Corporations Can Accelerate Solutions to the Worldwide Refugee Crisis

The current volume of worldwide refugees is staggering—20 million people are categorized as refugees out of 60 million displaced from their homes according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees—and the pace of this overall crisis has greatly increased since the beginning of the Syrian conflict. What Frontex classifies as ‘illegal border crossings’ have shot up six-fold in 2015 versus 2014 to the EU alone, even twelve-fold in the Q4 comparison. And the problem is here to stay: The average length of conflict-induced displacement is 17 years according to a United Nations study. The complexity of this situation requires new solutions beyond traditional government response, and the private sector in particular has an important role to play.

Many corporations have recently made headlines for their efforts to help refugees: Google is a prominent supporter, helping build an information hub for refugees by installing low-cost WiFi in refugee camps, helping to design and launch a mobile website to provide information to refugees in their journey, and a new application that frontline relief workers can use to communicate with refugees in multiple languages. LinkedIn is using its corporate assets to help refugees network for jobs through Welcome Talent; likewise, Ikea is supporting a number of initiatives, including accelerating its support for “Better Shelters” in its partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

We also regularly read about traditional corporate players in this area, such as Western Union, UPS, British Telecom, Telefonica, Microsoft, etc. These companies are in sectors that either have helpful expertise like tech, information, and logistic services, and/or benefit from the refugee wave through their products, such as telecommunications and low cost furniture for new homes (IKEA’s revenue in Germany increased 8% in 2014/15, stronger than in previous years, and popular items like bunk beds were often out of stock). However, other active companies like the yogurt company Chobani, the clothing company C&A, and retail-focused holding company Axel Johnson show that there are opportunities for many more industries to get involved—far beyond traditional charity at crisis origin and an occasional short-term internship opportunity at destination.

We are observing some particularly encouraging trends in corporate response which we hope will deepen and accelerate in the months to come:

  • Creating powerful partnerships: We have witnessed the birth of potent private sector partnerships, such as the Roundtable for Refugees of the Charta der Vielfalt, a diversity initiative of many large German companies, as well as the international Tent Alliance. Inspired by Chobani founder Hamdi Ulukaya and launched at the 2016 World Economic Forum in Davos, the Tent Alliance brings together a number of corporations that joined philanthropic funds for a $1 million rapid impact challenge, aims to hire more refugees and adjust their value chains. Moreover and maybe most importantly, the Tent Alliance wants to go beyond a pure private sector partnership and collaborate more with NGOs and governments.

    The Partnership for Refugees, in which 15 large companies followed the Obama administration’s call to action, the Private Sector Supporters group at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as well as the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development’s increasing focus on economic development and working more closely with the private sector point in the same promising direction: Since the underlying problem of integration is a very multi-faceted one, it cannot be solved by single actors, bilateral partnerships, or one sector on its own—we need cross-sector action that goes beyond alignment and talk. Explicit cross-sector integration goals and a joint roadmap for how to reach them, city by city and country by country, can instill more accountability and faster learning, as we have seen in many collective impact efforts FSG has helped to initiate.

  • Adapting business models: Beyond the urge to help and prevent challenging societal and economic dynamics, some companies also see a business opportunity in the refugee crisis. They start to adapt their business models to combine social and business benefit: Securitas is hiring more staff with migration backgrounds, relevant language skills, and sensitivities; Ikea is working on supply chain processes to effectively serve large-scale demands of certain items; General Dynamics Information Technologies sees scope to increase its focus on international refugee services; and in furthering its mandate of Responsible Finance, the global bank Citi strives to expand financial inclusion of underserved communities, including those affected by crises.

    The power of using core business approaches is that they are scalable—and we need scalable solutions for the unprecedented extent and pace of the refugee crisis. We would love to hear your ideas and help you create such shared value solutions.

Are you seeing other ways in which the private sector is stepping up its efforts to contribute to solving the refugee crisis, beyond traditional philanthropy? Are you involved in building cross-sector partnerships and adapting business strategies? What is your approach to scaling these efforts?

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