Oct. 27, 2017

Christine Mahoney on the Benefits of Integrating Displaced People

Dan Runde of the Center for Strategic and International Studies recently interviewed Christine Mahoney, Professor of Public Policy and Politics and Director of Social Entrepreneurship @ UVA, for his podcast Building the Future: Freedom, Prosperity, and Foreign Policy. He began the interview by referring to Mahoney’s book Failure and Hope: Fighting for the Rights of the Forcibly Displaced. The interview is here.

Below is a transcription of their conversation (edited for brevity and clarity).


Dan Runde: …I think it’s a very timely book, given that we’re in the face of a forced migration crisis. We have at least 62 million people (who are forced migrants.)

How did you end up (becoming a professor) at the University of Virginia?

Christine Mahoney: I did my Ph.D. looking at advocacy and activism in the United States and the European Union, and I did field work in Europe and Washington, D.C., and my first book was looking at lobbying in the United States and the European Union.

And so I looked at all of these different policy issues and advocacy around them, and then became interested in advocacy in emerging markets and in less-developed countries.

And I’ve found that the advocacy approach is very difficult when you’ve got very fragile democratic institutions, and so that’s where I got interested in forced migration.

I actually worked for a little bit on the Darfur issue and looked at the massive displacement that was happening from the Darfur genocide.

And so I was looking at, “How can we effectively advocate for rights when democracies are weak?”

And that’s what led to this (book) project.

And so I did field work over seven years in seven different conflict zones.

Runde: What are some of the top-line…messages of the book?

Mahoney: The number one message is that advocacy on behalf of the forcibly displaced is very difficult.

First, the organizations that are in the field helping these people are just trying to keep them alive; that’s their number one mission.

They’re short-staffed and they’er short on resources, so to ask them to be doing sophisticated advocacy (is difficult).

The second piece is that many of these organizations, even the few that do try to get political and try to do advocacy—for example, right to work and freedom of movement—take the example of MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières), or Doctors Without Borders.

When they have gotten political, they’ve gotten kicked out.

So if we look at the case of Sudan, or we look at the case of Burma, Myanmar—if (groups) get too political, they can’t do their original mission, their original life-saving medicine/shelter work.

And so what we see is the organizations on the ground that we might expect to be doing this kind of advocacy simply don’t have the resources, and they don’t have the leverage to do so.

They don’t have the sophisticated lobbying staff or advocacy staff to do that work, and they don’t have the leverage.

And so, ultimately, the book argues that, since advocacy from a human rights standpoint is so difficult, we need to re-think the calculus and we need to think about how do we actually mobilize some leverage.

…in the United States, if the Sierra Club wants to see a policy change, they can mobilize votes.

And if we have a company like Coca Cola that wants to see a policy change, they can use their economic leverage and bring that to bear to change policy

But when we have these humanitarian aid organizations in the field, they don’t have votes and they don’t have money.

And so what I’m arguing is, let’s be smart, and let’s use investment dollars as some economic leverage to start changing national policies around right to work.

It’s important to understand that, for refugees that have fled their nation because of war and violence, when they get to the new country, what we often call a country of first asylum, they’re not legally allowed to work.

The problem with that is, if they were just displaced for a couple of weeks or a couple of months, they could subsist off of humanitarian aid and that would be fine.

But if you’re displaced today, you’ll be displaced between 17 and 26 years.

If you’re displaced for decades, the idea of not being able to work, not having the right to work, you’re worse off than extremely poor, because of national policy.

And, so, yes, in the United States we use right to work around policies around unions.

But in this case, it’s just a matter of, if you’re displaced for decades, shouldn’t you be allowed to take care of yourself and your family?

It’s quite different from the United States and Europe.

In the United States, because it’s difficult to physically get here, when refugees arrive here, they’ve already been vetted by the Department of Homeland Security, they been vetted by the International Organization for Migration.

And they arrive, with refugee status, and a green card, legally allowed to work.

