A significant proportion of the world’s refugees end up in so-called protracted refugee situations, being stuck in limbo in camps or settlements for many years. Traditionally, there have been three durable solutions to bring ‘the refugee cycle’ to an end: repatriation, resettlement, and local integration. However, for many refugees, these options are simply unavailable, and they spend many years without the right to work or to freedom of movement.  In some rare contexts, host states have attempted to offer refugees forms of self-reliance or the opportunity to earn a livelihood or to work. However, even in states in which refugees do have the right to work of freedom of movement, there are often few livelihood or training opportunities available to refugees, whether in rural or urban areas.

Livelihoods projects or self-reliance have often been conceived in an unsustainable way. Refugee issues are generally seen as a humanitarian rather than a development challenge. So when livelihood projects have been developed or refugees have had freedom of movement, organisations like UNHCR have not always had the resources to create the training, entrepreneurial or work opportunities desired by many refugees. There are a range of livelihoods projects for refugees, not least in urban areas but they tend to be small-scale, based around a limited range of professions that fail to acknowledge the diversity of skills and aspirations of refugees, and they are generally conceived based on a logic of charity rather than one of sustainable market opportunity.

Yet the missing link in making self-reliance and refugee livelihoods a sustainable reality may well be the private sector. Humanitarians have too often had an instinctive antipathy for the private sector. And, historically, it is striking how little humanitarian actors have tried to engage the private sector. Yet livelihoods and self-reliance can ultimately only work if sustainable market-based opportunities are found. Many NGO implementing partners to UNHCR do partner with local private actors to provide training opportunities. For example, in Kampala, Interaid partners with a local garage to offer skills training to Congolese and Sudanese refugees but these opportunities tend to be isolated and small scale.

If refugees could be conceived to be a ‘benefit’ rather than a ‘burden’ to their host communities, to be engaged as market actors who bring an economic contribution to their host societies then this could be a game-changer in the way refugees are perceived and hosted by local host populations. Yet, where self-reliance is based on donor contributions or charitable projects it tends to fall short of creating genuine sustainability. Of course, refugees will always need emergency assistance and support from donor and host states. However, if private sector actors can be engaged at the local, national and global levels, there may be the possibility to reconceive the entire basis of the ‘refugee experience’.

The question then is how can the private sector be engaged in refugee protection? What are the incentives that can draw in private sector actors or ‘crowd in’ rather than ‘crowd out’ markets as an alternative to state-based assistance? UNHCR has over recent years begun to develop greater private sector engagement. It initially saw multinational corporations and foundations mainly as a fundraising opportunity. It was assumed that their contribution would be based on either philanthropy or corporate social responsibility. Yet, gradually, there has been a realisation that there may be another way in which the private sector can be engaged based not on a logic of charity but on a for-profit basis: through innovation.

Innovation is not the same as invention. It is not about novelty but about finding ways to adapt existing technologies to address particular bottlenecks within context. It represents a potential motive for private sector engagement insofar as refugee communities represent a potential source of ideas, creativity and technological adaptation. They represent a group within which products and processes can be piloted, prototyped and then taken to scale. This process can take place on many levels.

At the grassroots level innovation may be as simply as refugees themselves finding improved ways to engage in rainwater harvesting, forming collectives to enhance their ability to market their produce at higher prices, or developing ways to microfinance small businesses. At the national level, there may be ways to engage local entrepreneurs. In Uganda, an engineer at Makerere University, Moses Musaazi, has developed a firm called Technology for Tomorrow (T4T) which has developed an affordable sanitary pad – the Makapad – which has been made and developed in the Kyaka II refugee settlement, and is now aspiring to be taken to scale in the national market. At the global level, refugees and displaced populations potentially offer a context in which companies might pilot and prototype products, with the potential go to scale to a far larger market, with the possibility to reverse innovate products for Western consumers.

Innovation thereby creates a potential motive for private sector engagement at all levels, drawing in and developing a new range of solutions within the different sectors that comprise humanitarianism – water, sanitation and hygiene, health, and information and communications technology, for example. In turn this may reduce dependency on international assistance while simultaneously bringing better solutions to the challenges faced by refugees. Furthermore, it offers the possibility to develop the skills, talents and agency of refugees. Participatory approaches to innovation, which promote the creativity and entrepreneurialism of refugees, can empower in ways in which many aspects of humanitarianism disempower by creating dependency.

The question then is how can such an approach be conceived? There are precedents of humanitarian innovation initiatives in other contexts, which have partly built upon private sector partnerships. UNICEF’s innovation labs, the largest of which are in Kosovo and Uganda, have developed different models of innovation but have simultaneously improved UNICEF’s own interventions while developing the skills, entrepreneurialism and civic participation of young people, in particular. Private sector initiative has been key. In Kosovo, young people have been mentored to develop their own social innovation projects and businesses. In Uganda, local partners like Uganda Telecom have made in-kind contributions.

A necessary starting point for engaging the private sector through innovation is research. This is needed at two levels, which might be phrased as ‘looking inwards’ – understanding the skills, talents, livelihoods, and aspirations of particular refugee communities within their cultural context - and ‘looking outwards’ – identifying potential private sector actors and untapped technologies and ideas in relevant sectors of humanitarianism which might be matched with the opportunities afforded by the particular context.

These two levels of analysis might then be brought together within a physical space – ‘a Refugee Innovation Centre’, within which refugees’ own skills, talents and aspirations would meet outside ‘solution holders’, whose ideas might be adapted to context in order to promote market-based opportunities that benefit refugees, enhance the tools available to humanitarian organisations, and create for-profit opportunities across the board. Such ‘Refugee Innovation Centres’ might be located in rural or urban areas, and their focus would depend on context. They might provide the equipment, mentorship, and training space within which refugees’ own ideas and talents could be incubated with engagement from a range of external actors. The aim would be to create a diverse range of sustainable livelihoods and business opportunities for refugees, which simultaneously benefit the host community.

Most refugees want freedom and opportunity rather than dependency and indefinite welfare. It is a human tragedy that refugees spend years on end in camps with access to post-primary education, livelihood opportunities or freedom of movement. Humanitarian organizations like UNHCR have traditionally lacked the capacity to take a developmental approach to refugee protection. Yet, it may well be that the private sector – at all levels from small groups of refugees up to large global corporations – represents the missing link for potentially transforming the paradigm on which refugee protection has been based. Furthermore, if best practices can be developed that highlight how refugees can contribute to development and growth, host governments may begin to see refugees as a benefit rather than a burden and begin to change their own policies accordingly.

                                     Alexander Betts

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