Immersion Experience – USAID: Jordan Trip

Three HBS students were sponsored by USAID during the winter break to participate in a three week consultancy project in the Jordanian water sector. With water supplied 2 days or fewer out of 7 to most Jordanians, the water sector is of huge importance and is in need of drastic steps.

It was a challenging project, involving out-of-the-box ideas and solutions to improve the efficiency and performance of employees through incentivization. Successfully completing the project, the students returned back not only with a unique holiday experience but also with an insider perspective on the challenging Middle East conflict.

We were not sure what to expect from Jordan. The opportunity to experience the Middle East in one of the most liberal Arab countries enticed us, while the conflicts of the region added an unexpected thrill. Our project was to assist the recently privatized Jordan Water utility company drive efficiency and performance by implementing an incentive system aligned with company objectives. The experience of interviewing and meeting a broad gamut of customers, employees, executives and ministers in Jordan was unique and enabled us to gather detailed data to understand the nature of the challenge. The scope of improvement was vast, with water scarcity facing the region and widespread inefficiencies in distribution and utilization. We found that the problems and solutions both resided within the same organizations, where generous people welcomed us and shared their ideas with us. Inspired by their ideas, and complementing them with our professional and academic experiences, we were able to propose an operating model and compensation framework to the leaders of Jordan’s water sector and create the momentum for much needed change.

The project was only one dimension of the trip. With the desert calling us, we traveled from the ancient city of Jerash to the southern wonder of Petra. Jordan contains three of the ten cities that belonged to the Decapolis – the ten-city network kingdom of the Middle East that was part of the Roman Empire. It was a fascinating experience to see the enormous amphitheaters and ancient ruins radiating the ancient grandeur and status of the Decapolis.

Moving on to more recent history, we thought it only fair to attempt to relive the life of “Lawrence of Arabia” by spending the night in the Wadi Rum desert. The night of December 25th is imprinted in our hearts as the night we travelled through the pitch-dark cold desert wilderness. Spending the night in a Bedouin camp, singing Arabic tribal tunes with the locals around a bonfire, and eating the local fare, we experienced life as Bedouins in the desert. The clear skies and mantle of stars solely provided by the remoteness of the desert drove home the grand scheme of things, and climbing mountains to catch a glimpse of the majestic sunrise while enjoying the wind and silence of the desert reminded us of the beauty of nature and the elements.

Subsequently came the lowest point of our trip, literally, as we arrived 420 meters below sea level to the lowest point in the world – the shores of the Dead Sea. These waters are a swimmer’s paradise as floating does not require the slightest effort. The healing, cleansing, and renewing powers of a Dead Sea mud bath, gave us the much needed reinvigoration as we approached the last week of the trip.

Throughout the trip, the amazing food and hospitality of Jordan welcomed us. We savored the distinct taste of Turkish coffee, and the traditional Falafel, Hummus and Shawarma of the Jordanian palette.

Finally, another aspect of life in Jordan that changed our perspective of the world was the size and level of integration of the Palestinian population in Jordan. There was a massive Palestinian population integrated into every aspect of Jordanian life but still had been living out of refugee camps for the past 40 years. These camps were peppered throughout the country and only provided with small patches of land leased by the UN for settlement. One unfortunate aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict becomes painfully obvious at the sight of these camps. This last lesson helped us realize how fortunate we are to have the life opportunities we currently do, and above all the opportunity to live in peace.

This truly wonderful experience, not only taught us humility and an appreciation for the world, but also gave us a different perspective to look at the geopolitics of the Middle East.

Shantanu Agarwal was born and raised in India. This was his first trip to Jordan.