(It is) quite different than in Europe, where they’re physically, geographically close.

What’s happening there is millions of people are showing up, essentially—quote, unquote, illegally—and then claiming asylum, asking, saying, I am a refugee, will you consider me a refugee? And then a long vetting process happens.

And so, during that vetting process, they’re not legally allowed to work.

Once they become certified refugees, which means they’ve fled because of fear of persecution—because of who they are, their religion, their race, their ethnicity—once they get that refugee status, then they are legally allowed to work.

So in the United States, and in many of the European Union countries, there is a process for this.

It’s a little bit more straightforward in the United States, because they’ve been cleared and vetted before they get here, whereas in Europe they need to vet them once they’re on the soil.

There is a process for that.

But…the vast majority of the 65 million people (who are) displaced are displaced in poor countries close to the conflict.

Let’s use an example where we take Somalia; it’s been a failed state for over two decades.

There are more than 250,000 Somalis living in the dust, in the deserts of Kenya. They’re not legally allowed to work.

Dadaab refugee camp, Kenya (photo from United Nations)

So in a case like that, shouldn’t these people be allowed to start a small bakery?

I’m actually suggesting private sector investment.

(There is another way), what the European Union has done in Jordan.

It has worked. It was the first time it’s ever been done.

They set up special economic zones, and they set a certain cap at how many work permits they would give. So I think they’ve given about 250,000 permits.

It wasn’t carte blanche. It wasn’t, every refugee in the world, come to Jordan and you’ll legally be allowed to work. There were some constraints on it.

But they began moving toward understanding that these people have already been here for five years, they’re going to be here for a number of more years because Syria is completely destroyed, and wouldn’t it be more effective and efficient for them to be able to take care of themselves and their families.

It’s informed by my background and 15 years of looking at lobbying work.

So we know that the private sector is very effective at changing public policy when it’s in their business interests.

So if we see a manufacturing plant wants to move into a certain area, state, or country, they can say, you know, look, we need these rules changed a little bit, we need these zones changed so that we can bring jobs, so that we can create value, so that we can add to the economy.

And so what I’m suggesting is that since the private sector has been so effective at shaping public policy when it’s in their interests, what if the private sector got involved in this space?

And so we could imagine, a juice company, or a yogurt company, opening a plant, saying, we’re going to open, we will bring in this investment, we will build a plant here.

It could even be a tire manufacturer. It doesn’t need to be new and innovative.

And in the process say, we’re going to bring in value, we’re going to bring in foreign direct investment in your country.

But, just like most private sector initiatives, it’s going to require a little bit of policy change.

Runde: If I went to Kenya—let’s just use that as an example—what do you think they would say to that?

Mahoney: Well, I’m hoping that, if it’s enough, that they’ll say, as the Jordanians did, this seems like a good deal.

Before, you were just screaming at us, telling us that we should legally let everybody and their mother’s brother work, and now you’re changing the economics of it, and it starts to make sense.

An internally displaced person (IDP): these are people who fled for their lives, lost everything, lost their homes, but they haven’t crossed an international border.

Runde: I’ve heard numbers that 40 million people are IDPs; they’re not refugees, but they’ve stayed within their country border

Mahoney: That’s right, and in some of these cases they are subjugated minority. So if we take the Tamils in Sri Lanka: though they are technically citizens of that nation, they are treated as though they’re an “other.”

Runde: Like the Rohingya in Myanmar .

Mahoney: Exactly right. And, in these cases, it’s not a matter of them legally being allowed to work, but it’s a matter of them technically, or kind of “de facto,” being allowed to work.

And so in those cases as well, I think the private sector can speak maybe more loudly than some of these humanitarian aid actors, where they can come in and say, we’re going to do a plant, we’re going to do economic development, we’re going to do some kind of project—but it requires the possibility that IDPs be able to work.

Runde: Can you talk about … the media analysis related to displacement?

