How the US State Department engages the private sector in refugee crisis response

Ziad Haider, the special representative for commercial and business affairs at U.S. Department of State. Photo by: U.S. State Department

The United States government made both quiet and public pushes to engage the private sector in refugee crisis response in 2016. One of the people orchestrating that ongoing conversation is Ziad Haider, the special representative for commercial and business affairs at U.S. Department of State.

The work with refugees is personal for Haider — his grandparents fled an angry mob in then undivided India to what is now Pakistan, leaving everything they had behind. That experience and early volunteer work framed his understanding of the refugee experience.

“For me and for many people, the issue of refugees is one where it starts with primarily the instinct of humanitarian response, the images of teeming camps,” he said.

But over time, in large part through his own work with refugees, that perception changed to seeing refugees as having something to contribute to society.

“It’s that perspective of how do we get companies to lift their gaze and their HR shops to lift their gaze and not just view things through the prism of U.S. qualifications and U.S. this and that …  that kind of snowballed into a broader effort that came to be known as the ‘call to action,’” he said.

In the run up to the September 2016 Leaders' Summit on Refugees, the White House launched a call to action to the private sector to increase its efforts in response to the global refugee crisis. The goal has been to get companies to step forward to help address the refugee crisis by hiring, providing skills training, supporting education and enabling refugees.

Since the September summit, the State Department has continued to work with companies, and 61 have now formally signed on to the call to action; their commitments support some 6.3 million refugees in 20 countries in a variety of ways.

Devex sat down with Haider to discuss how he’s made the case for companies to engage, a recent trip he led to Jordan focused on a nexus of trade and refugee issues and what’s ahead as the administration changes. Here are the highlights of the interview, edited for length and clarity.

Companies have not always been engaged in refugee issues, so how are companies articulating the reasons behind their engagement now? How has their thinking evolved?

What motivates companies to respond? I think there there are a few different things. One is the leadership — does the CEO or the leadership of the company care about this issue at a deeply personal level or for some reason. Second factor is just good corporate citizenship. Companies such as Under Armour, and others we’ve been talking to, just feel like they’re in these markets like Jordan and they want to do something.

I think that awareness of corporate citizenship on this issue versus any others is partly a function, if I can say with some humility, of the government elevating this as an issue and the president himself saying call to action and we want our companies to respond. Third is there is a community element to it. I can tell you that for example for World Refugee Day one of the companies there was from the meat industry. They had been hiring refugees because the communities they were operating in, it just so happened there were a lot of refugees settled there. They had hired some of them and they realized it kind of strengthened the bonds in their workforce by bringing more in. Then there’s the broader, harder more commercial logic. I would put some of the companies that would be looking at the European trade deal in that point of view.

I found it to be this mix of factors, but the most important thing is to tell companies no matter what your reason is, that’s fine. We’re not asking you to do it just for philanthropic reasons or commercial reasons, that’s for you to figure out. But we want you to be sensitized to the fact if you haven’t thought about this from a commercial viewpoint then here are organizations that have identified talent among the refugee population.

You recently took a group of companies to Jordan to explore trade and refugee issues. You met with the prime minister, the trade minister and visited an industrial zone, among other things. Can you tell me a little bit about the goals behind that trip and how it was structured?

As good as it was that companies were signing on in places such as Washington, or New York or Silicon Valley, how do you take them to the frontline states that are the most affected by this crisis? The country that we decided to focus on, not because it needs more or less help than the other two, but it goes back to the commercial question, is Jordan.

In the case of Jordan there were a couple of things we had going we wanted to dig deeper into. One, we have a U.S.-Jordan free trade agreement worth $2.5 billion. Secondly, Jordan, to its credit, has taken the bold step of saying OK let’s be realistic we have about a million refugees in our country, they’re not going anywhere soon how do we turn that crisis into an opportunity. So Jordan reached a deal with the European Union — preferential market access for products developed in 18 industrial zones where 15 percent of the employees are refugees.

We did not sell this trip to companies as “We’re going to take you to the Zaatari camp and make you talk to the poor destitute people.” We framed it as there is a commercial opportunity here to do well for your company and to do good on a major humanitarian issue, i.e. leveraging the EU deal. We took a collection of about 10 companies to Jordan, which included Coca-Cola, Microsoft, PepsiCo Inc., Mastercard, APR Energy, Hill International, which is a construction services company, MENA Consultants which is an association of U.S. companies operating in the region and a financial services company called Winthrop Advisors.

A number of the companies that went with us I think first and foremost were really sensitized to the challenge that a country like Jordan faces … but they also saw this tremendous opportunity because there’s a government and a country that’s relatively stable in a sea of conflict that has free trade agreements with the U.S., with the other Arab countries and now with the EU and could be a really great platform for them to do well and do good at the same time.

The trip was about squarely being at that nexus of commercial and humanitarian, the nexus of classic trade delegation to Jordan with also the sort of emphasis on what the Jordanians themselves would say, turning the crisis into an opportunity.

Looking ahead, what happens with this work and these commitments? I know that the State Department has built a platform to try to help companies share their experiences and learn about what others are doing, but what happens with a new administration, especially if there is less engagement on these issues?

No matter whether it’s a Trump administration that’s more engaged or less engaged that’s not really the point, the point is how do you get the private sector to independently care and be motivated to own this, and the hope is that over the course of the last nine months we have made some important progress in sensitizing them and in showing them the potential here not just from a humanitarian point of view but from a commercial point of view.

There are a lot of companies that have been doing things in this space in their own way.  What we’ve been able to do is for them — it’s almost like building a little lighthouse. Everyone’s out there doing their thing but all of a sudden they realize there’s a center point. What we’ve trying to build is this coordinating mechanism so that they know what others are doing and they can coordinate their efforts and they can work together and as a result amplify their effectiveness.

So my hope is by virtue of the Partnership for Refugees mechanism that we’ve built, which has a clear private sector partner component to it, that the work can be self sustaining. I’m hopeful that we’ve made enough noise and set up a way to do it, but again it just depends on the companies now continuing with that effort and the coordinating mechanism refining its analytical ability to actually connect the dots. It’s not enough to say just talk to so and so but a little bit of a mapping exercise, where are the needs, what are these refuges, what are their skills that they have, what do the employers need in that market, how do we connect the dots. That’s kind of the level two, three, four stuff we need if this is going to be a little more scientific.

As someone who serves as a link between the State Department and the private sector, what do you think it will be like for the agency to be led by Rex Tillerson, a man who has spent his career in the private sector as secretary of state?

I can’t really comment on what that’s going to mean because I honestly don’t know. I don’t think anyone knows. What I will say as someone who lives in the economic commercial world at the State Department and whose immediate boss is someone who has spent most of his career in the business world … he’s been phenomenal I think he’s been a great person and he’s brought a lot of value to this building because he just understands the way businesses work, he understands how to get things done, he understands how to invest in people, he puts people at the front of a lot of what he does.

So the point I’m making is that whether it’s Secretary-designate Tillerson or anyone else from the private sector, it’s that the value of the perspective of people who have worked in the private sector can bring in government is extremely important. Because our influence, our impact, our reach in the world is a function of both our diplomats but also our businessmen. We often say our best ambassadors are our businesses because they are our front lines. Some of the companies we deal with are changing the development landscape by virtue of the energy projects they’re doing, by virtue of the training that they do, by virtue of the jobs that they create in the host economies. If it’s a businessman coming to run the department or any other part of it I would say hopefully it will be a valuable perspective but I really don’t know the policies.

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About the author

  • Saldiner adva

    Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.