Refugee needs evolved; we must awaken to new reality

Friday March 20 2020

Nancy Aburi

Nancy Aburi, senior strategic partnerships adviser in the Office of the UNHCR Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa. PHOTO | COURTESY 

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The senior strategic partnerships adviser in the Office of the UNHCR Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Nancy Aburi spoke with Aggrey Mutambo on the agency’s new programme on refugees’ needs.

What's the refugee situation in Africa?

It is protracted. The Somali situation in particular, has been going since on since 1991. Dadaab Refugee Camp, for example, has been in existence for the past 28 years. This means that most of our refugees are young and the Office of the Special Envoy has a responsibility to find solutions for the situation.

Some of the problems are not refugee humanitarian issues that the UNHCR has traditionally dealt with like providing food and shelter, but now it is more about provision of education, tertiary learning and jobs.

This region has some of the highest numbers anywhere in the world, at more than four million, and the refugees want to contribute socially and economically.

So, while the humanitarian crisis remains, the needs and solutions we are seeking for them have changed over the years and the kinds of interventions and partnerships have to change to suit the crisis as it evolves.


How is the UNCHR dealing with these?

By building partnerships with the private sector. Last year, we launched the Amahoro Private Sector Coalition in Geneva (during the first ever Refugee Forum).

It was thinking about new models, to share best practices from different parts of the world and was inspired by the Implementation of the Global Refugee Compact, which calls on all of us to address refugee issues in a comprehensive manner.

One of the new things was the express invitation to the private sector to play a role in seeking solutions and addressing the refugee situation.

What will change in this arrangement?

Looking specifically at this region, we found out that most of them were either interacting with an agency like the UN for commercial purposes; for tenders, for contracts or a few of them providing services in refugee hosting areas in Kakuma, Dadaab and environs.

They did not always have clarity or grasp the opportunity to partner more strategically with the UN and didn’t even know there were opportunities to do that, probably because we didn’t do our job well then.

This framework gives us the mechanism to be more proactive and invite them more clearly. There are two specific areas we feel they can directly provide more innovative solutions; in education and jobs.

Private sector drives economies and we cannot achieve economic inclusion of refugees if we are not talking to the biggest bloc that is helping the economy with jobs.

Are there incentives for them to make this arrangement better?

The greatest one is that they would like to see themselves making an impact in a shared-value partnership. But I hope it comes from them wanting to be better citizens.

We do not have any financial incentives because in the UN system, strategy and procurement are very different levels of partnership. In fact, the UN system has a firewall between those two.

So you wouldn’t want any private company to think that because they partner with the UN, they automatically attract the best contract. This is purely for philanthropic purposes.

There is also a trend globally where companies appreciate being a better corporate citizen. Many business leaders appreciate that when everybody in society contributes and is economically viable, the benefits accrue to everybody. That applies to situations like in Kenya where there is high unemployment.

Similarly, if refugees had jobs, innovative solutions for their problems or services or products, it would benefit companies and their value chains. This is good for the economy, for the host community, for the businesses themselves and for the country at large.

This framework targets private sector and requires a change of mindset from UNHCR. Who else will be involved?

It targets host communities. This is also something that is new. The services to refugees are integrated as much as possible with those of host communities. It so happens that most refugee hosting areas are also very poor and so, if you are looking at solutions for Dadaab, for instance, it will not just be about the refugees, but also the host community. If you are putting money into improving the school systems, the schooling benefits both sides.

How does this affect agencies that are not part of the UN family?

It also invites others, NGOs especially those in the development space. The refugee issues have very much been a humanitarian issue but to think about it now and to include the host communities, means you are thinking about a long-term development model.

This requires political support. How do governments fit in?

The government is central and actually leads it. In all our operations, government is the main partner.

The refugees are not static and might go back to their countries, be integrated or move on to other countries. What happens then?

That is what we all work toward, and hope for. This is why working with host communities is important because one day if all these refugees go back, the resources and infrastructure that have been put there will benefit the remaining host communities that. These developments are not being done in silos so that one day we remain with infrastructure that nobody uses anymore. It also explains why we focus on things like education as well.

Your assessment of the work so far?
We see that it is already working. I am a very positive person and we have seen, especially with the launch of the Amahoro Private Sector Coalition, we have already seen that in one year leading up to its creation, the positive interest of business CEOs from across the region who are committed to doing more, and there are refugees who are ready to help provide solutions. It has been very encouraging. And so was their willingness to step up to the table.

What's the time-line to transition to the new system?

I would not describe it as a transition. We are inviting the private sector to be part of the solution. We are neither handing over, nor privatising the humanitarian business. We seek them out as partners into the process.

One challenge is the fact that we speak different languages so it takes time for both sides to understand each other such as economic inclusion. For example, how do you measure whether a refugee is economically empowered? Is it when they can buy their own food or can take their children to school? The language and measurement is what we still have to resolve.