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November 7, 2019

5 things we’ve learnt in twenty five years

1. Scholarships doesn’t mean jobs

SPARK began providing scholarships to just 50 Syrian students in Gaziantep, a town located on Turkey’s southeastern border with Syria. Over five years we have expanded our reach to become the largest scholarship provider for Syrian refugees in the Middle East. 

By creating partnerships with hundreds of higher and vocational education institutes, local governments and organisations, as well as donors from the East and West, our scholarships are tailored to local labour market needs. 

However, we learnt along the way that even a degree doesn’t guarantee you a job. Therefore, we make sure that students have the best chance of securing sustainable employment after graduation by providing extracurricular civic leadership and economic empowerment courses,  student services that include psychosocial counselling, as well as entrepreneurship training and startup funding for the business-minded.

Hear from Architecture student, Aya Baroud, about her experiences as a student and how she hopes to rebuild Syria using her skills.

2. Internships need trust

Internships can open pathways to stable jobs for young people without many opportunities. SPARK started promoting internships for young people in Somaliland. In the beginning it was hard to build trust with private companies. What helped was the cooperation with strong local partner organisation that had access to business owners and state officials. In 2017, we worked with Somaliland’s Ministry of Education and Higher Education to help embed internships into national policy in 2017. Now, every university student must complete an internship or apprenticeship as part of their studies.

Now SPARK’s internship programmes in Jordan and other Middle Eastern countries are matching youth to jobs with major companies, such as McDonalds, Jordan River Foundation, Amman Chamber of Industry and Miran Chocolate Factory.

Hazem ALMassri, Syrian, IEO Internship, Analyst at Naratech Laboratory, Amman, Jordan

Hazem Al-Masri, a young Syrian Medical Analysis student wanted to gain more experience in a lab. He was matched by SPARK to Naratech Laboratory and gained valuable new skills. He had not expected to get a job afterwards because he’d heard that Syrians in Jordan are not permitted to work in certain sectors. However, Hazem’s supervisor, who had recognised his talents, revealed that private laboratories are able to hire foreign employees and offered Hazem a permanent position.

3. Farmers should be seen as business people

Agricultural cooperatives traditionally do not see themselves as formal businesses, but can become major actors in the economic growth of fragile or post-conflict countries if they are managed well. In Rwanda, SPARK focuses on one value chain, Irish potato, to increase their professionalism, yields and income by providing farming cooperatives with tailored training in financial and people management and administration. 

Rwanda Potato Farming

The most challenging task was to change the mindset of the members of cooperatives – voluntary groups based on solidarity needed to become profit oriented business structures with efficient and standardised operations. Even after producing surplus crops for market, cooperatives often struggled to transition towards better management, planning, and identifying and exploiting market opportunities.

However, Abaserukanasuku, an Irish potato farming cooperative in Rwanda, saw membership increase by 24% within one month of receiving cooperative support from SPARK. Cooperative President, Bernardine, said: “We now see that membership is the capital asset for our cooperative and can lead to sustainable investment. With our efforts, in partnership with SPARK and local authorities, we have no doubt that our members will keep increasing!” 

4. Startups fail, so grow existing businesses

Nine out of every ten startups fail: a harsh statistic that is even higher in fragile and conflict-affected regions. While SPARK continues to support young entrepreneurs from ideation to the creation of their new businesses, a strong focus has always been on supporting existing small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) to grow because they are more likely to increase local job creation.

SMEs in fragile states face specific hurdles, such as limited access to markets, bureaucratic policies and legal restrictions. SPARK tackles these issues by setting up Business Support Centres and offering SME coaching, as well as access to finance.

Rimara Pak, SME Growth Programme, Amman, Jordan
Rimara Pak, SME Growth Programme, Amman, Jordan
Rimara Pak, SME Growth Programme, Amman, Jordan
Rimara Pak, SME Growth Programme, Amman, Jordan

Jordanian sisters, Reem and Tamara, own Rimara Pak, a plastic packaging factory creating disposable cutlery sets, which controls over 40% of the local market share. The sisters were aware that to remain market-relevant, they needed to improve, so they joined one of SPARK’s SME growth programmes. Over 6 months, they were trained in skills relevant to their needs and now are more organised in financial management and have increased their annual turnover to 300K JOD.

5. NGOs need to shift the power

“SPARK’s strength lies in its ability to work closely with beneficiaries, communicating directly with them and putting them at the heart of all of its programmes,”

recognised Hamouda Ahmed, head of one of SPARK’s local partner organisations in Yemen.

From the start, SPARK has built strong, horizontal relationships with committed local partner organisations because top-down approaches to development, without the inclusion of local voices, can disempower those who want to rebuild their own futures.

In setting up the first international summer universities in the Balkans, SPARK worked with local higher education institutions, one of which – the International Business College Mitrovica – became entirely independent and self-sufficient in 2018, ending SPARK’s involvement. In Palestine, the original local incubators and groups that helped found our first entrepreneurship programmes have gone on to become market-leading entities, exceeding the services offered by SPARK.

To celebrate SPARK’s 25th anniversary, we have developed six key manuals that detail how SPARK implements its programmes creating more and better jobs in fragile and conflict-affected regions. View and download them.