jordan, a fraction of whom appeared to be poor or persecuted people who needed aid or asylum.

Other data have backed up the low estimate of the survey – carried out by the Norwegian NGO Fafo and Jordan's Department of Statistics – including the number of Iraqis registered in schools, and the number registered as refugees with UNHCR.

USAID officials said in 2008 they were aware of the number of Iraqis in the individual schools they're working on, but they had been asked by the Jordanian government not to share that information because it was "sensitive."

Support for 'community approach'

Some say that giving aid to one group of people in a poor neighborhood, but not their neighbors, could cause a backlash, and that supporting Jordan's institutions was actually the best way to help displaced Iraqis.

"It's the best approach to improving education and health care," Knott says. "It's a community approach, and that's what our programs are designed to undertake."

Mr. Erb argues that the aid program, though imperfect, did help those who needed it the most; it's just that those were often Jordanians, not Iraqis.

"If you looked at donor intention, it might not really have hit the nail on the head. But that shouldn't be the only applicable standard, when the needs of everyone around are so much greater," he says. "As much as Iraqi refugees needed the assistance, it was frustrating sometimes that we had to focus so much on the Iraqis, because there was often greater need among Jordanians."

A longer version of this article appeared in the Middle East Report, Issue 256.

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