This year’s UN General Assembly week was the 4th I have attended with a professional focus on refugees and forced migration. I walked away from each with different perspectives, the first was overwhelming, the second optimistic, third was pessimistic, and this one was a solid dose of realism. A pragmatic punch of a new normal. A reminder that being innovative for the sake of being innovative isn’t the right approach, though where there are what seem like intractable problems innovation is exactly what’s needed.
The following are eight thoughts I have had since that week, that will inform our work going forward. While they might not be groundbreaking, they are conversations we need to have to catalyze actions as a global community moving forward.
Refugees are not a market, they are a thematic approach
At Humans on the Move, we have been a part of growing number of actors in the private investment space, calling for increased investment in response to forced displacement, specifically in host communities. However, refugees themselves are not a market, they are thematic approach to how one identifies investment opportunities. The reality is that investing in solutions that help refugees really means investing in the companies and projects that positively impact the communities that are hosting them. It is addressing inequities and deficiencies that already existed in the market but are exacerbated by the overwhelming increase in population. For example, the Colombian healthcare system struggles to care for local Colombians, and only has the capacity to treat emergency cases of Venezuelans. Investing in, and expanding community health centers that support the existing infrastructure and take pressure off hospitals for primary care will improve the quality of care for both locals and the displaced.
Private Sector Cannot Go It Alone
Throughout the week there were calls for the private sector and NGOs to step in where governments have not been able to, in order to respond to the burdens placed on countries hosting refugees. There were even calls for the private sector to go it alone. While I firmly believe that there are ways for the private sector to play a meaningful role, going it alone will not work. (Caveat, it should be noted the possible frustrations often lie with federal governments and their lack of response.) Businesses and investors would not dream of the entering a market on a traditional deal without local contacts, relationships, and following protocol, why on earth would they do it in response to a humanitarian crisis? The public sector, from the village to municipal to federal levels, is a critical stakeholder regardless of how convoluted or bungled their response might be perceived to be. The private sector is not the white knight to that dysfunction. At times to outside eyes what is perceived to be dysfunction is a system that just works differently. In theory, the private sector could be more nimble, innovative, faster to open, but the reality is that while it sounds sexy on a conference stage, or brilliant in a slide deck, the actual practice of forging it alone is foolish. As with any business endeavor, failing to establish strong local relationships can wreak havoc on even the best of intentions. It’s far more beneficial if all of the stakeholders are at the table, voices are heard, and solutions are designed where everyone has a literal stake (no pun intended) in a positive outcome. Will everyone win? No. Though forging ahead on one’s own will only add to the chaos.
Solutions should supplement not supplant the public sector
The private and humanitarian sectors do have vital roles to play in the response to forced displacement, but their solutions to problems facing host communities should not denature the role of the public sector in providing for the populace it serves. Crisises should not be seen as opportunity to privatize utilities or the education sector, but rather an opportunity to collaborate and amplify existing ecosystems. Services should add value to the local community, include native born and new residents alike, decreasing burdens on the public sector.
Simply keeping people alive does not cut it anymore
For as many calls as there have been for transforming aid in how refugees are supported, we are not transforming fast enough. Most refugees can’t go home as much as that’s their primary choice. In the 1950s the original plan behind refugee response, and hence the tent camps, was to provide people fleeing a safe place to stay, shelter, food, healthcare and sanitation because it was thought that being a refugee would be a temporary situation. It’s not and it hasn’t been for a long time. The Palestinians living in Lebanon have not gone home, the Somalis in Dadaab, the Syrians in Jordan, the Western Saharans in Algeria, etc….So if we scrap the idea that this is a 2–5 year displacement and more likely a 20+ year displacement, we (as in the humanitarian, public, and private sectors together) have to transform the model of the response. We need to have a deeper focus on shifting people from a state of crisis to moving forward with their lives and becoming active, contributing members to their host communities. We also need to acknowledge that there needs to be more creative ways for host communities to expand their capacity to support refugee communities. For example in access education, over 50% of the world’s refugees are children, but only 2% of humanitarian aid goes to education, meaning less than 50% are getting an education. It’s not just an economic problem, but one of global security. We are talking about millions of young people with tenacious curiosities, and incredible creativity that could be unleashed to solve the challenges in their own communities and across the globe. They could be the leaders who are going to rebuild these countries after the fires of civil conflict have died down. Though if we don’t provide these young, bright minds with an access to an education and a pathway to leverage that knowledge, that curiosity and creativity, can turn into frustration and boredom, which creates a ripe, risk-filled environment. If access to the local public education system is limited, informal education solutions need to be embraced and encouraged in ways that provide pathways towards further growth, inclusion in the economy, and social integration.
