Skoll Scholar 2016-17, Alex Shapland-Howes, is passionate about education. He spend several years teaching Maths and Politics in London schools before he led the major growth of UK education charity, Future First. In this blog, Alex explores the future of our education system and the classroom experience.
It is sometimes said that school classrooms look the same today as a hundred years ago.
Students often still sit in rows of desks, writing about Shakespeare on reams of paper. They practise algebra in books and teachers mark them. Blackboards are now white, but teaching is still mostly led from the front of the room.
Yet this description masks huge cultural and pedagogical changes over the last century. Corporal punishment has gone. Girls and boys are now (usually) educated together and both take subjects historically restricted to the other gender. Children with special needs are included and catered for. And whilst teachers do often stand at the front, they employ a whole range of different techniques such as student- and peer-led learning. Our classrooms are also more diverse than ever before.
Almost all would agree these are huge, positive changes. They are. But whilst this represents seismic progress over the 20th century, the change in the last 10-15 years has, perhaps surprisingly, been slower.
Schools in the UK have improved overall. Results are getting better, albeit too slowly (especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds). Much more is known about how to turn schools around. There’s been a revolution in the use of data to help students make progress. The Academies programme was born and grew. But in the classroom itself, progress has been evolutionary not revolutionary.
This steady classroom development has taken place in the context of one of the biggest technological revolutions the world has ever seen. Smartphones. Tablets. Broadband. Netflix. Crowdfunding. Kindles. Those George Clooney coffee machines. None existed when I was a school boy.
But we’ve yet to see these types of technology truly transform the classroom. Teachers now do more on computers than ever before. Students do too. Computer Science is being rolled out as a subject in schools across the country. In Higher Education, we’ve started to see the adoption of MOOCs.
Yet we’re only now at the advent of the technology that truly can transform our schools. Perhaps the greatest opportunity lies in ‘personalising’ learning.
One of the biggest challenges for teachers is supporting those students finding a topic difficult, whilst stretching the others who pick it up quickly. With so-called ‘adaptive learning’ technologies, students are able to benefit from additional (computer-led) tutoring that is personalised to them according to how they’re progressing. The most revolutionary aspect of the new technologies is that not only will the technology be able to adjust according to whether a student answers a question right or wrong, but it will be able to spot where they’re going wrong and try to fix their misconceptions.
Imagine every student being given individual support, personalised to the exact stage they are at, all the time. That’s the opportunity.
As with most technological disruption, alongside opportunity comes risk. Firstly, this technology must not be seen as a chance to replace teachers, downgrade their importance, or hire fewer of them. These technologies are an opportunity to help teachers maximise their impact on students. One day computers may become so advanced that a conversation is required about whether a robot really can replace everything a teacher does. Even with this new technology, we are absolutely nowhere near that point.
Attention must also be drawn to who is providing this technology and who therefore owns the data. As leading EdTech thinker Nick Kind has observed, Google, Facebook, Amazon et al are already positioning themselves as leaders in this field too. Each relies heavily on data. So does adaptive learning. As Kind argues, schools and their pupils will miss out on great innovation unless we make sure this data is open to start-ups as well as titans.
Early adopters in the profession will bring others on board when they see what is possible, but it is imperative that the companies leading this charge engage properly with the profession. The best innovations will be co-led by teachers, technologists and experts in learning science. The companies that act on that early will win this race.
Skoll Scholar and design enthusiast, Ahmed Abu Bakr, shares his experience of an average Oxford MBA classroom. But it wasn’t the subject matter that he found captivating, it was the leadership of its professor that truly inspired him.
In my first week of the MBA programme, I was introduced to the idea that we can all be classified into one of four categories: activists, theorists, reflectors, and pragmatists. Now of course, that was a clear oversimplification – we’re obviously not one or the other, but a mix of each in varying quantities. Nonetheless, the exercise forced me to explicitly recognise my inclination towards reflection.
And so, as my year at Oxford comes to an untimely close, I find myself taking stock of my time spent here. So what am I taking away with me? Well, a great many things: new skills, new friends, great memories, and an expanded perspective. But most importantly, I’m taking back inspiration. And today, I want to share one such story of inspiration from my time here.
