Social entrepreneurship in Jordan’s Gaza camp

October 1, 2017 | Jeson Ng

Above: Gaza camp, Jordan, where more than 30,000 Palestinian refugees from Gaza currently live. Photo by Mahmud Al Haj.

In Gaza camp in Jordan, Palestinian women are at work, producing soap bars from locally sourced olive oil. Other women, well-practised in the distinctive Palestinian cross stitch, are producing designer bags and bespoke clothes for sale in fashion boutiques across the world. Diverse though their skills are, they are all refugees whose families fled the Gaza strip during the 1967 war.

A maze of narrow streets, concrete blocks and corrugated roofs, Gaza camp (officially known as Jerash camp) is now home to more than 30 000 Palestinian refugees who receive basic education and health services from UNRWA, the UN Relief and Works Agency. 

Refugees who arrived after 1967 from Gaza were not given Jordanian citizenship, so most can not access stable jobs. Spiralling levels of poverty, exacerbated by some of the highest unemployment rates among Palestinian refugees in Jordan, mean that many rely on cash subsidies and food vouchers from aid agencies. Daily life is often numbing in the crowded camp, which lacks social spaces and amenities.

Yet these difficult realities are increasingly countered by social enterprises like Sitti Soap. At a centre in Gaza camp, employees produce artisanal olive oil soap and other products that are sold online and in shops in Amman and Canada. Such business initiatives bring many advantages to the local community.

Firstly and most importantly, working at Sitti Soap has brought a certain level of financial stability to many women which allows them to support their families. Although men are usually expected to take on the role of breadwinner, chronic illness and disability prevent some from working. It then falls on their wives to provide for the family. With the money earned through Sitti Soap, Ekraam was able to pay off debt accrued from her husband’s costly medical treatments. A key benefit of introducing commercial interests to a long term humanitarian crisis is increased financial independence, which correspondingly decreases reliance on aid.

Secondly, businesses provide a sense of structure and purpose for their employees. SEP Jordan, an international fashion business, has greatly benefited its 300 female employees in Gaza camp. In countries like Jordan where refugees are denied access to most existing skilled jobs, many feel confined, bored and frustrated. This lack of direction and sense of hopelessness can last many years while they wait for resettlement. But in a survey of its first 100 employees, SEP found that a large majority of those who had been diagnosed with clinical depression experienced a dramatic decline in symptoms since being employed. By creating new jobs and opportunities, entrepreneurship can foster a renewed sense of ownership and pride.

However, creating social enterprises in places of great need is often challenging. According to a Cambridge Judge Business School study, institutional and organisational barriers to entrepreneurship in refugee situations are high. A lack of functioning markets, inefficient legal and political systems, and poor infrastructure inhibit the growth of new businesses. On an organisational level, entrepreneurs face a lack of access to information, resources and financing.

Bridges for Enterprise is a non-profit organisation committed to breaching these barriers so that many people can be empowered to create better lives for their families and local communities. Our global network of students and professionals is well placed to provide business strategic advice, tailored to the needs of social enterprises that have begun operations and are looking to expand. Already, we have helped to enable more than 25 startups in over 15 countries to become ready for investment. We firmly believe that improving the private sector in development contexts can create jobs, stimulate growth and improve lives. Enduring social impact often requires financial independence and purpose. Sustainable businesses that engage local communities are crucial in this respect. 

Special thanks to Roberta Ventura, founder and CEO of SEP Jordan, and Nina Angeles, a Fulbright scholar who conducted research on the impact of social enterprise on Gazan refugees in Jordan.