Should Refugee Camps be “Smart Cities”?

Tara Nathan, Executive Vice President for Government and Development at Mastercard, has published an interesting short piece on the World Economic Forum website
She joins the current new thinking supporting refugee self-reliance that benefits both refugees and hosting communities.  In Nathan’s words: “A new model must create communities in which the forcibly displaced can become self-sufficient faster and can contribute to the economic growth of their host communities.”  Specifically, she states that “meaningful technology solutions” can be proposed for implementing “new payment, transaction, and data tools” in order “to improve the delivery of essential services, whether provided by the private sector or non-governmental organizations.”

That the private sector is thinking in creative ways about improving refugees’ lives is important, and surely improving access to financial services is a good thing. Refugees are “underbanked,” and a number of factors—from state regulations to a lack of appropriate identification papers—make cash transfers, savings accounts, and building capital difficult. So we should welcome initiatives from Mastercard and their partner Western Union in studying what can be done.

My concern is at a broader level. It is now widely recognized that long-term humanitarian assistance to refugees has had perverse effects: leading to refugee dependence and taking both donor and hosting states off the hook for achieving “solutions.” We need to be careful that efforts now directed at refugee self-reliance do not produce similar results.  Support for such programs from the Global North can be read as really about keeping refugees in hosting states in the Global South while reducing funding for assistance programs; and to the extent that the private sector wants to bear the cost of development projects in hosting communities, so much the better.

I think the new paradigm should not be about turning refugee camps into smart cities, where refugees may be compelled to reside. Rather the goal of the international refugee regime should be to help refugees rebuild their lives, families and communities where they can best do so.  That is, enhancing mobility should be a vital element in supporting refugees.  In some ways, this goes back to the idea behind the “Nansen Passport” of the early 20th century: giving refugees documents that helped them locate work and achieve self-sufficiency in states beyond countries of first asylum.

The technology that Nathan describes would be very important in helping to shift the paradigm.  Credit and debit cards, methods of cash transfer, mobile wallets can be important tools in facilitating mobility—as those of us in the “traveling class” are well aware. Let’s make sure that these tools are not used to justify new walls (of “smart cities”) that permit developed states to ignore obligations of responsibility-sharing upon which a well-functioning refugee regime must be based.

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