Resilience, Peace and Security

Why aid agencies should harness the ingenuity of refugees

Emma Batha
Journalist, Thomson Reuters Foundation
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From building generators out of scrap to setting up internet services, refugees consistently amaze aid workers with their resourcefulness, yet their talent for innovation is too often overlooked, humanitarian experts say.

As refugee numbers continue to soar, a report published on Friday calls for aid agencies to do more to help refugees provide their own solutions to gaps left by inadequate international assistance.

“There is a global refugee crisis and creative solutions are needed now more than ever. But aid agencies rarely look at what refugees are doing to help themselves,” said the report’s co-author Louise Bloom, a researcher at the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford.

Nearly 60 million people around the world are displaced, more than at any time since World War Two.

The report showcases examples of refugee-led innovation from Jordan, Kenya, Uganda, South African and the United States.

In Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, home to around 85,000 Syrians, refugees are reconfiguring the lay-out of the camp and their homes to replicate their pre-war communities.

Businesses have sprung up along a bustling market street nicknamed the Shams-Elysees – a reference to the famous Paris shopping avenue and the historic name for Syria, Sham.

The report describes how carpenters have ripped out unwanted wooden flooring from camp shelters to make furniture – everything from cribs to dining tables. Others are recycling disused tents into clothes.

Some entrepreneurs are even breeding and selling birds. Keeping caged birds is popular in Syria and people say having birds around the camp helps them relax.

In Uganda, the report cites the example of Claude, a Rwandan refugee who has set up a mill in the large Nakivale refugee settlement to turn refugee farmers’ maize into flour. The mill is so successful that when a new influx of refugees arrived in 2013, he ended up milling maize for the World Food Programme to meet the increased demand.

To keep his machines cool he uses rainwater collected from his roof and stored in a huge tank he had built behind the mill. He can harvest so much that he now runs a sideline selling water during the dry season.

But refugees often face major obstacles in getting their ideas off the ground. The study says they need better access to the internet, microfinance, education, entrepreneurship training and basic infrastructure.

“The report has major implications for aid agencies who should be giving refugees far more help to set up businesses and find their own solutions,” Bloom said.

“Rather than bringing in top-down solutions drawn up in their head offices, agencies should be looking at bottom-up innovation.”

Sometimes refugees’ projects not only benefit their own communities but also the local population, the report says.

In Johannesburg, Zimbabwean refugees have opened schools for refugee children that are producing extraordinary exam results, the researchers say. Some of these schools now take poor South Africans as well.

The report will feed into the world’s first humanitarian summit which U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is hosting in Istanbul next year to brainstorm how to better meet the needs of people affected by conflict and disaster.

This article is published in collaboration with Thomson Reuters Foundation. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Emma Batha is a journalist specialising in humanitarian crises and women’s rights.

Image: A Syrian refugee roasts sunflower seeds in his shop at the main market at the Al-Zaatari refugee camp in Mafraq, Jordan, near the border with Syria. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

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