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Alexander Betts speaks at the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants side event on self-reliance

Today in New York, the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants is taking place, attended by heads of state and government, Ministers, and leaders from the UN System, civil society, private sector, and international organizations. The aim of the summit is to bring countries together behind a more humane and coordinated approach to large movements of refugees and migrants, and to develop a blueprint for a better international response.

The RSC Director, Professor Alexander Betts, will be speaking at a side event on Supporting Greater Dignity and Protection: Enhancing Self-Reliance in Food Security and Nutrition in Protracted Refugee Situations, to be attended by, amongst others, Ban Ki-moon (Secretary-General of the United Nations), Filippo Grandi (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), and Ministers from Denmark, Jordan, and Uganda.

This is what he will say.


It is a privilege to be part of this panel: the Refugee Studies Centre works closely with the Governments of Denmark, Jordan, and Uganda, as well as UNHCR and WFP, and I would like to commend you all for being champions of refugee self-reliance.

First of all, we have to recognize that nearly 60% of the world’s refugees are hosted by just 10 countries, and that these are often repeat hosts. It is here that the real global challenge lies.

But with 54% of all refugees (if we include the Palestinians) in protracted exile, it is crucial that we restore autonomy as early as possible through self-reliance.

Helping people to help themselves – including through jobs and education – offers a way in which refugees can contribute to the host society and be better equipped to contribute to the reconstruction of their countries of origin when they are able to go home.

To achieve this, data and evidence are key. Because refugees have traditionally been seen as a purely humanitarian issue, economists have rarely analysed the economic lives and impacts of displaced populations. But if we can improve our knowledge base on how refugees interact with markets, then we may be able to turn humanitarian challenges into sustainable opportunities.

Here are three ways in which improved data can make a direct and practical contribution to refugee self-reliance.

First, it can allow us to recognize and build upon refugees’ existing economic activities and strategies. In Uganda, we have undertaken multi-year research looking at refugees’ economic lives. We chose to focus on Uganda not because it is representative but because it has adopted an extraordinary and pioneering step of allowing refugees to work and move freely. It therefore allowed us to explore how refugees do when given basic socio-economic freedoms.

The results – soon to be published in a book with Oxford University Press – show the conditions under which refugees are able to thrive rather than merely survive, and when and how they are able to contribute to the national economy. The implication is that, if we can understand the market activity that already exists among refugees and host communities, we may be able to build upon it.

Second, data can allow us to understand and mitigate impacts on the host society. Whether at the microeconomic or macroeconomic levels, data on how the host community is affected – whether positively or negatively – can shape both advocacy and programming. The World Bank has become the leader in this area.

Third, it can enable us to learn from and improve pilot approaches to self-reliance. Experiments such as Jordan’s Global Compact and Kenya’s new Kalobeyei refugee camp are not only important in their own right. They are experiments that offer learning opportunities for the entire international community. If we can collect baseline data prior to roll out, we can assess impact.

Our research in Uganda highlights that a number of factors are central to creating an enabling environment within which both refugees and host communities can thrive rather than merely survive.

In Kampala the average income is $120/month, in the rural settlements it is $39, in the emergency camps it is $17. But even within contexts there is variation. In the Nakivale settlement, for instance, the average refugee income is $39/month, but there is a range from $15/month up to $150/month, with some refugees managing to develop successful businesses.

What explains this variation and, with it, refugees’ contributions to the national economy?

Some of the factors – like nationality – are outside the leverage of policy-makers. In Uganda, ‘being Somali’ has a significant positive effect. But other factors can be shaped by policy. Education, regulation, infrastructure, access to capital, and access to networks, including through internet connectivity, all shape refugees’ economic outcomes and matter for their success.

In our study, returns to education for refugees are high across all sites, and increase dramatically with each stage that a refugee advances from primary to secondary to tertiary education.

Furthermore, our work shows that empowered refugees help host societies: 21% of refugees in Kampala run a business that employs at least one other person, and 40% of the employees are Ugandan nationals.

But it is also clear that self-reliance is not an easy option. There is no magic wand to create jobs for refugees – it requires a sustained multi-year commitment from donors, hosts, and business to make it work.

We know how difficult it has been even for Germany to create jobs for refugees. Of the 500,000 able to work who arrived last year, less than 10% are employed, despite huge public investment in training and job creation. To create jobs in host countries, three barriers need to be overcome.

First, training. When refugees move, there is often a productivity gap – in terms of GDP/capita between the country of origin and the host economy. This locks refugees out of labour markets and is at its most extreme in countries like Germany but applies to a lesser extent in regions of origin. The only way to fill it is education and vocational training.

Second, investment. Logically there are three ways in which jobs can be created in host countries, only one of which is really viable: 1) replacement – refugees can take jobs from citizens or other migrants; 2) formalization – refugees’ informal economy jobs can be moved to the formal economy; 3) new jobs – through additional investment. But the challenge is how to attract business investment. Corporate social responsibility may be a hook but it will only get you so far. Business needs to find connections to a core business case for investment, and to do that regulatory incentives may be needed, including trade carve outs, infrastructure, and possibly even infant industry protection.

Third, tangible benefits for the hosts. Economic opportunity can only take place against the backdrop of socio-political support. To achieve this, there needs to be both localized and nationwide job creation for host country nationals, and a way in which hosting contributes to the achievement of national development priorities, whether the country is aspiring to progress in manufacturing, agriculture, or as a service/information economy.

In conclusion, self-reliance in frontline countries is our only viable pathway to a sustainable refugee assistance model that can work at scale. But it is not an easy option. It requires a radically different way of working, including the more systematic use of research and data.


For more on the Summit, visit the website and follow #UN4RefugeesMigrants

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