“Refugees have a marketing problem” (line borrowed from David Miliband, President of the IRC), and it’s our fault (mine)
When someone thinks of the word refugee, the first connotation that comes to mind is of someone who has nothing, or less than nothing. Whose life has been turned upside down and backwards, and desperately needs our help because they have been forced to flee their home. When in fact the picture is more nuanced. Yes at a certain point in time, crisis, a refugee needs a lot of help. Yet the forcibly displaced have a lot to offer, and they are often some of the most, if not the most ingenious people I have ever come in contact with. Yet, how humanitarian aid organizations raise money, is to focus on what they do not have, which is called deficit-based grantmaking. Show us where the need is, and we’ll give you funds to meet that need. Now to be fair, for many, there are serious, grave needs, especially for people who are stuck in warzones like Yemen and Syria, and those who are stuck in communities where they have no pathway to joining any kind of a market economy. However in most contexts, refugees have plenty to offer to a community, they just need to be given an opening to do so. Stakeholders in the public, private, and humanitarian community need to tell their story better, because while I understand showing a picture of someone who is deeply malnourished or shrouded in soiled clothing compels donors to give, that does not help the perception of the value of who a human being is who happens to at that moment be a refugee.
Global Finance Toolbox needs to be expanded
While there are debt facilities provided by the IFC and development banks, debt cannot be the only answer. If the global community wants neighboring countries to shift their perspective on hosting hundreds of thousands of people to millions from a crisis to an opportunity, we are going to need to find ways that are not going to add extraordinary pressure on a country’s macroeconomic situation. Beyond philanthropic aid. The tools may not exist yet, so as a global community we are going to have to get creative. We need to think of tools, whether it’s financial instruments or policies that incentivize investment and private sector engagement that will help domestic economies absorb new residents beyond debt.
Solidarity Is Exhausting, we should acknowledge that
It really is amazing that neighboring countries welcome people with open arms fleeing violence, from Colombia to Brazil to Lebanon to Uganda. Yet solidarity, is exhausting. We need to think about how we support it financially and also emotionally. In the US and EU, away from the humanitarian context we often talk about caregiver fatigue, when we think about relatives caring for each other when one is infirmed. We need to have that same conversation when it comes to humanitarian response and host communities. We also need to acknowledge, not just in conferences and symposiums, but in very public fora the welcoming spirit of solidarity these communities have and how grateful we all are that they are there with open arms. Acknowledgement and gratitude expressed through various media is as important to the narrative as both the actual actions themselves and international support. If the private sector can put together a tear-jerking advertisements for the World Cup or the Olympics on roles of family and community in preparing athletes for competition, why not for acknowledging the work they do in welcoming refugees to their communities?
The SDGs are in Danger… because of displacement
In September 2015, when the Sustainable Development Goals were formally adopted to much fanfare, there was quite a bit of consternation amongst my new colleagues that displaced people, specifically refugees, were not included as a goal or within the goals themselves. I assumed that the goals, all 17 of them were designed to be inclusive of all people living within a nations borders regardless of residency status, they are. And therein lies the rub. According to a new report released by the Overseas Development Institute and the International Rescue Committee, the Sustainable Development Goals are in danger of not being met because we are not addressing the needs of the displaced, they are being left out. The report is really interesting, but I have really been thinking that perhaps my colleagues were right, perhaps refugees and the displaced really do need their own goal, or least, objectives within each goal (that are adopted).
Christine LeViseur Mendonça is the CEO and Co-Founder of Humans on the Move, an intermediary that connects the humanitarian, public, and private sectors to rethink the response to forced displacement around the globe.