Some social entrepreneurs and social enterprises are expressing the desire to avoid such a label. Additionally, knowledge among citizens of what social entrepreneurship is and means is still generally low, even though the sector has been around for several decades. What might be amiss? I argue that the ongoing failure to coalesce around a recognised definition or model of social entrepreneurship is part of the problem, revealing risks and opportunities for the sector at a worldwide level.
My research on social entrepreneurship in England suggests there are three different – and only partially overlapping – conceptions of what social entrepreneurship is and of how it should be supported. The first and most prominent part of the sector is focused on the concept of social enterprise, that is, businesses trading for social purpose. It is very heterogeneous in terms of players involved and ways in which social enterprises are described and organised. Within it, the main source of funding for both social enterprises and sector intermediaries is the government, and both the citizen and business sectors are mostly seen as customers.
The second and more “niche” part of the sector is more cohesive and focused on social entrepreneurs, described as lone heroes disrupting the system to eliminate the root causes of social inequality and injustice. Here, the role of the government is very limited and businesses and charities are seen as advisors and funders, rather than customers, while communities are the beneficiaries.
The third one, despite being the original conception of the term in England and the most widely adopted “on the ground”, is presently the most neglected by the public discourse. It describes social entrepreneurs and enterprises as acting to enhance their communities, either through involving community members in economic activities and decision making, or redistributing resources within a given area or population of interest. In this part of the sector, boundaries and players’ roles are very blurred and there are multiple typologies of social entrepreneurial activity, sometimes overlapping with other areas above.
Is this division a trivial matter interesting only for academic debates? I argue that there are a number of important practical issues, which either directly or indirectly stem from the lack of a clear definition. First of all, it hinders the ability of government or international bodies to create tax benefits or effective funds to support social entrepreneurship. Without being able to constrain the field of organisations entitled to receive such support, such efforts are frequently ineffective.
Secondly, the lack of a clear definition contributes to maintaining low levels of knowledge about what social entrepreneurship and social enterprises are, and what their value for society is. This, in turn, often hampers their ability to attract private funds. I know, indeed, from the interviews I conducted for my PhD project that some social enterprises and entrepreneurs face the problem of being perceived as “too business-like” for foundations, charities and private donors and “too social” for traditional investors and businesses (and sometimes even for the social investment sector).
Thirdly, the lack of a clear definition means that it is also much harder to establish roles and rules of interaction within the sector. Businesses are sometimes requested to be commercial partners or to involve social enterprises in their supply chain and sometimes they are requested to act as advisers and philanthropists. Government and local authorities would like to outsource public services to social ventures rather than to businesses but often they find themselves unable to distinguish between the two and to obtain the guarantee that there will be no “mission drift” once a contract is awarded.
Finally, the lack of a clear definition implies a lack of clear sector boundaries and of a clear positioning within the wider economic system. Many supporters and insiders continue to proclaim their hope that social entrepreneurship will become mainstream and either change the way that all businesses operate (‘social enterprise’) or will make the whole third sector more efficient and financially sustainable (‘social entrepreneurship’). Can these things happen while the sector keeps pushing in different directions, thus reducing its relevance both within the business and the third and public sectors?
I would like to conclude this post with two thought-provoking questions. First of all: why not refer to social enterprises as sustainable businesses? This might be the first step to merge this part of the sector with movements such as the B Corporations, in order to jointly represent a new, more socially-savvy side of the business sector, able to ask for tax incentives and to attract social investors and funds. Social entrepreneurship could be reserved as a definition of innovative projects carried out by third sector organizations trying to tackle the root causes and not just the symptoms of social issues, thus distinguishing them from the traditional charities and NGOs delivering fundamental but more traditional social products and services. Activities not fitting with these two definitions but that are important at community-level could be labelled as “community-based entrepreneurship” or just be re-included in the broader third sector.