I met him in the first week of our first term, on a Friday afternoon. Half of us were feeling the post-lunch drowsiness seeping in, while the other half really just wanted to get started with the weekend. There was nothing particularly remarkable about him at first glance. The most I could have said about him back then was that he seemed decent- kind, soft spoken, and as we eventually learned, modest to a fault. And he was teaching us statistics.
But over the course of eight weeks, I found in him a real life John Keating (ref: Dead Poet’s Society– be sure to watch it if you haven’t already!). Never have I had the privilege of seeing someone so very passionately and creatively impart knowledge – and let’s face it, statistics isn’t the most exciting subject out there- and win the heart of each and every student in the room. His name is Siddharth Arora, and his love and passion for the statistics was unmistakeable from his very first class. But what was truly remarkable was how he took on the full onus of helping us discover beauty in his subject.
Far too often have I seen teachers crush the spirit of learning in their students. Growing up, I have personally witnessed teachers ruin mathematics, physics, language, and a myriad of other disciplines for many of my fellow classmates. I have seen teachers teach through their authority, arrogantly, complacently, trying to stuff knowledge into the minds of students, and leaving no room for wisdom. Too often have I seen teachers forget that they must earn the attention that we chose to pay.
But Siddharth understood that. He cared enough to truly engage us. He showed us the presence of statistics in breath taking videos of the flight patterns of starlings, in the disturbing reality of climate change, and in the quotes of Rumi. He cared enough to go out of his way to make things like regression and conditional probabilities interesting, relevant and engaging for us all. He cared enough to voluntarily stay back on weekends and help us when we were struggling and he cared enough to provide us with snacks as we waited our turn to discuss our issues with him. And because he cared, we cared back.
It was particularly evident on the last day of his class. Incidentally, this was also the last class of term for all of us- a much needed study break was just waiting to begin. The clock struck five and he let us know that we were free to leave, but that he still had about 20 more minutes of content to cover. The weekend had begun, the term had ended, and everyone chose to stay back to finish a statistics class.
You see, over those eight weeks, Siddharth did so much more than simply teach us. He inspired us, shared his passion, gave us pearls of wisdom for life in general, and was there for us when we had needed him. He showed us genuine care, and got us to care back, and in doing so he demonstrated tremendous leadership within the classroom. And through it all, he personified humility and grace.
Section C, MBA class of 2017 with Siddharth Arora (more than 45 minutes after the end of class)
For me personally, he inspired a vision of the sort of person and the sort of leader I would like to be. Someone who doesn’t let authority, position, and credentials eat away at the intent to try harder, to be better, and to give more. Someone who empathises, and someone who cares. Someone who wins hearts through deliberate and protracted effort. And is humble and genuine throughout it all.
A group of 2016-17 Oxford MBAs go on the annual Africa Trek. This year’s destination: Nairobi and Kigali
Part 1: Nairobi
A man pushes his bicycle through Toi Market, a thriving second-hand clothing market in Nairobi that stretches multiple blocks, eventually ending in Kibera slum.
In April 2017 17 MBA’s spent an unforgettable two weeks in Kenya and Rwanda. The student-driven trek aimed to expose participants to the business context in each country. Organised by students from the region, it tapped into local networks to give an ‘insiders view’ of each city. During the April break there were three other concurrent international treks and electives taking place in Johannesburg, New York, the Middle East Singapore and Hong Kong.
I chose to join the Africa trek as I had limited experience and knowledge of East Africa (ashamedly, as I am a native South African). I was curious to learn more about the thriving economies of the region and gain a comparative understanding of Eastern versus Southern Africa.
The trek exposed us to diverse companies and business models, from a consulting firm helping international development organisations better support local SMEs to an off-grid energy company serving the bottom of the pyramid. Through each company presentation we learnt a little more about the nuances and opportunities of the region.
