Here’s How Refugees Can Realize Their Own Economic Potential

Kakuma, Kenya - A young girl is looking out of a classroom in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya's Kalobeyei region. (July 2019)

Kenya’s Kakuma Refugee Camp and the neighbouring Kalobeyei Integrated Settlement are home to 190,000 refugees and asylum seekers. With a tight budget and unmet funding goals, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, and its partners provide refugees with assistance on protection, registration, legal support, education, shelter and access to energy, among other things. But support is limited and the fulfillment of the refugees’ basic needs and access to adequate public services, such as infrastructure and electricity, is still lacking.

The Kakuma as a Market Place report published by the International Finance Corporation estimates Kakuma’s economy to be worth $56 million. There are an estimated 2,700 registered businesses in Kakuma, making up more than 30% of all businesses in the whole of Turkana County. Those businesses highlight refugees’ diverse range of skills, talents, and aspirations. Gradually, there is a recognition that rather than just vulnerabilities, refugees also have capabilities, and that the camps represent a viable economy, with the potential to contribute to economic growth across the region. The Governor of Turkana County has understood that his region’s economic future relies upon making the most of the presence of refugees and helping them access their economic potential.

The important question, then, is how can Kakuma and the surrounding region realize its economic potential? Rather than taking a purely humanitarian approach, how can it adopt a development-based approach that improves the wellbeing of both refugees and the host community? The international community in Kakuma and the local County Government have adopted a 15-year strategy for the region’s development, based on a multi-stakeholder approach. But that strategy needs external support, based on public-private partnership in order to become a reality. This is an approach that reflects the goals of the World Economic Forum.

During our week in Kakuma, in which we delivered the Young Global Leaders‘ (YGL) first ever executive leadership course in a refugee camp to 30 refugee and host community entrepreneurs, we learned four main lessons:

Refugees are eager to be heard.

During the course, participants were exposed to YGL-led modules in areas as diverse as leadership, management, investment and finance, and the role of China in Africa. A breakout session that required participation and engagement followed each of the training sessions. Participants worked in pairs and small groups to discuss learnings. They were asked to undertake role-plays. Many of the participants were quick to prepare their “sales-pitch” or presentation. Their presentations were dynamic and full of energy, exhibiting the kind of public-speaking skills you might expect in a top-level boardroom.

During those presentations, we imagined what an incredible success many of these entrepreneurs would be if they had access to a stronger enabling environment, one that could nurture their talent and potential. Whether it was presenting a business idea or presenting their group learnings, each of the participants came across as a leader; when they talked you could not do anything else but listen and pay attention. We also wondered whether this reflected their eagerness to be heard by a larger world beyond that of Kakuma’s physical and regulatory boundaries. In the words of one participant, with international networks might they “be able to grow wings”?

Refugees need to be defined by their talent and economic potential.

We often talk about refugees and refugee camps in humanitarian terms, and certainly many have vulnerabilities.

However, refugees in a camp like Kakuma are also business and social entrepreneurs, artists, writers, scientists and skilled vocational workers. They are diverse and they have capabilities and economic potential, which need to be recognized. Given the right training and support, many have the potential to improve themselves and their communities and add value to the regional and global economies.

During the programme, we met Innocent, a refugee from Burundi, who started his own soap and detergent factory, supplying schools across Kakuma. We met Teresa, who has her own salon, doing cosmetology and hairdressing. We also met Kitala, whose business provides internet access to students in Kakuma and those who have no access to smartphones. Innocent, Teresa and Kitala are three of the many refugees who have the talent, energy, capacity and entrepreneurial spirit to work hard every day to overcome physical and bureaucratic constraints.

Refugees need more capacity building – but it’s not the answer.

Research by the Refugee Studies Centre suggests that training for refugees who own or work in business correlates to a 20% increase in sales and profit.

But these training opportunities for refugees in Kakuma continue to be insufficient. Organizations on the ground understand the gap, and that was a reason behind our successful collaboration with Danish Church Aid. However, in addition to the type of course our YGLs have offered, political and economic change is also needed at a macro-level. We need to nurture a policy-focused conversation around inclusive economic growth that connects refugees to the global economy and their economic potential. These conversations must involve diverse stakeholders including governments, the international community and the private sector.

Capacity-building that does not also address the physical and bureaucratic constraints that prevent refugees from realizing their economic potential will only go so far. How can we motivate the private sector to invest in Kakuma and the surrounding region? How can the international community encourage regulatory change to allow refugees to work and move more freely within Kenya?

Refugee challenges require an agile approach.

No single sector or organization can address the enormous challenges faced by refugees. The issue is one that cuts across humanitarianism, development, security and immigration. In order to unlock the potential of refugees, governments, business, and civil society all have a crucial role to play. Adaptability and a willingness to collaborate are essential for change. But, most crucially, responses cannot simply be top-down. When we look at Kakuma Refugee Camp, we recognize how much refugees and the host community can teach us about possible solutions. Our experience has been about mutual learning based on reciprocity, and our goal must be to find inclusive ways to connect refugees’ talent to the wider global economy.

In Kakuma and elsewhere, many refugees bring talent, vocational expertise and a hardworking mindset. So many of the people we met want to excel and participate actively in markets and economic activities. Professor Klaus Schwab, Founder and Chairman of the World Economic Forum, advocates for a response to global challenges, migration included, based on “networked leadership integrating all stakeholders of global society.” As more than 1,000 regional and global leaders from politics, business, civil society and academia convene at the World Economic Forum in Cape Town to explore ways of shaping inclusive growth and shared futures in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we should ask: how will refugee challenges and needs be integrated in a collective, multi-stakeholder approach that enables refugees in Kakuma and elsewhere in Africa to realize their economic potential?

This article was published on the World Economic Forum Agenda.


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