Secondly, can sector supporters and intermediaries try to find a compromise sector definition accepted by all? As expressed by some interviewees contacted for my PhD research, the most influential organisations in the sector appear to be connecting and networking with one another but are in reality very territorial. They all hold on to their own conception of social entrepreneurship and they all hope to drive the sector in their desired direction, thus making it increasingly difficult to find a solution to the definitional and support debate. Sometimes creating a good ecosystem of support might entail stepping back and coordinating what happens as a skilled director rather than as the star of the show. Allowing the formation of clarity around the sector, its definition and its boundaries, while continuing to lobby and campaign for it, might really unlock those financial resources, public support and understanding that many organisations are craving for.
By Julian Cottee, Skoll Centre Research & Insights Programme Manager
Our previous blog looked at ‘Six Reasons Why Research Matters for Social Entrepreneurship’, ranging from gaining a deep understanding of problem and solution landscapes, to innovation, and a critical birds-eye view of the sector. The Skoll Centre has since been exploring research for social entrepreneurship through a series of seminars led by impact-focused early career researchers from across Oxford University. Each has discussed their own research experiences and drawn out lessons for better aligning research with the needs of the social innovators.
Evidence and impact
Evidence and impact evaluation are top of the list for many practitioners when asked how research can help their work. Anna Custers, a Skoll Centre Early Career Research Fellow, explored this topic in depth through her experiences with a number of randomised controlled trials (RCTs) assessing the impact of poverty reduction measures in the Global South. The RCT methodology, originally designed for evaluating the impact of medical interventions, is now becoming more widely used outside of clinical settings. Social scientists in a range of fields are adopting RCT approaches, and while many policymakers view them as a ‘gold standard’ for evidence of impact, they are not uncontroversial. RCTs are complex, lengthy and expensive to set up, and they can only be used to evaluate a narrow gamut of interventions. Their strength in demonstrating the counterfactual – what happens in groups not receiving the intervention – also raises significant ethical questions. If demonstrating impact through RCTs were to become a routine part of the funding and policymaking landscape for social entrepreneurship, the range of projects would be curtailed, the speed of implementation would be reduced, and additional research funding would be needed. Further discussions revolve around the question of how much evidence is ‘enough’ to demonstrate impact, and to what extent this differs depending on the scale of the initiative being assessed. An expensive RCT might be appropriate for a highly scalable ‘big bet’ intervention that can be widely replicated if impact can be robustly demonstrated, but many, if not most, projects are smaller and more locally specific.
Ideas around the role of research in evidence provision were further developed by Dr Jenny Tran, speaking about a recent Skoll Centre-funded research project that interviewed 31 policymakers, funders and practitioners in the field of social innovation in healthcare in low- and middle- income countries. The interviews probed attitudes and beliefs relating to evidence within these three groups. Among practitioners for instance, responses ranged from seeing research and evidence as an accountability mechanism – “Research is a tool of justice…how are we holding ourselves accountable to our patients?” – to something that just needs to be done to satisfy the expectations of funders – “We do what we have to do”. The funders interviewed also had mixed attitudes towards evidence, with some admitting candidly that gut feeling was as important as data in making funding decisions. Organisations spoke of a lack of time and expertise to collect good data on their impact. One theme that clearly emerged from the interviews was a lack of consensus on how to operationalise a model of data generation and use amongst all three groups that is of an appropriate scale in terms of the time and resources demanded, as well as being robust and rigorous. RCTs were rarely seen to be the answer. Tran’s paper recommends a number of future pathways for improving research in this space, including further elaboration of the concept of ‘lean research’ striking the balance between appropriate scale and rigour; better technical education; and changing the way evidence generation is funded. All of these are ripe for future exploration. In addition, there is little or no attention currently paid to how organisations measure negative impacts, or their incentives for doing so. This too is an area that deserves further study and the development of practical tools for the generation of objective impact measurement.
