Rethinking the Refugee Crisis: Putting Peacetech to Work for Job Creation

by Andrew Mack and Hanne Dalmut May 12

There are over 60 million refugees displaced by conflict, hunger, and chronic homelessness. If they were a nation, today’s refugees would be the 24th most populous country in the world. Over 20 million have been displaced by the wars in Syria and Iraq alone, according to the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR. And there will be no quick fix. A return to Syria or Somalia might take years. To address the issue, we need to look beyond solutions solely involving Governments and non-government organizations — we must mobilize technology and the private sector. And importantly, we need to find avenues through which displaced people can reclaim their purpose and dignity, something we can do by getting refugees tech-enabled work.

Today we see refugees almost exclusively in humanitarian terms, a community in need. But what if we could change our perspective? What if this staggering number of potential workers could be mobilized as a major new workforce, or be seen by companies as a window through which to maintain connection with markets that may be temporarily off line due to conflict conditions? What if, rather than attempting to “manage” refugees we could provide “peacetech” tools and the opportunities to create a real market for their hard work, providing real value to them and growth to the global economy?

As a result of advances in technology and globalization, the private sector is poised to be a key player in addressing this challenge. And while select companies have for decades been partners in disaster relief or community building, we see fundamentally new — and much larger — opportunities that could bring the private sector and refugees together as partners, creating a new dynamic for lasting impact.

Many efforts start with tech training and lead to jobs

Firms are already involved in building capacity and creating skilled jobs in and around tech. Projects like Iraq Re:Coded show how relationships with private sector partners from the Middle East, the US and Europe can be leveraged to employ hundreds of at-risk Syrian refugees with computer programming skills, linking them to jobs as remote software developers.

Another program, Reboot Kamp (or RBK) based in Silicon Valley, provides technical training for Syrian refugees in northern Jordan. To overcome logistical challenges endemic in camps, they use what they call a ZatLab, “a compact, self-powered, modular, portable and scalable learning environment containing computers and other tech equipment.” RBK’s goal is to link graduates with their Silicon Valley network for longer-term jobs.

Others use new business models + tech to reach scale

At the same time, there have been advances in business models showing promise to achieve reach scale — with the hope of providing employment in the tens and even hundreds of thousands, and helping to address crucial “right to work” and payments issues for refugees around the world.

One such model is franchising/microfranchising. We know that franchising provides an easier way for potential business owners to get started, and it could be especially important in areas — like refugee centers — where access to capital and mentoring are often scarce. In his 2015 article “Franchising for Peace,” PeaceTech Lab CEO Sheldon Himelfarb touted the value of a franchising approach that combines the best of central coordination and training with local initiative. Such an approach might be especially valuable for refugees with business experience — previous business owners or technical experts — who want to start up in areas with limited employment opportunities.

And as AMGlobal’s Andrew Mack put in his January 2013 TED-style talk,microfranchising could also provide significant opportunities for young adults who have the energy (but might not have the experience) to get a business started. In the provision of services in health and education, small microfranchises could dramatically improve the quality of life for refugees and the communities that host them while connecting new business owners with a network of support to help them succeed.

Finally, to reach the literally millions who need work (whether skilled or unskilled), tech increasingly provides opportunities for growth, through “telework” — distance contracts that could be fulfilled by refugees of all skill levels with some basic computing tools and even limited connectivity. From photo-tagging to more sophisticated business process outsourcing, refugees could be connected with demand from companies, agencies and governments from the Global North that would provide not just aid, but demand in the form of contracts. While the idea of telework is not new, UNHCR’s Community Technology Access program, AMGlobal and others are looking hard at how to create a template for such a system, to easily set up work centers, sustainably capture private sector demand, and match appropriate work with refugee job-seekers on a much larger scale.

Finally, data on refugees by itself has value. It is essential to governments and aid providers for planning purposes, and for peacebuilding groups like the PeaceTech Lab looking to prevent violent conflict in a data driven manner. But this same data also has great market research value for corporations looking to engage with a mobile customer base and adapt to their changing needs. Refugees can be enlisted to collect and provide data using simple, low-tech tools like Kobo Toolbox. Clients as diverse as the medical records management and financial services sector have demonstrated needs for these services.

We have tools and are developing more, but the time to act is now

The unprecedented size and duration of today’s refugee situation will require new approaches if we are to address the challenge in a smart, sustainable, humane way. Leveraging technology, corporate leaders need to view themselves as partners — not benefactors — in a global effort that in many ways will define our time and our economic future. Time is short for the refugees and for host countries like Turkey, Jordan and Kenya straining to provide for the migrants. Peacetech offers new models for engagement, rooted in business, that can change the dynamic — creating dignity and real economic value for refugees around the world.

Andrew Mack (@amackglobal) is Principal of AMGlobal Consulting, a specialized Washington, DC-based firm that leverages partnerships, smart Corporate Social Responsibility, technology and new business models like microfranchising to help companies and NGOs do more business — and better business — in Emerging Markets.

Hanne Dalmut (@HBursch) is a Senior Specialist at the PeaceTech Lab, where she leads the groundTruth Corporate Membership Services Program, which works with private sector companies looking to expand their operations in post-conflict and fragile environments. The PeaceTech Lab leverages technology, media and data to help reduce violent conflict around the world.