by Majdoleen Hasan and Moath Freihat
ABOUT AN HOUR'S DRIVE SOUTH OF AMMAN, JORDAN...
on a spare farm in one of the country’s poorest regions, wire cages stood empty and rusted water troughs sat upturned and useless. A tattered sign blew in the desert wind. This was the only evidence that an ostrich farm had once operated here, built up by a charitable foundation chaired by the country’s royal family, and started with a grant from the United States government.
The farm was supposed to provide a livelihood for people in the hardscrabble Um ar-Rassas region.
But the ostriches supplied by project managers were a crossbreed, ill-suited to the harsh desert conditions and sold to the farm at a price far too high to make the project profitable, said Ahmedi Shahban, head of the Ostrich Association in Um ar-Rassas.
“The project is useless. Every week, two to three ostriches died,” a despondent Shahban said.
The farm closed in 2007 after most of the birds died. But the failure did not keep Queen Rania Al Abdullah’s website from praising the farm in 2007, calling it an example of sustainable agriculture. The Queen heads the Jordan River Foundation, which had designed and implemented the $500,000 project. Her website said it generated $60,000 in revenue a year for the community – money that Shahban said he has never seen.
In the southern Jordan River Valley, an unemployed farm worker told a similar story of broken promises. Forty-year old Ahmad Al-Ja’arat sat on a worn-out mattress in a two-room house, his 12 children gathered around him. He spoke in fractured sentences, despair and anger in his voice, of how he lost his job growing black pepper, tomatoes and eggplants on a government-sponsored farming project that opened in 2007.
The manager of that farm rarely turned up, hired under-age workers and demanded 12-hour work shifts in the baking sun without providing access to drinking water, Al-Ja’arat said. Queen Rania visited the farm with a TV crew in 2009. Al-Ja’arat said that when he tried to tell the Queen about working conditions there, the farming cooperative officials silenced him, and then fired him.
“I have nothing to pay my rent,” Al-Ja’arat said. “How can I work? Where can I possibly go with my children? Does Her Majesty know what is happening here?”
The ill-fated ostrich and vegetable ventures, and the frustrated hopes of Shahban and Al-Ja’rat, are emblematic of a larger development failure in Jordan. The United States has poured over $1 billion into projects in the country since the attacks of September 11 — projects intended to create economic opportunities in impoverished regions and counter the appeal of terrorism.
President Trump has generally derided foreign aid as a drain on US taxpayers. As he seeks to rally Muslim nations in the fight against terrorism during his current trip to the region, such projects could be an important balance to military and security cooperation that the Trump administration has favored. The record in Jordan, however, suggests that development aid, in the absence of oversight, ultimately fueled the very frustrations it sought to calm.
In the months after 9/11, Jordan, a long-time ally of the United States in the Middle East, seemed like a promising place to flex soft power through development aid. During a 2002 visit to Washington, DC, King Abdullah bin al Hussein won U.S. backing for a Jordanian government plan to help fund an $817 million program that he said would lift up impoverished communities in Jordan, provide jobs and address the roots of terrorism, a program that Jordan continues funding to this day.
However, an investigation by 100Reporters has found a pattern of questionable projects, poor management and an absence of accountability. The findings include:
Out of 10 development projects chosen at random from a government list of 136 active projects...
four had closed down and two were never finished. Four others have yet to generate the promised jobs or profits.
Contracts for the 10 projects were awarded exclusively to four national charities...
three of which have ties to Jordan’s royal family. They have operated with little oversight.
The Jordanian government bypassed competitive bidding in awarding the projects to the charities...
with poor records of project management.
Unsuccessful management of past projects.
Across Jordan, USAID and others have supported a variety of development efforts, from almond groves to ostriches. Click on the icons to see what happened.
“Terrorism really flourishes in areas of poverty, despair and hopelessness, where people see no future. We have to show people who might move in the direction of terrorism that there is a better way,” U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said in 2002.
The better way could have been an artisans’ market in Jordan’s Madaba region, a tourist magnet southwest of Amman, famous for its mosaic tile. But reporters in April 2015 found no trace of how its managers spent $500,000 that had been invested in the project. The Jordan Hashemite Foundation for Human Development, chaired by Princess Basma, the sister of the late King Hussein, was responsible for the project and did not respond to queries. It worked in partnership with Creative Associates International, a Washington DC-based non-governmental organization (NGO) that works in 85 countries. The organization declined to comment, explaining that it would be difficult to track down records for a project started a decade ago.
Another $500,000 was invested in almond trees in Theban, a depressed community where about one fourth of the 56,000 residents live in poverty. The almond trees fared no better than the ostriches of Om Al-Rasas: The trees were