While the company visits were fascinating, another area of great value came from the opportunity to spend two weeks with my classmates. In the rush of a 12-month MBA there is limited time for slow, deep conversation. However, the interstitial moments of travel provided the perfect opportunity to bond; a 20-minute cab ride to the airport or sharing a meal over dinner gave each of us the opportunity to learn a little more about others’ backgrounds and future ambitions. The accrual of these small interactions created a special bond that will live on well beyond the MBA.
Open Capital Advisors
Students on the MBA Africa Trek at Open Capital consultants in Nairobi, with alumnus Holden Bonwit in the centre.
Open Capital Advisors is a management consulting and financial advisory firm with 40 employees spread across offices in Kampala (Uganda), Lusaka (Zambia) and Nairobi (Kenya). They offer consulting services to local businesses, investors and international organisations, with two-thirds of their investment work being in the social impact space. We were hosted by Oxford Saïd alumnus, Holden Bonwit (MBA 2013 – 2014).
Bonwit shared what he believes are the three of the biggest challenges for growth in the region:
Talent acquisition and lack of human capital to implement strategies
Lack of infrastructure
Lack of access to capital for SMEs (due to a miss-match between the needs of SMEs and the instruments offered by international Development Finance Institutions)
He spoke of the enjoyment he gets from working on meaningful development projects where his skills and expertise have real impact. He also introduced us to the concept of the Kenyan side-hustle (or multiple side-hustles), evidenced by the fact that a single family usually has about 11 discrete income streams.
MBA students meeting with CEO of Safaricom Bob Collymore and his team
We were honoured to spend time with Bob Collymore – CEO of Safaricom – Kenya’s largest telecom. It has a valuation of $ 8 billion and accounts for approximately 40% of the Kenyan stock market. M-PESA, the pioneering mobile money solution, is one of Safaricom’s products.
Continuing the narrative from Open Capital Advisors, Collymore spoke of how their people strategy is their biggest strategy, saying, “You can have a bad strategy but a good team and the outcome will be good, however, the opposite is not true.” With a firm belief that quality products are created by engaged staff, he spoke of how the company strives to ensure their people have a good work-life balance and get eight hours of sleep – allocating each staff member a ‘thrive-buddy’ to keep them on track and ensure they aren’t overworked.
The company takes their position as a dominant player seriously, seeing it as their responsibility to act as a good corporate citizen and set the tone for others. Safaricom was one of the first corporates to release a full sustainability report and embrace the Sustainable Development Goals, with each corporate function selecting the goals they wish to work towards and then feeding back progress directly to Collymore’s office.
Collymore’s commitment to sustainability and good corporate governance is also evidenced by his membership in the B-team, which brings together business leaders like Unliever’s Paul Polman, Richard Brandson, and Arianna Huffington to push businesses to become more transparent and sustainable, as well as sitting on the board of the United Nations Global Compact, the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative.
Two Andela students working in the chill-out area of the Nairobi campus.
“Brilliance is evenly distributed, but opportunity is not.”
Andela’s goal is to spread tech opportunity to Africa by finding and training Africa’s next generation of tech talent and connecting them to demand in the West. This is achieved through a two-sided business model: on the supply-side, African candidates apply to join a four-year paid Technical Leadership Program designed to shape them into elite software developers. On the demand-side, a 50-strong sales team based in the US sells Andela’s services corporates looking for excellent tech talent.
Joshua Mwaniki, Country Director for Kenya, told us they receive around 2000 applications per month from people eager to join the Fellowship. With an acceptance rate of 10 – 15 people monthly, applicants have a 0.5% chance of getting in to the programme. What differentiates the Andela from other tech training programmes is their comprehensive Learning Map, which maps a Fellow’s progress against clearly delineated hard and soft skills on a daily and weekly basis.
Andela’s biggest challenge is gearing up to train enough talent, as there is currently more work available than there are programmers to work on the jobs. But upping supply in Africa, Andela is hoping to spread opportunities a little more equally. Their new campus currently under construction will house 1000 students and will go some way to achieving this vision.
Oxford Saïd Alumni Dinner
Current students met with recent alumni who are currently working in Nairobi at Burn and Dalberg.
