A Syrian refugee in Mafraq, Jordan takes cash from an ATM after using iris scan technology to identify herself. Photo by: J. Kohler / UNHCR

How can companies support refugees? With growing attention to the role of the private sector in humanitarian and development work, it’s a question many leaders in Silicon Valley and beyond are asking themselves. This World Refugee Day, some are launching new initiatives or checking in on the progress of past initiatives to demonstrate ways that technology can be leveraged to support refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people around the world.

“What we want to do is take our core competency of information technology and say, how can we use that to accelerate solutions to these issues?” Kathy Mulvany, vice president of corporate affairs at the technology company Cisco, said at a recent event in San Francisco on how companies can accelerate solutions to the refugee crisis.

In addition to working with relief organizations to set up secure communications, Cisco sales team employees in Hamburg, Germany, decided to work with local partners to convert shipping containers into doctor’s offices, leveraging Cisco WebEx technology for translation services, so that refugees could access more than 50 language interpreters with the touch of a button. After the first two, a local foundation decided to fund the next 10, Mulvany said, explaining that these containers now provide 30 consultations a day. It is just one example of how the company tries to support early-stage ideas that can scale, replicate and sustain over the long term, she said.

On any day intended to raise awareness of a particular issue, reporters receive countless emails from organizations wanting to share their initiatives. This World Refugee Day has been no exception. While technology is never the solution in and of itself, many of the initiatives highlighted today point to how technology companies, together with government and NGO partners, can provide valuable services to meet the needs of refugees.

Building digital infrastructure

After carrying out research in two refugee settlements in the towns of Kakuma and Kalobeyei in Kenya, financial services company Mastercard found that there was need and demand for digital finance, but inadequate access to banking, payments and remittance services.

Because refugees are staying longer in settlements than ever before — with a 26-year average according to the United Nations — they need access to financial services if they are to become economically independent. Mastercard and Western Union have teamed up to launch a new digital infrastructure model designed to enable greater use of mobile money, digital vouchers and cards to make transactions easier for refugees and also for host countries.

Like other initiatives launched today, the partners behind it acknowledge that this is a first step and an opportunity for partnership.

“Just handing someone a prepaid card or voucher, or access to a bank account, is not sufficient. You have to empower them with how and when to use it safely, so it’s also also about the power of education,” said Paul Musser, vice president of public private partnerships for Mastercard.

The ability to make and receive digital payments is considered safer, since receiving large cash payments can put people at risk. It can also make humanitarian aid more efficient and cost effective. But currently, more than 95 percent of all aid going to refugees is being delivered in kind as opposed to using digital tools.

“It is extremely expensive to get ‘stuff’ to people due to procurement costs, transportation and packaging,” said Maureen Sigliano, head of customer relationship management at Western Union, explaining that the process is inefficient and creates dependency. “Refugees also want control, choice and dignity; they don’t want to be bound by dependency or queuing up to get a package of food.”

Digital financial solutions can also help boost the economy within a settlement — and outside it, as host countries begin to see refugees as consumers, she said.

Devex talks to Mastercard about their work on refugee financial inclusion

Promoting financial inclusion

Kiva, the San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that invites users to make small loans to low-income people, is also working on the problem of financial inclusion. Today, Kiva and the Alight Fund — an investment fund for refugee entrepreneurs — are launching their World Refugee Fund, an online platform through which Kiva expects to deploy $2.9 million in loans to refugees and the internally displaced this year, as well as $6 million for host communities in countries including Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, with one to one matching from partner foundations and corporations as long as funds last.

While the private sector and technology community can play a significant role in responding to the refugee crisis, a lot of Silicon Valley support has been focused on refugees settling in the United States, said Lev Plaves, Middle East senior portfolio manager for Kiva.

“One of the limitations is often when we try to look overseas and address issues in another context, we — whoever the ‘we’ is — don’t have expertise on the ground of what is actually happening, what local populations need, what the challenges are. So for me, one of the strongest aspects of Kiva’s approach is partnering with local financial institutions on the ground who understand the markets where they’re working in a comprehensive way, the needs of the refugees, the concerns of the host communities,” he said.

Kiva intends the World Refugee Fund to set an example for local financial service providers who have traditionally seen refugees as too risky and costly to lend to. By providing low-cost, flexible and risk-tolerant capital to refugees, the organization hopes to prove that they are viable clients in order to drive financial inclusion at scale.

If financial service providers were to see refugee populations as a viable market, that shift in perspective would drive a shift in opportunity, as refugees go from financially excluded to financially included, Plaves said.

Providing skills and jobs training

When, last September, former U.S. President Barack Obama called for the private sector to make commitments toward addressing the global refugee crisis, technology companies answered. For example, Microsoft pledged to build upon its partnerships with the United Nations and NGOs by supporting technology that gives refugees access to tools such as education and counseling online. Coursera, the online education company, reaffirmed its support for Coursera for Refugees which, together with the U.S. Department of State, enables nonprofits working with refugees to apply for financial aid and support them in accessing online courses.

Today marks the one year anniversary of Coursera for Refugees. The idea resulted from a “makeathon,” where employees worked on ideas to make the company better. It now has 30 nonprofit partners and more than 5,000 enrollments to date. The goal is to provide education for free so that refugees have a pathway to employment.

Rick Levin, chief executive officer of Coursera, talks with Devex about educational technology and online learning.

The company has made improvements in language offerings and offline capabilities. It relies on partnerships with organizations such as Save the Children to ensure that refugees know about the opportunity, are taking advantage of it, and are applying that knowledge in a way that changes their lives, said Rebecca Taber, head of government partnerships at Coursera.

She offered two pieces of advice for public and social sector partners looking to engage with Silicon Valley companies: Be unapologetic in asking for what you need, and roll out your work in a way that allows for ongoing learning and iteration, as Coursera is doing with this initiative. She also emphasized the importance of accountability, saying that this is part of the reason Coursera is using World Refugee Day as a way to draw attention to its progress on an existing initiative, rather than launching something new.

“There are so many companies making incredible commitments to doing this work and we wanted to really hold ourselves accountable for our commitment and share what we’ve achieved and what we’re learning to help inspire this ecosystem,” she said.

Identifying — and resolving — gaps in data

Today, the policy and advocacy organization ONE Campaign is launching a data tracking tool called MOVEMENT. The platform brings together data from humanitarian organizations to highlight where displaced people are, what needs remain, and how the funding flows do or do not align with places of greatest need. The organization developed this open-source tool in response to research that revealed how siloed and incomplete information is in the humanitarian sector.

“It’s only a first step, because in order to get to the stage where we can track the last mile of funding, every government, humanitarian agency and NGO needs to commit to reporting data on displaced people in a standardised, accessible, open data format,” said Sara Harcourt, policy director for development finance at ONE.

There’s enormous potential for technology companies to create tools that put more power in the hands of refugees themselves, to assess their needs and track available resources, she said. But these initiatives should be paired with official statistics collected from U.N. agencies and governments, in order to create a comprehensive picture of humanitarian support.

While Harcourt acknowledged that ONE may not be the organization best placed to manage a system like this over the long term, she seems to be taking her cue from Silicon Valley — pursuing an iterative process.

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About the authors

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Catherine also works for the Solutions Journalism Network, a non profit that trains and connects reporters to cover responses to problems.
  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.