Two other seminars in the series focused on the role of research not in the generation of evidence, but in others kinds of knowledge creation, through embedded partnerships between academics and practitioners. Kate Roll, Senior Research Fellow at Saïd Business School, spoke on the Oxford-Mars Mutuality in Business project, a large multi-year research project exploring the idea of mutuality as an organising principle for business. The project is unusual in that it is carried out by an academic team in collaboration with the Mars in-house think-tank, Catalyst. The allure of the set-up is clear from the point of view of carrying out research guided by real-world priorities – there is potential for unique access to knowledge, skill and legitimacy on both sides – yet challenges are also many. In particular, spanning the research-practice boundary brings to the fore different perspectives on questions such as:
When is work finished? (medium-rare or well done)
With whom can we meet? (negotiating internal access)
What is a good output? (collaboration, consultancy, opportunism)
Who needs to be involved? (setting boundaries in joint research)
Drawing on the theory of organisational hybridity, Kate explains such collaborations as a case of striving to effectively bring together differing ‘institutional logics’: “as the degree of incompatibility between logics increases, hybrid organisations face heightened challenges” (Pache and Santos 2013). In order to realise the unique opportunities for insight and impact, researchers are obliged to adopt the character of the ‘amphibious academic’. Even if they might be happier in water, like the frog, they too can cope ably on land.
Successful examples of such collaborations are not numerous. They require connections, funding and abundant engagement and amphibious capability from all partners. Alex Fischer and Heloise Greeff, members of the Skoll Centre’s Research for Action Network, spoke about Oxford’s Smart Handpumps project, a long-running collaboration with NGOs and government. While the project began by exploring the causes and impacts of broken water pumps in rural Kenya, it has since transitioned to address how broken pumps can be fixed quickly and cost-effectively. The project is now driving technological and systems innovation to the point that it has led to the creation of a social enterprise that will service the handpumps sustainably into the future using the technical and institutional knowledge generated in earlier phases. Alex and Heloise described a ‘research-action spiral’ in which innovation and research have circled around each other in a productive dance. These impactful outcomes of the project could not have been anticipated at the beginning of the research process – a powerful argument for research led by problems and not just solutions. Often, following intuitions and blind alleys was just as important for the development of the impact of the project as any planned research pathway. This highlights the value of flexible funding and creative leadership in action-research projects. Universities are an important ingredient in this kind of innovation and research, as they provide safe spaces for the exploration of novel ideas that may not otherwise be pursued. The role of PhD students too is of significant value – unlike research assistants or employed post-doc researchers, PhD students follow their own research agendas within the wider project, generating new ideas and possibilities.
Skoll Centre Early Career Research Fellow Tanja Collavo hosted a workshop at Marmalade 2017 on the strengths and weaknesses of the social entrepreneurship sector in England… and where next.
The State of Social Entrepreneurship in England – Strengths, Issues, and Solutions.
What is the state of social entrepreneurship in England? In the course of my DPhil research at Saïd Business School I interviewed key people at social entrepreneurship organisations, revealing a snapshot of strengths, weaknesses, worries and ambitions for the future development of the sector. At this workshop I presented some of my findings and asked participants to give their thoughts and elaborate actionable proposals around the issues most important to them.
The debate was lively! The overall agreement was that the sector is growing, vibrant, diverse, exciting, and constantly changing thanks to the very low barriers to entry. Its core strengths are its ability to break silos across sectors and organisations, and its democratic nature, encouraging bottom-up solutions to social problems and the retention of the wealth produced at the local level. Additionally, the perception is that the quality of products and services delivered by social enterprises is constantly improving and that this is a great business card to increase their market penetration both in the business-to-business and business-to-consumer markets. In this sense, many workshop participants welcomed the shift of the sector towards business and believe that more and more social enterprises should aim to become business-savvy and competitive.
But participants also agreed that there are still many key issues holding back the growth and success of the social entrepreneurship sector:
No one talks about failures
There is very little learning inside the sector because media, intermediaries, social entrepreneurs and enterprises talk a lot about successes but hardly ever about failures.
The passion paradox
Most ventures start because of founder’s personal experience with or passion for the problem they are trying to tackle. This has obvious positives but also can lead to a “do something now” mindset promoting easy solutions and immediate action more than the elaboration of long-term strategies. Further consequences can be the lack of professional sectoral knowledge and lower inclination towards collaboration due to high levels of personal ownership and commitment, also associated with stress and burnout.