Chad Larson, Chief Credit Officer, Co-Founder and Oxford Saïd alumnus shows students the entry-level M-KOPA solar unit.
M-KOPA is a pioneer in off-grid, pay-as-you-go solar power systems. With a team of 300 customer care agents on call 24-hours a day, and an on-the-ground salesforce of over a 1000 people, the company is growing rapidly.
Their entry level unit comprises an 8W solar panel, 3 LED lights, a LED torch, a radio and a phone charger. Customers pay an upfront payment of £22 and then pay a 40p daily instalment over a year to pay off the remainder of the unit, where after the unit is theirs. The unit comes with a one-year warranty and has an estimated battery life of four years.
On the ground sales agents help customers calculate the cost-benefit analysis of switching from kerosene to solar, by adding up how much they spend in a year on kerosene, batteries and charging their mobile phone. Once totalled, the entry level M-KOPA unit comes in around one-third cheaper during the payment year, then giving clients a further three years of energy before they need to replace the battery.
Most interesting however is how the company views solar as the foothold into a customers’ home. When a customer is nearing the end of their year-long repayment schedule they receive a call from an M-KOPA agent offering a variety of products; a solar-powered TV, a water-harvesting tank, a bicycle, a cook stove, a starter-pack for chicken farming or a smartphone – any of which can be purchased by extending their existing payment plan. Chad Larson, Chief Credit Officer, Co-Founder and SBS Alum stated, “We are a finance company, selling useful capital assets that save people money.” M-KOPA is focusing their energies on building a ladder of household products, from basic to more advanced, to improve the lives of the poor.
Students shared lunch with Dalberg staff followed by a Q&A session.
“Until the change is done, our work isn’t done”. These were the words of Edwin Macharia, Dalberg Partner and Regional Director of Africa, speaking about how the firm goes far beyond the work of traditional consultants (who are renowned for leave their strategy decks for clients to implement). Dalberg is a platform of companies committed to global development and innovation, including Dalberg Global Development Advisors (consulting), D.Capital (Investment advisory and impact investing), D.Research (data, intelligence and analysis), DIG (Design Impact Group focusing on human centred design) and an implementation support arm.
Dalberg is ten years old and currently has six offices on the continent. Their client mix is one-third governments and large international organisations (such as the UN, DIFD and the World Bank), one-third social sector organisations and foundations and one-third private businesses.
The company is also focused on creating self-driven projects where they spot opportunity areas. Macharia recognises the privileged position the company holds, with contacts in just about every major foundation and development agency in the world. He said, “We are one, maybe two phone calls away from anyone in the world. What are we going to do with that?” One such example is Unleash, an ambitious project driven by Dalberg and other partners, bringing 1000 young innovators into a global innovation lab focused on the Sustainable Development Goals.
Maua Project (Wrigleys)
Mathare Slum on the outskirts of Nairobi.
Maua project representatives speaking to MBA students in the Mathare Slum, describing the benefits of the project on the ground.
The Maua Project is a project of the Mars Catalyst, Mars Incorporated’s internal think tank. In 2014, Mars’ leadership announced their intention to become the ‘most mutual company’ in the world, delivering value to all stakeholders involved in their value chain.
Maua, Swahili for ‘flower’, is a route-to-market mutuality project in Kenya. It develops micro-entrepreneurs, called Uplifters, who act as sub-distributors connecting stockpoints to retailers, predominantly in areas where Mars currently doesn’t distribute to outlets. This creates work for the Uplifters, and increased market penetration for Mars.
The project makes use of a ‘hybrid value chain’, partnering with a range of organisations and non-profits to support various programme elements like recruitment, training and access to tools. Partners include a logistics company, World Bicycle Relief, Ashoka, a microfinance company and M&E support. In 2016 Maua had 368 Uplifters involved in the programme and aim to increase this to 590 by the end of 2017.
Oxford and Cambridge Dinner hosted by Oxford Saïd alumna, Adema Sangale
The Africa Trek group was hosted by Adema Sangale, Vice-President of World Bicycle Relief in Africa, who brought together alums from both universities who work Nairobi.
