For many, the Syrian refugee crisis has played out through powerful television shots of overcrowded boats braving rough waters in the Mediterranean or the horrifying image of a young boy washed up on the shore of the Turkish coast.
Having been based in Kiva’s Istanbul office and traveling throughout the Middle East from 2012–2017, the refugee crisis quickly became the daily personal encounters I had. It became the pain of the Syrian mother and her daughter begging on the streets of Amman, the desperation of families struggling to find shelter in abandoned apartment buildings in Beirut before winter, and the resolve of the waiters at my favorite cafe in Istanbul trying to earn a basic living as they started life from scratch.
For many of the 68.5 million forcibly displaced people around the world, basic humanitarian assistance such as food and shelter is what they need most. But throughout my time in the region, I was also consistently struck by the many refugees I met who were eager to move beyond humanitarian assistance and were desperately trying to generate livelihoods for themselves and their families. I also began to see the international development community shift its approach towards understanding that, while emergency humanitarian assistance plays a key role, we must begin thinking about more sustainable solutions to the global refugee crisis.
At Kiva, we believe access to finance is one of these solutions, since it empowers refugees to start businesses, pay for urgent medical needs, or continue their education. Despite this need, most financial institutions around the world are unwilling to serve refugees, as refugees are often perceived as too risky to lend to, usually due to the belief that they pose a flight risk. This concept of “flight risk” is doubly sad when one realizes the average refugee family will spend more than 10 years being displaced.
Since 2016, Kiva.org has lent over $14 million to more than 17,000 refugees around the world through our crowdfunding platform. We have seen that refugees repay their loans at rates over 95%, similar to those of non-refugee borrowers, which we believe demonstrates that refugees are not only viable microfinance clients, but that investing in refugees is both the right social and business decision.
Today, a refugee impact investing community and field is beginning to form. Our hope at Kiva is that our work is helping build a foundation to bring in institutional investors as an additional, necessary tool to help address the refugee crisis. It will take a massive effort to bring real change to those impacted by global forced displacement, one that will require NGOs, the private sector, and governments to all play key roles.
And with nearly 70 million displaced today, we must take action now, as it is becoming increasingly difficult to picture this number declining. Tackling this crisis effectively requires a significant and meaningful shift towards creating livelihood opportunities by investing in refugees — from refugee-led small businesses, to refugee lending programs, to businesses that employ refugees.
Lev Plaves is a senior portfolio manager at Kiva, the world’s largest crowdfunding platform for social good. He manages Kiva’s World Refugee Fund, an innovative effort focused on the financial inclusion of forcibly displaced populations. Learn more about Kiva’s work here, and read more from Lev here and here.