Difficulty accessing supply chains
A third issue present in the sector is the low presence of social entrepreneurial organisations in supply chains, both in the business and in the public sectors. In fact, in most cases, social ventures are too small to bid for contracts and too young to have a proven track record that would facilitate their winning supply or service contracts.
Too dependent on government and poor finance
Participants described the sector as still too reliant on government and as lacking appropriate financial support matching its funding requirements and specificities. Financial support was described as particularly scarce at regional and local level, with core sector and financial intermediaries being based in London and mostly focusing on organisations and areas geographically close to them.
Lack of collaboration amongst support organisations
Finally, the group agreed on one of the main findings of my research projects: the lack of collaboration among sector intermediaries. This leads to a duplication of efforts and to a degree of confusion among social entrepreneurs and enterprises about where to look for support and how to reconcile the different messages they hear from the different intermediaries they are affiliated with.
Out of this list of issues, the workshop participants picked two areas that they thought were especially relevant in order for the sector to keep on thriving: the access of social enterprises supply chains in private and public sectors, and the low collaboration among sector intermediaries.
Social entrepreneurship in supply chains
The group tackling the issue “access to supply chains” found several core causes for this issue. Some causes can be attributed to failings of social enterprises themselves:
a lack of transparency and metrics that would lower the perceived risk of social ventures;
a low understanding of tender processes;
and the inability of social enterprises to scale and integrate or collaborate in order to bid for big projects and commissions.
Other challenges are created by the surrounding ecosystem:
procurement practices and contracts that do not favour the involvement of social enterprises and small organisations in supply chains of corporations and public bodies;
the existing regulatory environment;
and the still low recognition of the value and specifies of social enterprises outside of the sector.
Proposed solutions to improve the situation relied on the involvement of social entrepreneurs and enterprises and/or in that of sector intermediaries. Social entrepreneurs and enterprises should, with the help of intermediaries, lobby both the government for changes in legislation regarding tendering processes, and private companies to convince them about the possibility to collaborate with social enterprises to enhance the sustainability and credibility/effectiveness of their CSR practices. Furthermore, on their own, social entrepreneurs and enterprises should collaborate to win contracts and present stronger evidence about their performance and competitiveness, which would reduce the perceived risk for procuring organisations. Finally, sector intermediaries and research bodies should: analyse where the Social Value Act has worked; prove the benefits of values-based supply chains; and ensure social ventures involvement in supplier network platforms like Ariba.
Increasing collaboration amongst intermediaries
The second group of participants decided instead to work on the problem of low collaboration among social entrepreneurship sector intermediaries. The origins of this situation can be found in the presence in the sector of multiple umbrella bodies and intermediaries that publicly state that they are cooperating and collaborating with one another but in reality are very territorial and not interested in what other intermediaries do because “they occupy a separate niche in the sector”. In addition, many intermediaries have very specific views and beliefs about the definition of social entrepreneurship, about what the sector should look like, or about its role in society. This makes it difficult for them to really collaborate beyond sporadic cooperation for specific projects and events.
In this case, the proposed solution was to start from existing successful platforms involving several intermediaries (such as the Social Economy Alliance) and create a “network of networks”. This would have shared ownership and governance, would avoid exclusive definitions, and would initiate collaborations among different organisations around specific projects, such as “improving the access to supply chains for organisations in the social economy”. Cooperation on specific projects could be a starting point to create trust and a mutual understanding. At the same time, this “network of networks” should map out all the different intermediaries present in the sector and develop an online list differentiating organisations according to their core competences and easily accessible for organisations interested in obtaining support from the ecosystem. The creation of such a database would simplify the research process for individuals and organisations in need of help and would create the opportunity for intermediaries to understand where their respective strengths are and, thus, for sharing best practices and outsourcing to each other non-core activities.
The meeting finished with some networking and the hope that these solutions could lead to some concrete initiatives in the sector as well as to other opportunities to meet and discuss also the other issues present in the sector and ways to solve them in a collaborative way. Is anyone there up for the challenge? From my side, the door is open to anyone willing to know more or to jointly organise something along these lines to help the social entrepreneurship sector as well as other parts of the social economy grow and thrive even more.
