The business case for aiding refugees

As the Middle East’s humanitarian crisis swells, the private sector can be a lifeline for a stretched aid industry - and benefit itself, writes Waleed AlBanawi

All in the Middle East know the region is in the grip of several large-scale humanitarian disasters. The ongoing Syrian conflict has given rise to the largest refugee crisis of our time, with 4.6 million people forced to flee their homes. Half are children. In Iraq, more than 4.7 million children are in need of aid: a reflection of the mass violence and displacement that has swept the country. 

Syria and Iraq are just two examples of such disasters. There are many more around the world. Millions of people every day face hunger and extreme poverty, and meeting this great need has stretched the aid industry to breaking point. A strategy to provide better, faster relief is critical.

The private sector can help. We can do much more than just deliver relief supplies to areas of distress, or raise money. Businesses are ideally placed to bring skills, innovative ideas and fresh strategies to boost the response to humanitarian challenges. Anyone can donate tents, food, medication and warm clothing, but it takes skilled experts to create tangible solutions. This is where the Middle East’s leading businesses can shine. Whether it is in sanitation, food delivery, clean water, access to data, shelter or medical attention, we can bring our technical expertise to bear when crisis strikes. To quote Queen Rania of Jordan, speaking at the 2008 World Economic Forum: “We have learned that governments cannot do it alone. We need companies - not just for their resources, but for their resourcefulness. Governments often do not have the skills that NGOs and companies have. [We] should create an enabling environment.”

This approach benefits us all. Even the best-managed firms will struggle to thrive in areas marred by instability, or to find skilled labour where adequate education is lacking. The toll can be heavy, both for local economies and the firms operating within them. In Jordan, the aggregate costs incurred by opening its doors to Syrian refugees totalled nearly $8.2bn in 2012 and 2013. The economic benefits reached $5.8bn. For reasons of economic preservation – and not only goodwill – businesses must take a stake in helping aid agencies when it matters most. We can be a force for good.

"With the right approach and technology, the potential is endless"

One example of the private sector contributing to humanitarian relief could be in leveraging education technology to provide access for those displaced, and so unable to attend school or college. So-called ‘ed tech’ – which includes vocational learning - could be a vital means of helping young refugees reskill, and enter the labour market. It could also extend lessons to the estimated 4 million Syrian children currently out of school. In Iraq, where a fifth of schools have closed due to conflict, it could be a means of reaching the 3.5 million children currently missing out on an education. It is critical we do not allow these children and young adults to become a lost generation. With the right approach and technology, the potential is endless.

We as the private sector have a vested interest in building a safe, prosperous Middle East. So let us remember this. Among Syrian refugees, youth are one of the most critically affected groups. With low prospects for education and at high risk of exploitation in the job market, they are most vulnerable for recruitment by extremists. And the same can be said for young people in host countries, now facing the economic fallout from an influx of refugees, and the subsequent impact on employment and infrastructure. We in the Middle East know better than most that marginalisation precedes radicalisation. So let us treat this as a call to action, and evaluate how we can all play a part in creating a better, brighter future.

To quote Al Gore, in his recent speech at the Skoll Forum on Social Entrepreneurship: “We know what’s right and we’ve seen what’s wrong. There are still some people who doubt we have the will to act. But always remember, the will to act is itself a renewable resource.”

About the writer

Waleed AlBanawi is the founder and chairman of JISR Venture Partners, and a former director of Saudi Arabia’s Banawi Industrial Group. He is a vocal advocate of education development to address the workforce skill set gap in the Arab world, and a keen supporter of entrepreneurs. He is a board member of numerous nonprofits, including Education for Employment, Ashoka Arab World, and a member of the advisory council MENA, for the UN refugee agency UNHCR.

Photo credit: UNHCR