Tourism, Terrorism, and Tropical Deserts: Win-Win-Win Development Strategies

I’m a creature drawn to harsh climes (desert, scrubland, impossible mountains). In Jordan, this was neatly satisfied through lots of weekend canyoneering: down the mountains to the Dead Sea, mostly, at nearly the very tip of the Great Rift Valley. A ragtag, homegrown, and exceptionally enthusiastic cohort of literal trailblazers has emerged recently – they’re working, for instance, on a path that spans the entire length of the country.

Woke up to this somewhere along Wadi Hasa.

The Jordanian government seeks out and strongly supports these projects, integrating them into rural economies. And aside from private revenue-based organizations, nearly all them are funded through – you guessed it – aid money. Tourist sites in Jordan are accompanied by billboards covered in alphabet soup. Every ruin, castle, canyon trail, nature reserve, and religious site is bounded by signs touting funding from the American, French, British, Spanish, and Japanese people.

Despite a lack of formal acknowledgement, I firmly believe that this is strategic – and that if it’s not, it should be. Heavy investment in tourist sites all across nominally middle-income, Middle Eastern countries seems squarely aimed at increasing economic dependence on tourism with the ulterior motive of providing significant incentives for state security at the individual level. This makes sense: for countries in the region not blessed with petroleum reserves, economic diversification is critical. So, perhaps not coincidentally, heavy international funding of these low-cost, high-reward projects is common in the resource-poor countries of Morocco, Jordan, and, formerly, Egypt.

A similar pattern is evident in environmental projects, specifically for water – no puzzle in a region covered by vast stretches of desert. While wealthier countries in the region rely heavily on virtual water through imports, lower-income countries are presently bolstered in the throes of the fight against water shortages (made worse by population growth and displacement) through innovative development projects. Fog harvesting in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, desalination in Jordan, and dam construction in Egypt have all received funding through bilateral and multilateral loans. Donor incentive for funding water projects may, similarly, lie in concerns about possible associations between water availability and conflict. (I’m not totally sold on this, but it’s useful in any case and it drives money.)

Whatever the intentions, these sorts of programs environmental and preservation programs are areas where donor and recipient interests are well-aligned and provide a win-win-win model for donors, recipient states, and citizens. Tourism and nature sites frequently lie outside of urban centers, where the state control may falter. Stability-dependent economic development provides bilateral donors with a low-cost alternate means of discouraging terrorism. For state recipients, successful rural projects temper rural discontent and provide examples of contributions to global environmental efforts. For citizen recipients, they provide a noncontroversial and sustainable means of secure livelihood. I’m open to arguments – maybe this is sneaky? – but can’t really think of a downside. It’s an example of very smart soft power and everyone wins.

As goes one of my favorite snippets from Paul Collier in The Bottom Billion, “the U.S. Department of Defense is not going to take advice from that country’s Agency for International Development.” There’s really no getting around it: aid to the Middle East operates under the shadow of conflict and security concerns. Donors are guided heavily by the interests of the U.S. and allies toward development strategies designed to mitigate conflict. But while defense departments may not listen to development agencies, it is possible that well-managed development aid will preempt the need for listening by creatively tempering potential conflict.

I’m adding some photos after the jump, because my wanderlust is creeping up (and because I just managed to resurrect a phone I thought was lost to one of these rivers…).

Continue reading “Tourism, Terrorism, and Tropical Deserts: Win-Win-Win Development Strategies”

Tourism, Terrorism, and Tropical Deserts: Win-Win-Win Development Strategies

Amman: Round Two

I’m headed back to Jordan this summer for thesis research, fieldwork, and (of course) weekend canyoneering. The original plan was Beirut – still angling to make it back & forth a few times. Here are a few things I’m going to work on while gallivanting about the Levant. All advice, criticism, and insight is more than welcome!

1. Gather some hard data on how immunization rates change during Ramadan.

I’ve been tracking patients that miss their immunizations for about seven months now. We started *just* before Ramadan last year, and noticed a pretty substantial increase in the number of missed appointments during that time. This is probably not surprising to anyone, but it’s also completely unstudied. Delaying immunization by a week or two isn’t a huge problem in an area with decent herd immunity, but waiting a full month before maybe forgetting about it, when migrants and streaming in and out from a warzone where hospitals are being bombed, when polio strains are blooming across the border, when we’ve seen unprecedented outbreaks of infectious disease along Syria’s border with Turkey? That’s not a good idea.

My hunch is that general fatigue and a mismatch between maternal waking hours and clinic hours might be the major inhibitors, but I’m open to other ideas (someone just told me some people view vaccination as breaking fast). No moms want to wait in line for hours in the early morning after preparing food all night. Nobody wants to do anything at 3 p.m. after nine hours without food or water. I barely drag myself to 8 am classes on normal days and definitely cannot without scary volumes of espresso, so I feel like these things aren’t unreasonable. One specific goal is to channel these findings into specific policy recommendations on clinic hours, which could be a good work-around.

2. Expand UNRWA’s mobile health capacity. We’ll be issuing immunization prompts to more clinics – hopefully some outside of Jordan, and some catering to Palestinian-Syrian double-refugees! – and gathering some hard data on effectiveness and patient satisfaction. Beyond that? The specifics are still up in the air. One promising suggestion from last summer involved sending reminders on basic aspects of diabetes management to adult patients. I’m not a huge fan of basic mobile health initiatives like this (engineers are technology snobs), but I do think they can be especially useful for patients with limited mobility. Gaza New Camp, in Jerash, provides a good (well, awful) example. The ’67 refugees who live in the camp were not afforded Jordanian citizenship, so they can’t obtain licenses or buy cars; if they bought motorcycles instead, however, they’d be short-changing the Jordanian economy by investing in a cheaper mode of transportation, so they’re also not allowed to buy motorcycles (cue eyeroll). So, if you live there, and your diabetes symptoms progress beyond anything you can manage, good luck getting to your regular dialysis treatments.

Of course, it’s not a problem if for Jordanians who reside in Abdoun mansions – take either of your Porsches down to King Hussein. But that kind of extreme disparity is what allows global health issues in the Middle East to fly under the radar: everything averages out to Middle Income Yellow (new Crayola shade?) and funding is directed elsewhere. Bigger rant on this later.

3. Health care as a bargaining chip. This is an iffy one, perhaps best illustrated by Hezbollah. They provide medical care that drastically undercuts the going rate on Lebanon’s private market, and care is FREE for Hezbollah party members. If you’re poor and sick and on the fence, is that opportunity enough to sway your political stance? There’s rumor of similar models being tested by different extremist groups in Mali, and I’m worried that this might be a growing phenomenon as AQIM spreads southward throughout and across the Sahel to sicker and more impoverished lands.

To be fair, one could argue that USAID does the same thing, “From the American People” emblems and all – maybe that would make a nice proxy study. I’m not sure exactly of how to pursue this line of investigation, but I think it’s really important and I’m surprised it isn’t getting more attention. Tentatively, I’d like to head up to Zaatari, where UNRWA is trying to deal with lots of pharmaceutical theft & redistribution, to see if there are any grander motivations aside from making a buck on the UN’s dime. Maybe I’ll gather up the gumption for more casual interviews in Beirut. More broadly, if there is any real political shift that comes from this discounted care, I’d like to see it incorporated as a very low-cost national security strategy. The US is good at fighting fire with bigger fires, but fighting knockoff pharmaceuticals and pandering with effective, strategic, and heartfelt health investments seems like a much better deal to me.

Amman: Round Two