Naivasha and Nakuru
After a week of company visits we left the city to see some wildlife and have some well-earned rest.
It’s not every day that you get to summit a dormant volcano (Mount Longonot) and then get to hike around its rim.
Day safari at Lake Nakuru National Park.
Giraffes at Nakuru National Park.
Bird watching on Lake Nakuru.
Hanging with the hippos on Lake Naivasha.
Part 2 of Africa Trek 2017 coming soon where the MBAs head to Kigali…
Author: Gillian Benjamin
Gillian Benjamin is a social design practitioner from South Africa. Driven to use design to create social impact, she founded a design studio to serve social justice organisations and later worked at the Cape Craft and Design Institute running design thinking projects in healthcare, education and the built environment.
Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017.
Gillian Benjamin, Oxford MBA at the Saïd Business School, shares key takeaways from the Skoll World Forum session “Making Leadership Great Again: Breakthrough Educational Models”.
In the lunchtime session directly prior to this panel, Bill Drayton, Founder and CEO of Ashoka, implored audience members to help others understand the implications of the new world order in which the repetitive actions of a machinist on a factory floor, or a line manager in a multi-national company, were fast becoming redundant. He highlighted the need for a radically different skill-set and ‘growing up system’ to give young people the competencies needed to thrive in environments of constant and rapid change.
During the panel on ‘Breakthrough Educational Models’ the founders of two innovative institutions, both based in the global South, shared key ingredients of their success.
Jose Zaglul, Co-Founder and former President of EARTH University shared the story of the establishment of the institution he helped set up. The campus, based in Costa Rica, offers an innovative four-year undergraduate programme in agricultural sciences and natural resources management with one crucial difference from ordinary degree programmes – the technical and scientific knowledge gleaned on the course is just one of the four pillars that make up the curriculum. The other three pillars ensure that students leave with a deep social and environmental awareness, the attitudes and values needed to drive change and the lived experience of having set up their own entrepreneurial venture. EARTH has 430 students from 41 countries, 83% of whom are from rural communities.
Hopping across continents to South Africa, co-founded and CEO Chris Bradford shared the story of the African Leadership Academy (ALA), ALA is a two-year pre-university programme based on the UK A-Level system, combined with unique curricula in Entrepreneurial Leadership, African Studies and Writing and Rhetoric. ALA currently has 264 students drawn from 47 African countries, with many graduates going on to study at some of the most prestigious universities around the world before coming back to the continent to drive growth and development. One such example is Moroccan panelist Jihad Hajjouji who is an ALA alumn currently pursuing her MBA at the Stanford Business School.
When discussing the ALA curriculum Bradford stated with respectful veneration that Zaglul was his personal hero and had been a huge inspiration to ALA as they crafted their programme two decades after the formation of EARTH.
Three key lessons can be drawn from the success of these two institutions:
1) Create opportunities for youth leadership
Recruiting students from underserved communities can be challenging as prior academic performance can be a poor shorthand for future potential. Zaglul shared how a track-record of civic action in teenage years helped EARTH identify and recruit the most promising students, many of whom lacked the top grades of their peers from more privileged contexts, but who made up for this through exhibiting tangible leadership capabilities. Such leadership skills, developed through implementing projects to improve their immediate contexts, point to an understanding of their personal agency and a world-view that sees the status quo as malleable and open to improvement through personal action.
Youth social action projects therefore play an important role in the development of young change-makers, and serve as important identifiers to institutions who are driven to recruit talented students from underserved contexts where quality primary and secondary school instruction may be lacking.
2) Put the emphasis on learning, not teaching
Bradford shared a word association game he has tested the world-over: To begin, think of words associated with ‘school’. Then follow the same process for ‘learning’. Having played this game with educators and students from all corners of the globe the results are resoundingly similar:
When asked to think about ‘school’ people mention nouns such as headmaster, teacher, bell and test. ‘Learning’ rarely appears in the top five most-mentioned associations.
