Sparking Innovation in Refugee Camps

Yesterday was World Refugee Day. In recognition of the day, I have written the following post on the potential for innovation to spur resiliency and self-sufficiency in refugee communities.

According to the UN Refugee Agency, there are over 45.2 million displaced people in the world. Global displacement is at an 18-year high.  These figures are unsurprising considering that the 2013 Global Peace Index found that peace across the world is deteriorating and violence is taking its place.

1 in every 170 people has been uprooted by conflict. One-third of these people are refugees, people fleeing from war in country’s outside their own, while two-thirds are internally displaced persons.

While refugee camps are typically meant to be short-term solutions, a large number of conflicts today have resulted in protracted refugee situations, cases in which refugees have lived outside of their country for five years or longer. These protected refugee situations are sadly becoming the norm rather than the exception.

Humanitarian agencies provide food, shelter, medical care as well as educational services, however not all of the needs of these refugees are met. What about the cultivation of creativity - a quality necessary to spur entrepreneurship? Without these traits, refugees are unable to attain the economic and social resiliency that help avoid a renewal of conflict upon their return to their home countries.

In protracted refugee camps, the average stay is 17 years. For Afghans in Iran and Pakistan, Sudanese in Chad, Somalis in Kenya and the Burmese in Thailand, this means that camps must evolve beyond their typical preoccupation with emergency needs. In order to avoid a culture of dependency, new strategies must be develop to moves refugees towards self-sufficiency and renew their sense of dignity in the midst of hardship. This shift in perspective would complement the recent United Nation’s High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda’s focus on sustainable development.

There are well-documented cases of the thriving entrepreneurial spirit common in many refugee camps. Dadaab, Kenya, the world’s largest refugee camp, is home to “ more than 5,000 businesses… includ[ing] Internet cafes, butcher shops, hotels, barbershops, telephone bureaus, clinics, electricity suppliers and even second-hand motor vehicle dealer.”

As a 2012 Oxford Conference posited, refugees are “natural entrepreneurs” whose need to survive drives innovation, thus meriting access to opportunities that can facilitate a return to simulacrum of normalcy.

In 2006, Uganda took an innovative stance in refugee policy by adopting legislation that allows refugees to move freely within the country and work rather than living in camps. While Uganda’s refugee population is not as large as the refugee populations of other regions, the nation’s approach enables refugees to be self-reliant. Other nations should consider a model along similar lines.

While implementation of micro-finance to spur business in camps can be difficult in refugee settings, it is concept also well-worth further exploration in order to facilitate self-sufficiency. In some nations, however, such development is impeded by restrictions on the participation of refugees in the private sector. Despite legal roadblocks in some regions, research has shown that refugees are often self-employed which creates employment opportunities for local communities as well as potential new markets for the nation.

Creating opportunities for refugees to develop businesses not only builds resiliency, but can help local communities.

For further reading on this topic, please see:

“Kenya can turn the Dadaab refugee camps into an asset”The Guardian, April 2012

IT entrepreneurs find surprise success in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camps”The Guardian, June 2013

DRC-TANZANIA: Business as usual for Congolese entrepreneurs in refugee camps,IRIN Africa, April 2003

USAID - Resiliency

Entrepreneurship and Social Entrepreneurship in Refugee Camps, Unite for Sight

“Resiliency Admist the Fragmented Lives of Afghan Refugee Women”

Akinyi OchiengComment