Way forward: a female entrepreneur works on her textiles in Rwanda’s Gihembe camp © Sarah Day Smith/FSDA
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Like many bankers, Patrice Kiiru was sceptical about the benefits of targeting refugees as customers.

But after the executive at Kenya’s Equity Bank spent three days last year at Gihembe, a refugee centre just north of the Rwandan capital Kigali, he changed his mind. “It is possible to serve . . . refugees, profitably,” says Mr Kiiru, head of the bank’s diaspora banking department. “You just have to get your boots on the ground, you have to roll your sleeves up, you have to walk into a camp, you have to talk to a few people.”

He says that “you’ll get that ‘aha’ moment, when you realise ‘I can solve this problem’”. His bank is now preparing to offer its Eazzy mobile money product to camp residents. The UN sees private sector investment from the likes of Equity Bank as an essential part of the answer to the ever-growing needs of refugees who, contrary to popular perception in the west, live mostly in developing countries least able to look after them.

A compact being put to the relevant General Assembly committee on Wednesday by the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, sets out an explicit role for business in helping refugees stand on their own two feet while boosting host economies.

This radical new approach is driven by an acknowledgment on the part of the UN’s refugee agency that there will “never be enough humanitarian funding to meet the immediate human needs, let alone help refugees around the world to rebuild their lives”. Mr Grandi hopes the compact will be approved by the full General Assembly in December.

Refugees “come with a certain stock of talents, skills, networks, and even financial resources”, says Apurva Sanghi, who led a World Bank study of Kakuma camp in northwestern Kenya.

“They become a hub of economic activity,” he says, estimating that refugees have boosted the economic output of Kenya’s surrounding Turkana county “permanently by 3.5 per cent”.

“Refugees have positive and negative impacts and you can maximise the positive impacts by creating an enabling environment for them to contribute: the right to work, freedom of movement, attending school,” says Jakob Oster, of the UNHCR’s economic inclusion team. “And then it means inclusion into national systems. When parallel systems are set up, that’s more expensive than inclusion into existing national systems.”

The nascent involvement of business is not confined to developing countries. Two years ago, Manpower, the recruitment company, began a programme to find jobs for refugees in Germany. Working with the Federal Employment Agency, it had placed more than 2,500 refugees in German jobs as of the end of June, with 29 per cent more placements in the first half of this year than all of 2017.

Stefano Scabbio, Manpower’s president for the Mediterranean and eastern Europe, says most of the refugees it had helped were skilled workers like carpenters or electricians needed by the German labour market. “At the beginning it was a little bit hard but now the employers are more open,” he says. The biggest barrier was refugees not knowing German. “So we’re really providing training for language skills.” Manpower has since extended the scheme to France, Bulgaria and Sweden. Meanwhile, Ikea, the Swedish retailer, stocks goods made by Syrian refugees in its Jordanian store.

Yet such initiatives only scratch the surface of the need, experts say. Alexander Betts, professor of forced migration and international affairs at Oxford university, says this is only likely to change if “we take the refugee issues . . . into company boardrooms” as opposed to relegating them to a matter of corporate social responsibility.

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About this Special Report

With finite aid unable to meet infinite need, the UN wants business to emulate mobile operators and see refugees as customers rather than victims. Plus: the new technologies and fresh approaches to housing and education to help refugees rebuild their lives

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