Bridging the Gaps to Create Opportunity for Refugee Inclusion

Bridging the Gaps to Create Opportunity for Refugee Inclusion

When Karen Meyer, Regional Lead, Refugees and Displaced Populations at the Mastercard Foundation, joined the Foundation in 2015, she came from the United Nations Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) with her background in international peace and conflict studies. She began her journey with the Foundation on the Education and Learning team. “I had an interest in conflict prevention and knew the Foundation worked on sustainable solutions with long-term impact. Recognizing that education can be a preventative measure for conflict, I became interested in the Foundation’s work,” she says.

“Looking back, the Foundation did not initially focus on reaching those affected by conflict, or refugee communities. However, the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program was a possible starting point,” she says. The Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program strives to strengthen the higher education ecosystem and drive innovation in Africa so that young people, especially those most marginalized, can access relevant and inclusive education, transition smoothly to dignified, in-demand work, and lead transformative lives. “The Learning partner [at the time] had conducted a one-off survey with the 2015 cohort of Scholars enrolled in the program and approximately 19 percent of the respondents identified as forcibly displaced. This meant we were already working with refugees but weren’t intentionally reaching them. We were missing an opportunity to consider the unique support services necessary for people of that particular background. So that was the spearhead for refugee inclusion in the Scholars Program.”

Karen describes the stigma these groups live with; being seen as an economic burden in hosting countries. “Yet, the evidence shows investing in a refugee can be economically advantageous and sets them on a path to self-reliance for themselves and their families. What is clear is their exuberance and motivation for education and work opportunities.”

Understanding the System

Karen recently visited the Dadaab refugee camp – the largest and oldest camp in Africa, near the Somalia border in Kenya – to meet with potential Scholars Program stakeholders such as the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, Department of Refugee Affairs, and community members. The Foundation’s Scholars Program is supporting 25,000 refugees to access higher education scholarship opportunities by 2030. “The visit helped us understand the environment and the obstacles to accessing higher education in the camp context, so that we can co-design an impactful program for these young people. Co-creation with the community is essential to ensure the program is welcomed by the youth, and offers what is in demand by the young people it will ultimately serve,” she says.

Community members shared that mental health issues are a real concern and suicide rates have been increasing, largely because of COVID-19, which stalled opportunities for self-reliant livelihoods and ultimately, hope. “This represents the urgency and importance of psychosocial support and mentorship in programming.”

The Foundation also supports a project with Inkomoko (previously known as African Entrepreneur Collective) in the Dadaab and Kakuma camps, which assists refugee entrepreneurs and micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSME). Inkomoko’s core model enables refugees to learn basic business skills, bookkeeping, sales, and financial procedures through training and consulting, as well as access to finance to help grow their business.

Refugees in Business

A takeaway from the Dadaab visit and what we heard from young people is “to stop programming the individual, and program the system”. According to Karen, at a recent workshop with UNHCR, D, WUSC, and the Foundation Kenya Program Team, refugee youth asked not for empathy but for visualization of something that leads them to work and an action plan to guide them toward achieving it. This is a clear guide to how the Foundation can approach working with refugees. Working at the policy level is critical or we will likely see the displacement crisis continue to grow. Further generations will be lost, noting the current 100 million people globally who are forcibly displaced.”

The Foundation is exploring engagements that focus on refugee inclusion and engagement with the private sector. “Many employers might be interested in employing refugees, but may not realize it is even possible. There is a lot of misinformation and competing legal frameworks that make it difficult for the private sector and refugees to understand and implement their rights. In Rwanda, refugees can access employment. However, employers often don’t realize this and will disqualify a refugee applicant from the recruitment process.

The Amahoro Coalition, Inkomoko, and UNHCR, with support from the Mastercard Foundation hosted the African Private Sector Forum at the end of 2021. Conversations focused on how to support the refugee plight – the significant conflict challenge in Africa – through livelihood aid and access to work opportunities. Several companies pledged contributions to help address this. “We want to further stimulate private sector participation in refugee inclusion and give the private sector the space to engage and drive change for refugee inclusion alongside refugee and displaced populations,” explains Karen.

