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Our Failure of Imagination Over Refugee Livelihoods

The push for refugees’ self-reliance must think bigger than low-skilled labor, write Nina Weaver and Chrystina Russell from Southern New Hampshire University, which recently received $10 million to globalize the pair’s Rwandan refugee higher education pilot.

Written by Chrystina Russell, Nina Weaver Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Female students learning using their laptops
Female students in the Kepler/Southern New Hampshire University program. Kepler/Alex Buisse

Built atop a series of hills, Kiziba refugee camp offers panoramic views of the Rwandan farms that cover the steep slopes of the surrounding valleys.

Some of the produce from these farms makes its way into the camp, where Congolese refugees sell an array of local vegetables alongside unused aid rations and cheap merchandise, such as fabric and hand soap, purchased at wholesale prices from the nearby town of Karongi. A few residents sell soft drinks in their shelters, which they have modified to serve as sitting rooms.

The self-reliance agenda promoted by the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) and its partners has effectively eroded the perception that refugee camps are stagnant places, home to disillusioned, idle populations waiting in line for humanitarian handouts. Instead, humanitarian agencies increasingly focus on refugee livelihoods, including advocating for refugees’ right to work and facilitating access to informal market economies in small-trade goods, agricultural projects in and around camps and remote employment opportunities.

Yet most of these self-reliance strategies are fettered by a lack of ambition. The economic opportunities imagined for refugees are limited to subsistence activities that require little skill or education.

Livelihood programming generally means providing short vocational skills courses for jobs such as hairdressing, sewing or carpentry. The idea is that refugees can then go on to start their own businesses or participate in the informal markets that characterize most “refugee economies.” Even where refugees are allowed to take formal employment, opportunities tend toward low-wage factory jobs. Our most innovative visions for refugee work still cast refugees as low-skilled laborers, with no social mobility.

Financial Realities

There is a strong financial imperative for the international refugee regime to encourage refugees to be more self-reliant. As more people become displaced for longer periods and aid groups face increasing budget shortfalls, some look to self-reliance policies as a relief valve.

The self-reliance agenda has also been embraced as a way for refugees to have dignity through economic empowerment.

However, aid agencies have been reluctant to see that these priorities can be at odds. While small-scale income-generation activities may make refugees less dependent on aid, the kinds of livelihoods that would give refugees self-determination and economic autonomy require substantially higher inputs in terms of education, financial capital and infrastructural availability.

In other words, this more imaginative notion of economic empowerment may require more resources, not fewer – a position that most aid providers are reluctant to embrace.

Pushing the Boundaries of ‘Self-Reliance’

In Rwanda’s Kiziba refugee camp, 22-year-old Eugenie, displaced from the Democratic Republic of Congo as a child, is writing an essay on speeches by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and woman’s suffragist Susan B. Anthony. She is working toward a bachelor’s degree in communications as part of the first cohort of students in a refugee higher education program piloted by Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), in partnership with Kepler, a nonprofit university program in Rwanda.

The pilot program was launched in Kiziba refugee camp in 2015 after it was recognized that while refugees have the legal right work in Rwanda, they face a lack of higher education opportunities.

Refugee students in Kiziba complete a competency-based online degree program with a blended learning model that delivers skills and professional competencies for 21st-century employment, with a particular focus on the business and tech sectors. Students ultimately earn a U.S.-accredited degree from SNHU, also completing internships with local employers to gain work experience and expand their pathways to future employment.

SNHU recently received $10 million in funding as part of a plan to expand its refugee programs to new sites in Africa and the Middle East.

Eugenie in Kiziba refugee camp, where she lives and studies. (Kepler/Alex Buisse)

By focusing on low-skill camp economies, typical interventions to support refugee livelihoods fail to align with the demand for labor in the broader economy. Through higher education, refugees can become competitive in national and global job markets. Particularly in the Global South, this offers huge potential for economic growth as well as refugees’ economic, social and political autonomy.

Higher education and formal employment is not just a cost-saving strategy for U.N. agencies. It helps refugees shape the future of international institutions and their local communities. Students in the SNHU degree program have taken on leadership roles in the community in Kiziba and engaged in local research projects to inform UNHCR policies and programs.

More Than a Technical Fix

Yet innovation alone cannot deliver self-reliance. Many countries restrict refugees’ right to work and freedom of movement. In others, a fragile or underdeveloped economy offers few opportunities for locals or refugees. As a result, even less ambitious self-reliance programs that have been the norm for decades rarely produce their intended outcomes.

Under these conditions, higher education can at best offer only a relatively narrow pathway for a limited number of refugees. We need more than a technical fix, including advocacy with policymakers about the economic potential of refugees to host countries and their nations of origin.

Sadiki working with colleagues at a tech start-up. (Kepler/Alex Buisse)

In the Rwandan capital Kigali, Sadiki, a Congolese refugee and student in Kepler Kiziba’s program, is interning with tech start-up SafeMotos. He is building an online training platform for the company, which works to reduce the high rate of road traffic deaths in Rwanda by equipping motorcycle taxi drivers with smartphones that send data on how they drive.

SafeMotos cofounder Barrett Nash was initially skeptical about hiring refugees such as Sadiki as interns. “I put too much thought into the fact that he was a refugee,” he says. But he has been impressed. “The number-one challenge of doing a technology start-up is the lack of human resource talent, [but] these guys are hard workers, they are problem-solvers who are intellectually curious.”

Sadiki will complete his bachelor’s degree in the next year and plans to continue his work in the tech start-up space. He also has a burgeoning interest in moral philosophy and is considering pursuing a master’s degree in the future.

Meanwhile, Eugenie is doing a marketing internship for Ronkos, an online clothing company in Rwanda, with the ambition of pursuing a career in fashion marketing.

Even if the humanitarian regime has failed to dream big, the refugee youth are not letting labels limit their aspirations.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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