University social impact centres like the Skoll Centre are contributing to the growth of social entrepreneurship in a number of important ways, examined in a recent report authored by the Bridgespan Group, with the Skoll Foundation and the Skoll Centre. One side of the work of our centres is educational: we raise awareness of social impact with the student body, and equip future professionals and leaders to work in the sector. This work and its future development were explored in an article series curated by the Skoll Centre in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.
But besides educating, the other USP of social impact centres is our position at the heart of knowledge-generating research institutions. Bridgespan’s report highlighted two key contributions to come from leveraging our academic connections. First, our ability to convene practitioners and researchers to support learning and innovation; and second, the generation of actionable insights for social entrepreneurs. Two of the report’s key future opportunities for Centres also focused on research: the development of clusters of deep specialist expertise to support the evolution of practice; and the cementing of social impact as a recognised academic field, attracting legitimacy and funding to our efforts in this area.
Academics and social entrepreneurs are not always easy bedfellows. The stereotype is that academics are meticulous, long-term, big-picture thinkers, answering questions driven by curiosity. Entrepreneurs by contrast are risk-takers, impulsive, and focused on specific, immediate needs. There are many exceptions to these rules, but it is also true that academic incentives and the time taken to do in-depth research work make joint working between researchers and practitioners more difficult. And then there is the language of academia, which can be all but indecipherable to non-experts.
It is worthwhile, then, pausing for a moment to consider what there is to be gained by overcoming some of these barriers. We think that the potential is huge for research to further accelerate the impact of social entrepreneurship.
Here are six reasons why we should be doing more to bring these worlds closer together:
Understanding the problem landscape: Research can allow us to gain a deep understanding of the landscape of the challenges we are trying to address – whether the challenge is homelessness in Oxford, or global climate change. Engaging with researchers gives social entrepreneurs the knowledge they need to formulate effective interventions and to think through systemic or unintended impacts.
Understanding the solutions landscape: This is about knowing what has already been tried in tackling the challenges we are addressing: what has worked and what hasn’t. But it is also about the political economy and power dynamics of institutions in the solutions space. Very few ideas are really ‘new’ – building on successes and avoiding past and present failures can be a key to impact.
Ideation and innovation in the impact gap: Researchers are in a brilliant position to be innovators. They can see the landscape of problems and solutions from above and creatively iterate new ideas in the ‘impact gap’. This is not only about innovative products and services, but innovations too in the wider ecosystem of governance, regulation, finance and knowledge.
Assessing the impact of initiatives: Robust and defensible methods are at the core of academic research, allowing the production of credible evaluations of social impact. Such independent assessments are critical for leaders to make evidence-based decisions and can also be a powerful tool in policy advocacy and attracting funding and investment.
Connecting the dots across silos: Researchers are able to spot commonalities and spread ideas across boundaries that might not otherwise be bridged. Through their networks and their public-facing activities, researchers can transport and translate knowledge of successful models across geographies and sectors, or across otherwise poorly connected organisations in the same sector.
A critical birds-eye view: Academics are in a privileged position of being able to see glimpses of the ‘big picture’ that most of us are too buried in our day-to-day tasks to spot. They can help us to reflect on the social entrepreneurship model within the wider global picture, to understand trends, and to ask the hard questions about how well we are really serving the beneficiaries we are working for.
Academic researchers working in many of these important roles gathered for breakfast at the Skoll Centre during Skoll World Forum Week 2017 to discuss how we can do more to bring together research and practice. They were joined by social impact practitioners from a wide range of organisations with clear knowledge needs, keen to find new ways of collaborating. We think that university social impact centres can help to realise the benefits of doing so by connecting partners, catalysing new research, and communicating actionable insights. We invite your participation as we explore further in this area – please get in touch with your ideas and comments.
My Oxford is the Oxford of Saïd Business School, and within that, it is the busy hub of social entrepreneurship that is the Skoll Centre. Our programme delivery team and the entrepreneurial individuals we champion and work with are heavily biased towards execution and have a tendency to hurtle towards action. A full hour planning meeting for a new programme would be a long one for us. A day spent conducting research before moving into designing a new initiative is rare.
