How Ikea helped to change attitudes on helping refugees

Refugee populations have long been reliant on charitable aid agencies, but could business investment make a more meaningful difference?

Shelters being used in Iraq
Shelters being used in Iraq

In November 2016, Ikea took a pioneering step in its already comprehensive sustainability programme. The furniture retailer decided to open production centres near Jordanian refugee camps in Amman with the aim of eventually providing employment for 200,000 disadvantaged people in the area – refugees included, both inside the city and on its outskirts.

Where many brands and retailers count promotional activities and donations to those in conflict-stricken areas among their CSR efforts, Ikea’s approach implements a more long-term, sustainable model of support.

But in doing this, the company has entirely turned on its head the traditional perception of refugee status. A statement released by the brand says that one of the main aims of the programme is “supporting Jordan’s journey in integrating refugees with locals in the labour market through creating jobs”. The objective, then, is not to simply maintain a temporary population, but to allow a growing community and the location in which it’s based to thrive and flourish – a notion that briefly touched the headlines in 2015 when Kilian Kleinschmidt, a humanitarian aid expert, told Dezeen, an architecture and design magazine, that governments need to view refugee camps as “the cities of tomorrow”.

The quote was widely reported, most likely, Kleinschmidt himself notes, because it completely contradicts the “refugee narrative” to which the world has become accustomed.

“We need to get away from the idea that refugees are poor little things that need to be fed and pampered – they’re capable human beings,” says Kleinschmidt, who worked for 25 years for the UN and the UN High Commission for Refugees in various camps and operations worldwide. “The whole aid conversation is about victims, which is why so many Europeans think these people are a burden, and not in fact an opportunity for change or development.”

Kleinschmidt applauds Ikea’s Jordan initiative. “There are three billion people living in poverty, and they need jobs. It’s great that a brand name as recognisable as Ikea is finally sending that signal.”

Space age: inside an Ikea shelter unit 

He points to an initiative called ReBootKamp (RBK) as another example of a refugee-focused programme that offers a meaningful hand up. RBK provides intensive IT training to Syrian refugees with the aim of turning them into high quality software engineers. There are no upfront costs or previous education requirements, women are especially encouraged to apply and all graduates are guaranteed employment upon completion of the 12-week course.

To be clear, this isn’t a charitable programme, but rather one born of the age-old notion of supply and demand. Speaking to Wamda, an Middle Eastern entrepreneurial website, Hugh Bosely, the director of RBK, said securing backing for the programme was “an easy sell”: “Silicon Valley stepped up to the plate and threw their whole weight behind us. We’ve had pledges to hire every programmer we can produce, that’s how much demand there is for it.”

And yet, Kleinschmidt says, there is a wariness about integrating refugee communities with technology: “Refugees are associated with poverty – the idea that you can connect them with something from the 21st century is an alien concept to many. Not only that, but again, the victim narrative would suggest doing so is exploitative in some way.

“I was visiting one of these coding classes, accompanied by some people from an NGO who felt it wasn’t right for ‘these poor people to be thrown into the capitalist IT industry’. How arrogant to think that these people need protection from capitalism – capitalism existed in their home countries before they were displaced, and capitalism is how jobs are created.

“We’ve been treating aid in the same way since the Second World War, but now the most helpful kind of aid would come in the form of attracting companies and establishing economic cycles in places they wouldn’t happen organically.”

In other words, helping people to help themselves, or in this context, giving them the freedom to help themselves. One area where this approach has seen great success is in Uganda’s Bidi Bidi refugee camp. Uganda has an extraordinarily compassionate refugee policy, where refugees are free to work, travel and mix with the surrounding community, and families are given a plot of land on which to build a house – plus more for farming.

Instead of a temporary crisis centre, Bidi Bidi is becoming a thriving community where people will settle to make their home. The boundaries between the refugee settlement and the existing village are merging – the historical conception story of many an established European city – and the local economy is booming. In fact, a 2016 study by the University of California Davis and the UN World Food Programme found that “refugees’ purchases benefit local and national economies, and economic benefits exceed the amount of donated aid”. The presence of refugees is an economic boost, not a burden.

Officials from the Ikea Foundation and the UN refugee agency tour a solar energy plant in the Azraq Refugee Camp, Jordan

There is, Kleinschmidt believes, a huge amount of untapped value in refugee populations: “There are many places in Europe that are like ghost towns because people have moved elsewhere – governments could put in a whole new population with opportunities to trade and work. Or at least welcome them into existing economies. There are 600,000 job vacancies in Germany: during the height of the Syrian refugee crisis it was the business associations pushing Merkel to allow new people in, people who would benefit from a new home while giving the country an economic boost. The model is win-win.”

Such is the mutually-beneficial nature of this model that the World Bank Finance Development Forum hosts an annual conference to discuss investment opportunities in fragile markets. More than 100 partners and 600 participants come together to push forward the sustainable development agenda in a world affected by conflict and violence. But while there can be no doubt that there’s an appetite from the business world to engage disadvantaged communities, bureaucratic challenges mean a lot of the potential will never come to fruition.

“Governments are afraid of normalising refugee environments,” says Kleinschmidt. “They are traditionally seen as temporary measures, and as such they are created to be temporary. Camps are poorly planned and refugees struggle to get work permits – they are being held hostage by red tape and outdated thinking.”

Josephine Liebl, a policy advisor at Oxfam, agrees. “There is an argument that keeping people in one space makes providing them with access to basic services and protection easier in an emergency situation. While this is true in many cases, it is not a valid justification for restricting the movement of refugees indefinitely, or refusing to explore more innovative ways to help refugees outside of camps.”

However, she notes that these ‘more innovative ways’ are not without their challenges, and represent a stark contrast to traditional aid approaches.

“The reasons behind investing to create refugee jobs are often murky, with a lot of unanswered questions: are retailers fuelling a race-to-the-bottom on labour rights by benefiting from lower wage work and weaker labour protections? Are they taking production away from better quality jobs? What is the wider impact of moving production centres? Are lower standard jobs being created?

“This Ikea initiative could be life changing for people if implemented in a way that promotes and protects labour rights, and potentially an example to follow for the private sector in Jordan and other parts of the world; that is why it is important to get it right.”

But changing an entrenched approach to aid, and to those in receipt of it, will not happen overnight, and there may well be lessons learned along the way, says Kleinschmidt: “People want to work. They don’t want to be pitied and dependent, which is why we are seeing more and more that the most meaningful aid is initiated by business that recognises the value of people, rather than charities that see victims.

“It’s a very slow transformation but aid is gradually taking on a new identity. As more governments and aid agencies move away from old-fashioned approaches and business gets more involved, the whole landscape will look very different in 10 years’ time.”

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