It is estimated that, on average, a refugee spends over a decade in exile. This means that many refugee children, who make up more than half the world’s refugees, will spend most of their childhood in exile, jeopardizing their education and access to future economic opportunities. For millions of refugee adults, decades of displacement have immediate and long-term effects on their income earning potential and ability to support their families.
There is widespread agreement among humanitarian and development experts that an effective refugee response must not only include emergency relief but also long-term development solutions. As Mercy Corps states in a recent study on coping strategies of Syrians living through conflict, the “aid sector’s definition of ‘lifesaving’ must evolve to include ‘livelihood saving.’”
This shift is reflected in the draft Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework released by UNHCR early this year, which states “refugees should be included in the communities from the very beginning. When refugees gain access to education and labour markets, they can build their skills and become self-reliant, contributing to local economies and fuelling the development of the communities hosting them.” Research shows that access to functioning markets is a key predictor of better household welfare and also enables refugees to contribute to local economies that can have a positive multiplier effect on local employment and development.
The private sector is an essential partner in strengthening refugee self-reliance, wellbeing, and sustainable livelihoods. Finding the right way for companies to collaborate with the array of NGOs, UN agencies, local governments, among others is particularly challenge when it comes to the complex and protracted nature of the situation of many refugees.
In recognition of this, BFP has launched a new Challenge on Business and Refugees with initial support from Pearson and in partnership with UNHCR, Mercy Corps, Business Call to Action, Innovest Advisory, and Thomson Reuters Foundation. The Challenge aims to strengthen the foundation for effective partnerships to improve refugees’ wellbeing and educational and livelihood opportunities so refugees can thrive, not just survive.
The Challenge will add to the great work by Tent Foundation, Promising Practices, among others that is demonstrating the important role companies play in supporting refugees through employment, delivering education, providing access to goods and services, and investing in entrepreneurs. More than 80 partners of Tent, the majority of which are companies, have made commitments to help refugees.
UNHCR has also been working with the private sector as part of a shared responsibility approach. The agency has strategic partnerships with companies like IKEA Foundation and IKEA to help provide shelter, education, electricity, and livelihoods support to refugees. As the head of the livelihoods unit at UNHCR, Ziad Ayoubi, explained in an interview, “UNHCR has radically changed its thinking. We want to develop partnerships to integrate refugees into development plans and into markets through more inclusive value chains. We need to think about economic inclusion at every phase of the displacement lifecycle.”
Aspirations are high but identifying and implementing effective business-led or supported interventions is very challenging in practice. Local laws restricting employment or access to financing, poor coordination among actors, tensions with local communities, the general uncertainty facing refugees, are some of the issues companies have to navigate when they support refugees.
Over the next five months, BFP will be leading a dynamic process of collaboration with companies, civil society partners, UN agencies, social enterprises, among others to explore how to translate aspirations into practical realities. In particular, the Challenge will look at how to build effective partnerships that enable and mobilize more companies to support the refugee response. The Challenge plans to look more specifically at how models can work in low to middle income countries where most refugees currently reside, and where jobs are already in short supply and infrastructure is already under strain.
Some of the enablers that the Challenge may explore include how companies can work with others to ensure protections for refugee workers or informal enterprises in their supply chain. It could include how partnerships with government can help adjust education policies so that refugee children can take advantage of digital education opportunities. It could also look at the role that donors and foundations can play in de-risking business investments.
There are already some example partnerships to draw upon. Through the #EveryChildLearning partnership Pearson and Save the Children are combining their expertise and networks to research and develop new programmatic and digital solutions for delivering education to Syrian refugees as well as host community children in Jordan. Essential to the partnership is awareness raising of the importance of education in emergency situations, as well as the relationship built with the Jordanian Ministry of Education.
Made51 is a UNHCR-led initiative that connects refugee artisans with global markets. In addition to brands and retailers who can source and sell refugee-made products, UNHCR is also looking for companies that can provide tech solutions, logistics, and distribution. Building a credible network of partners to ensure quality and timely delivery of products will help attract other companies.
We plan to share the results of the Challenge during the BFP side-event at the UNGA this September when UNHCR will also release the final comprehensive refugee response framework. This will provide a platform for more collaboration to tackle one of the most complex, global challenges with implications that extend far beyond where refugees live now or in the future.
BFP invites individuals and organizations working to support refugees through core business solutions to share your insights and lessons through upcoming events, online discussions, and one-on-one engagement opportunities.