When asked about ‘learning’ people talk about things like discovering new skills through stretch experiences and the value of engaging with inspirational mentors to guide them on their journey.
The contrast in the associations is stark and points to the need to explicitly redesign our education apparatus in a way that fosters experiential learning. Bradford calls for a radical re-organisation of how we deliver the educational experience through two key shifts:
Educators need to shift from thinking about learning as the delivery of content towards the learning as nurturing the key skills students need to hone.
The learning environment needs to shift from a space where the teacher is seen as an imparter of knowledge to a peer-learning space where students learn from one another and the teacher through experiential projects.
3) Inspire teachers to rethink their positions
Passionate teachers strive to replicate the best classroom experience they had as students and in many contexts this means replicating the best lecturer who had the clearest notes on the board.
To shift to a new norm that truly serves students, institutions need to expose their faculty to radically different versions of best-practice to support them in refashioning outdated ideals they may be striving towards. This involves exposure to new teaching practices to support them re-imagine their roles.
She commented, “To tackle the many challenges that stand between us and a just and sustainable world we need a global army of young leaders who combine character, confidence and capability.” The lessons extracted from the work of EARTH and ALA highlight exciting leverage points to help transform education systems from those that merely equip students for repetitive work to those that foster the competencies, care and concern needed in our current socio-economic context.
Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017 MBA candidate 2017, Ahmed Abu Bakr gives his perspective on the Skoll World Forum session ‘A Work Landscape in Flux for Young People’
We all know that the world is changing at an unprecedented rate, but I regularly feel that we forget, often far too easily, that these changes aren’t entirely new. Marina Gorbis, executive director at the Institute for the future, reminds us that the technological disruptions we are witnessing today, aren’t really as rapid as we make them out to be.
The internet, the proliferation of mobile technology and sensors, and the big data revolution are a result of over thirty years of consistent investment and prioritisation in the space of communication technologies. She refers to the outcome of these technologies as greater “digital coordination”; and through this, she provides a broader definition for technology. If the internet and big data allow for coordination, then institutions and organised systems (for business, government, and otherwise) are also technologies in their own right- technologies for the coordination and allocation of resources.
‘A Work Landscape in Flux for Young People’ panel.
And it is important to keep in mind that organised systems that are being disrupted today- financial markets, healthcare systems, the transportation sector, etc.- were actually major innovations in their own time that disrupted the status quo back in their day.
There is no doubt that the nature of work is being radically transformed by what Marina calls “digital coordination” technologies. But is it really a source of disruption for the nature of work?
The remaining panellists attested that young people in Egypt and Africa were choosing to delve into entrepreneurship and the growing start up culture because of two primary reasons. Firstly, there is an undoubted frustration within the youth populations where they are dissatisfied with the available economic opportunities. Fhazhil Wamalwa, managing director at Disa Energy Management, recalled how he was led to believe that a good education would result in a decent job, and how his inability to get on after his master’s degrees was a painful but necessary disillusionment.
The second factor is a deliberate and concerted effort by many to promote entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial activities as a response to the failure of the existing systems. Dina El Mofty(Injaz Egypt), and Marwa Moaz (Bamyan Media) both talked about their sustained efforts within Egypt to inspire and develop an entrepreneurial mind set.
With this context, it becomes evident that the changing nature of work, the rise of gig jobs, and the proliferation of self-employment and entrepreneurship is a response to the failure of the existing econo-political system where digital technology is less of a cause and more of an enabler.
One thing remains uncontested- the old institutions have to be reformed, and in some cases completely revised. For me personally, the key question is around the evolution of these new systems. The topic of the day seems to be around growing wealth inequality. But wealth inequality is a result of inequalities in the distribution of power- social and politcal. What’s even more troubling is the feedback effect on power from the accumulation of wealth. The 21st century has seen tremendous concentration of wealth because of a tremendous concentration in power. What can we learn from history to design new social and political institutions that distribute power rather than concentrate it?
Ahmed Abu Bakr is an MBA 2016-17, Skoll Scholar at the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, and Co-founder ofJeeon
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.