Thankfully, our Centre exists in the heart of a different Oxford – an Oxford which stretches between our Park End Street, down to Magdalen Bridge, and up to Summertown, and is home to those who prize evidence above all else. This Oxford is made up of people who might find the idea of launching headfirst into implementing a new solution without understanding the problem as well as they possibly can quite ludicrous.
So, last week, the week of the Skoll World Forum, when a good proportion of the global social entrepreneurship ecosystem poured into our ancient city, we conducted an experiment. Early on a Thursday morning, we deliberately gathered 30 ‘practitioners’ and 30 researchers interested in social impact, to consider how we bridge the gap between research and action to create better social and environmental outcomes, and to hear from those who are doing this already.
Our own Julian Cottee provoked us by outlining why the Skoll Centre thinks these unlikely bedfellows need to cosy up. He put forward that researchers can help us to better understand social and environmental problems, as well as the efficacy of existing solutions. He noted that research can support the innovation that needs to happen in the gap between the problem and existing solutions, and can assess the impact of social innovation, aiding better decision-making and allocation of resources going forward. Researchers also may have the perspective to guide which initiatives should be replicated across geographies and disciplines. Finally, they can consider the structural frameworks and power dynamics which underpin this social entrepreneurship ecosystem, and make the criticisms that those of us who are too close to the action are ill-positioned to make.
Over breakfast, we heard rapid fire pitches from those who are already in long-term research/practice relationships – like Muhammad Meki, an Oxford development economist who is designing a randomised control trial to assess the effectiveness of microfinance for micro-entrepreneurs in Nairobi, Kenya. The project is part of Mars Inc’s Mutuality in Business project, based here at Oxford Saïd.
The energy in the room was tangible, and the Skoll Centre will follow up to understand if the group found this first experiment useful, and what connections formed. We are also available to entrepreneurs/practitioners who want to tap into the Oxford research community in order to accelerate the impact of their work. We’ll have a thought leadership series on the role of academic research in the social entrepreneurship ecosystem coming out later this year, and look forward to receiving contributions to that from those who helped shape this early conversation.
Finally, we are excited to live out our belief in the importance of research as an informant and shaper of social innovation, with the expansion of The Global Challenge to institutions across the world in 2017. The Challenge is a Skoll Centre founded competition that requires students to display a deep understanding of a chosen problem and its existing solutions, rather than jumping to developing a business plan. We’ve been amazed at the ‘ecosystem maps’ that are resulting from this Challenge, and invite the public to join us to see the outputs at The Global Challenge final, here in Oxford on 1 May.
As Daniela Papi-Thornton, founder of The Global Challenge and author of Tackling Heropreneurship, has succinctly put it – action without knowledge is foolishness, and knowledge without action is selfishness. It is the aim of our Research for Action initiative to help develop a cadre of wise and selfless partnerships in the pursuit of powerful impact.
Alexander Betts gave a guest lecture at the Saïd Business School entitled “Transforming a Broken Refugee System”. Audience member and Oxford MBA 2016-17 candidate, Sagar Doshi, shares the key takeaways from the talk.
When Professor Alexander Betts takes the stage at the grand Nelson Mandela Lecture Theatre at the Saïd Business School, he doesn’t waste time. He just smiles at the audience and lays out his argument. His first point is a shot across the bow to the mostly European audience before him.
“Europe is not the centre of the refugee crisis today,” he asserts.
What? Really? A casual consumer of recent news might find this suspect. But Betts backs up his statement. Yes, Europe has significant problems of migration, he says, but these are primarily political and social problems. The actual challenge of dealing with refugees in Europe, while difficult, is nowhere near as acute as elsewhere.
Imagine you’re a Syrian refugee, fleeing Homs or Damascus or some other place of conflict in the civil war. Generally speaking, you have three choices:
First, you could bring your family to a refugee camp, expecting stigma and stagnation.
Second, since you are likely an urbanite yourself, you could move to another city, facing limited rights to work and a potential life of destitution.
Third, you could commit to a dangerous journey over Turkey or across the Aegean Sea into Europe.
