June 24, 2016

Mahoney: New Way Forward in Advocating for the Displaced

My articles over the past few weeks have established the inadequacies of international organizations aiding the displaced and the lack of mechanisms beyond emergency aid to advocate for the rights and long-term welfare of refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs).

When civilian populations are uprooted and displaced for years and even decades, with little hope of returning home or being resettled in a third country, they face a life of perpetual limbo. They have no means to manifest their dreams, make use of their skills and ingenuity or care for themselves and their families. This is the stark reality for an overwhelming majority of displaced populations across the globe. They are stranded, with no way to move forward and no means to return home.

So we must find new ways of dealing with this reality. I suggest a strategy that capitalizes on social entrepreneurship and microfinance to enable the displaced populations to rebuild their lives and livelihoods and to become self-sustainable.

I propose a campaign targeting concerned citizens and community-driven civil societies of the Global North to mobilize new pools of investment for displaced individuals with entrepreneurial backgrounds – from small-scale business owners to tech developers. The impressive amounts of private aid that arrived in reaction to humanitarian disasters like the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti prove that concerned global citizens and communities are willing to act, if the “ask” is clear, with scope for tangible progress.

Mobilizing private funds from citizens and initiatives to invest in the future of the displaced is more feasible. A well-planned and well-executed campaign targeted at citizens of the wealthier countries of the world could have a clear and simple ask – for example, “donate $5–$25 to invest in a particular initiative to provide livelihood opportunities for displaced communities living in an ‘X’ country.” Aggregating these small individual contributions could create microfinance grant pools of significant proportions. Partnering with corporate sponsors to match crowdfunded pools could double the resources.

These microfinance pools could then be deployed in different ways depending on the sociopolitical context and the willingness and transparency of the host governments. Hostile host governments like the Syrian regime that are a main cause of displacement are obviously not suitable partners to disburse the funds. In such cases partnerships with aid organizations on the ground would be used to distribute and support micro entrepreneurs in refugee and IDP camps.

On the other hand friendly host governments could prove effective partners in advocacy and negotiations. A centralized core organization would form the backbone of the campaign and communicate the available pools of resources for the displaced community to the appropriate ministries. But the release of those funds would be conditional on the host government allowing the displaced to work and move freely.

Again, the funds would be deployed through partnerships with trustworthy aid organizations that have been operating on the ground with visible success. Through such new campaigns, with investment in sustainable futures as the core component, the displaced could begin rebuilding their professions, developing small businesses and transitioning to lives of dignity and independence. Their children, the future generations, would be able to access education and have an early start on the path toward economic independence.

The international community is now faced with two options. The first is to do nothing and allow the status quo policy to continue. As millions remain displaced, and hundreds of thousands follow in their footsteps every year, disillusionment among these communities is quickly turning into despair. If the wealthy world stands idly by while the displaced are forced to live at the edge of existence, this will breed rebellion, extremism and endless cycles of violence.

To echo Franklin D. Roosevelt’s words, “People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”

There is a much more productive way forward – one in which the developed countries support some of the most vulnerable communities in the world, while viewing this investment as a mutually beneficial strategy. The displaced have fled war, persecution and violence to save themselves and their families. Their stories are both harrowing and inspiring. They want to begin anew, rebuild their professions and live lives of dignity. It is a reasonable ask.

We have the opportunity to invest in them, in the development of countries in crisis and ultimately in a more stable future for us all in a highly globalized world. We can no longer pretend that the wrath of conflict does not directly affect us.

This series for Refugees Deeply on the barriers to advocacy for refugees and IDPs and the viable alternatives, by Christine Mahoney, is based on her field research from 61 displacement crises across the world.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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Professor of Public Policy and Politics and Director of Social Entrepreneurship @ UVA
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