Mahoney: One thing, if we think about (this) from an advocacy approach, rather than this more kind of innovative investment approach that I’m suggesting now:

Traditionally, we think of, if we are raising awareness about something, then we raise attention, then we get policymakers engaged, and then we’re going to see action, right?

That’s the simple and traditional pathway that we expect advocacy to work.

And so that requires, first, that there be effective advocates advocating and raising awareness, and then it requires that there be a significant amount of attention to an issue before policymakers are going to realize it is important enough to constituents that they are going to act.

Syrians and Iraqi refugees arrive at Skala Sykamias, Lesvos, Greece (photo courtesey Wikimedia Commons)

And so I was looking at these first two steps, asking, if we look at all 65 protracted displacement crises:

First of all, are there even advocates advocating a new way to do this, advocating right to work, or advocating for rights for these people, not just keep them alive with a little bit of food?

And, largely, there are not many advocacy organizations doing that.

Even the big international refugee organizations, if they’re advocating to the U.S. government, for example, or Congress, they’re advocating for a little bit more money to do their life-saving mission.

And it’s just not changing the name of the game on the ground.

And then the second piece is, even when there is some successful advocacy campaign around an issue:

Take the Darfur issue. You may remember it; it was highly successful from an advocacy standpoint.

We had a number of organizations that put a lot of a great deal of resources behind it.

The (U.S.) Holocaust Memorial Museum had a committee on conscience, we had major movie actors getting involved, we had (newswoman) Katie Couric going over, we had major morning shows going over, we had (U.S. Congresswoman) Nancy Peolosi and a number of congressional delegations (that) visited, (U.S. Secretary of State) Colin Powell declared it a genocide, the European Parliament declared it a genocide, so there was a lot of attention.

And yet, even that very rare case, where we saw a lot of mobilization, a lot of advocacy, and a lot of attention, nothing happened on the ground, right?

That genocide essentially just burned itself out.

And masses of people were internally displaced, and externally displaced to Chad.

So what I was looking at: where are we seeing effective advocacy? Where are we seeing attention?

And the answer, across all 65 cases, across five newspapers in Europe and the United States, across a decade of coverage is that the vast majority of these massive crises are not even getting any attention.

Sixty percent received not even a single news article about them, even though hundreds of thousands of people may be displaced.

And, in the cases where I looked—I actually did content analysis of the articles over time (to determine) when are we paying attention—it’s largely if it’s related to the global war on terror. And the articles really (are) about terrorism, and refugees are a secondary mention, or there’s some unique spike in violence, (something) horrific.

Runde: What’s in it for my personal security, then it gets covered.

Mahoney: Exactly.

Runde: That’s depressing.

Mahoney: It is a bit depressing. When I looked at advocacy at the global level, I found, “This is not going to work.”

Then I did this field work in seven conflict zones, in both the refugee camps and the national capitals, looking at, “Could we be doing effective rights-based advocacy here?” And that didn’t work either, in case after case. It was just as depressing.

And so I really sat with it for about a year, thinking, “What is the policy solution here?”

Because just yelling about this and saying people should have the right to work is not going to work.

And until we change the calculus for national authorities, we’re not going to see a change. 

Runde: If you were asked to testify … in front of the U.S. Senate, and somebody asked you, “Why should we care about forced migration?” what would your answer be? Why should the United States care about it?

Mahoney: I think for two reasons.

One, there is the security side of things, right? If people are fleeing for their lives (and) have no reason to live, they are a security threat.

But then, secondarily, from a humanitarian drive standpoint: we are a welcoming nation. We are a leading nation. We are a leading light of freedom in the world, and we should care if people are running for their lives.

Runde: Dr. Mahoney, this is really helpful.

I found your book, Failure and Hope: Fighting for the Rights of the Forcibly Displaced (to be) a really interesting book, an important primer on the issues as well as providing some really interesting insights about the challenges and the fact that the suggestion of a way forward where we involve the private sector to change the calculus on the ground is, I think, a really interesting one. We hope we’ll be able to explore that issue further as part of our task force at CSIS. So this is great.

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