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Co-creation Strategies

Africa is home to one-third (approximately 36 million) of the people in the world who have been forcibly displaced. The more vulnerabilities young people carry, the harder it is for them to progress their formal education and journey toward dignified and fulfilling work. The Foundation’s Scholars Program is a crucial interface for its work with refugees. It is one of its most mature Programs and celebrates a 10-year milestone in 2022.

Since its inception, the Scholars Program has evolved by co-creating strategies with key partners to benefit thousands of refugees and displaced youth.

“Over time, we realized we had to be more intentional about the impact of the Scholars Program by considering who to include from countries with significant refugee communities. We were already reaching refugees and displaced youth. A few of them were young people with disabilities, historically excluded from access to higher education and education in general,” says Shona Bezanson, Head of Regional Programs, Eastern and Southern Africa. “Our aim is to reach 100,000 young people in Africa, including 25,000 refugees and displaced youth, 10,000 young people with disabilities, and 70,000 young women.”

The Foundation identified specific interventions to help these young people successfully navigate the university application processes. Furthermore, the Program needed to ensure its partners would provide psychosocial and sometimes legal support. The Scholars Program was an early adopter of inclusivity, focusing on refugees. “This stance has since been applied across our Young Africa Works strategy and many countries with a significant population of refugee youth have focused on reaching and serving them in their country road maps,” says Shona.

Key Partnerships

The Foundation chooses to work with partners that align with its values, demonstrate experience, and bring certain assets to the table. “We make our expectations and targets clear in our conversations. When a university identifies a lack of expertise, it is our responsibility to accompany them on this journey to become more inclusive. We partner with World University Service of Canada (WUSC) to work with our university partners in the Scholars Program as well as our Young Africa Works country teams and partners in East Africa,” says Shona. “WUSC has helped us assess where each partner is in terms of its inclusion journey, its capacity to deliver on inclusion, the areas we need to strengthen, and how to do that.”

In addition, WUSC provides technical assistance and training for program leads in partner organizations. The resulting practices, policies, and programs benefit young people already on campus and those who are marginalized in other ways. “For example, applying for admission online or making a down payment via credit card might be a barrier for refugee youth. And sometimes, documentation is a real problem. Many of these young people have fled their countries with nothing but the clothes on their backs so their high school certificate might not be one of the things they grabbed when they ran for their lives.”

An important outcome of the Scholars Program is amplifying and supporting work that universities are already doing, and sharing the lessons learned with other institutions just beginning their journey of inclusion. “But what happens next? A young person may have a transformative experience at university and graduate ready to start their working lives. Yet, in some countries, where they are confined to refugee camps, they are unable to move about freely or get the right permits to access work. What’s more, they are financially excluded. We need to work on that wider policy environment to bridge the gap between education and livelihood. We must make a case for why it makes economic sense for refugees to be included in host-country economies and societies. They add value, often creating work for other people,” adds Shona.

Small Shifts, Large Gains

Meanwhile, e-learning has increased opportunities for refugees and displaced youth, particularly those whose movement is restricted. “The COVID-19 crisis has shone a spotlight on the importance of digital inclusion,” says Shona. “It is a legitimate, credible way to learn and doesn’t respect national boundaries. As long as there is Wi-Fi and some basic electrical infrastructure, anybody can learn or work online. In Kenya, for example, where it is difficult to access all the required work permits, people can work in the Cloud.”

Another motivation is to mitigate the effect of climate change and natural disasters that cause forced displacement. “We must invest in ways that will prevent people from having to move in those instances. We also need specific programs that reach refugees, displaced youth, and their host communities. It’s important to ensure those host communities are accounted for and included so that our work is not aggravating tensions and doing more harm than good,” says Shona. “What we can do as a Foundation is amplify the voices of affected young people and communities. It’s their life experience and they are coming up with solutions to their challenges. We can help showcase these solutions to decision-makers who have the power to change things at a systemic level.”