For years, many refugees—especially from Syria—opted for the third choice. Unfortunately, this occurred just as Europe’s political situation became increasingly delicate. As nationalism and xenophobia increased among European populations, refugee policies followed suit.
Famously, Germany, took a different path. But the environment, even for Germany, was caustic. By the time Angela Merkel gave her “Wir Schaffen Das” speech, she had to make her bold stand in a very muted way: “Germany will manage,” she announced to her people and to the world. She hoped, of course, that other countries would follow suit.
They didn’t. “There was collective action failure,” notes Betts. The UK, Denmark, Austria, and Europe as a whole took pains to limit refugees, so much so that by 2016, Merkel had to make an about face. Betts reminds us that although the door to Europe hasn’t completely closed today, “it’s very difficult to cross Turkey without the right documentation.”
So far, Betts is sharing a known story. It’s a sad and unfortunate story, but it is known.
But then Betts reaches the predicate to his lecture: “We need moral clarity about who we protect and how” he says. In other words, we need to understand what refugees really, actually need and provide that.
“I would argue that there is no moral right to migrate,” says Betts. “What’s needed isn’t migration per se, but rather a safe haven, where they can get access to their most fundamental rights.”
So what provides that safe haven, and what do refugees need? For Betts, those needs come in three categories:
Rescue – safe havens in host states, basic assistance
A route out of limbo – reimagined resettlement policies, updated visa systems, spontaneous arrival as last resort
Consider where refugees get to live. Today, many refugee aid regimes conceive of refugees as living in camps. Camps can provide rescue—though those on the Turkish side of the Syrian border might contest even that point—but they typically do not offer refugees autonomy or a route out of limbo. It’s not surprising that today’s refugees often opt to avoid encampment.
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees —the international organisation meant to focus directly on this population—is struggling to adapt to this new paradigm. UNHCR is not present in urban areas, even though that’s where many refugees are . Take Turkey, which is host to more refugees than any other country in the world. UNHCR supports only about 10% of refugees in Turkey. Why? Simply because UNHCR is set up to support camps, whereas most refugees in Turkey are in what Betts calls “urban or peri-urban areas.”
So what are we to do? What can governments and aid organisations change to make these situations better? For one thing, all our assumptions should be checked. For instance, many refugees aren’t necessarily looking for permanent resettlement. A large number of Syrian refugees, for example, have tried to return to areas of conflict when their home regions appeared to quiet down. Indeed, when Canand’s Justin Trudeau offered a hand of welcome to refugees in the Gulf, his government targeted those in Lebanon and Jordan. Refugees were contacted by phone and SMS to ask if they wanted to resettle to Canada. 70% of those contacted declined. They preferred to stay close to their region of origin.
The refugees of today’s conflicts are distinct from those of the past. There’s a political implication here. Today, most countries have complex and differing notions of what separates a refugee from a voluntary migrant. The 1951 Refugee Convention that gave UNHCR its mandate doesn’t provide all the answers to today’s challenges. This could be updated to reflect more modern realities of the refugee experience.
And clarifying that refugee experience is critical. Sitting with many of these refugees, Betts found that a very small number are unemployed. Many, in fact, are self-employed. They have built their own forms of autonomy and have contributed to their host country’s economy at the same time. Even governments who are wary of allowing rights to work for refugees en masse might see the benefit of taking advantage of a skilled, available population of idle workers.
Could host country governments “help refugees help themselves”? By making the refugee environment as human as possible, governments can think of refugees as a resource, rather than as a burden. If host country governments are going to organise camps for refugees, and if many refugees do live in those camps, then at least governments should provide some physical connection to the rest of society. Some properly human, interactive environment for a micro-economy to thrive. That means offering rights to work when possible, even if only on a limited basis.
This is a complex problem, and Betts doesn’t claim to offer any simple solutions. Nor is he blind to the lessons of modern geopolitics that underscore the fact that the refugee crisis and the west’s new nationalism are intertwined. But that doesn’t mean that progress isn’t possible. The 65 million forcibly displaced people—and our own consciences—demand it.
Find out more about Alexander Betts’ research and other publications.