Entrepreneurship: A New Front in the Refugee Crisis

03/11/2015 08:10 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2015

This article was co-written by David Chanoff, founding board member of South Sudanese Enrichment for Families

The Nigerian investor and philanthropist Tony Elumelu has recently announced a 100 million dollar commitment to furthering entrepreneurship in Africa. Elumelu's program, administered through his foundation, is a major step towards stimulating business growth on the continent as a pathway out of poverty. He also has the opportunity with this investment to open up a potentially revolutionary approach to addressing Africa's crushing refugee problem.

Today Africa has nearly 4 million refugees, with recent conflicts in South Sudan and the Central African Republic quickly swelling these numbers. Globally, conflict and violent persecution have displaced more people than at anytime since World War II. The average length of time individuals live as refugees is 17 years, which is increasing. "Refugee warehousing" is a term coined to characterize the immense personal tragedies and waste of human potential that accompanies long-term displacement.

Tens of billions of dollars a year are spent on food, shelter, health and other life-sustaining essentials for refugees, year after year after year. But the resources available don't begin to match the needs. It's now commonly acknowledged that we must find new solutions to address refugee displacement beyond what is known as a "care and maintenance" approach.

Practically speaking, there are today only a few options available to resolve the plight of refugees. One is repatriation, that is, return of refugees to their own countries once safety permits. Unfortunately, given the persistence of violent conflict, the trend is towards longer displacement, not faster return home. Another solution is resettlement -- permanent relocation to a country that provides avenues to residency and citizenship. While nearly 30 countries provide some form of resettlement, with the US as the world leader, this solution is available only to a small percentage of the world's refugees. But a third solution exists that could open the door to a truly significant amelioration of refugee misery as well as lighten the burden on countries where refugees are housed in camps and burgeoning urban slums. And this is where Elumelu's 100 million dollar initiative could be a catalyst.

This third approach is integration of refugees into the economic and civic life of the countries to which they have fled. This rarely happens since host countries often view refugees as unwelcome burdens and make anything like full integration an impossibility.

Nevertheless, there is growing attention to the need for local integration. In a recent speech UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon discussed how unresolved refugee displacement "can upend a country's path to peace and prosperity," and that "the needs and potential of displaced populations must be reflected in national development plans...." In point of fact, local integration, in particular economic integration, is a new humanitarian frontier, especially since hundreds of thousands of refugees are forgoing the camps and are trying to eke out an existence in urban centers alongside nationals of their host countries.

The University of Oxford Humanitarian Innovation Project's research in Uganda highlights that even in the absence of full rights, vibrant economic systems and refugee innovation are thriving. Refugee entrepreneurs are creating employment opportunities for themselves and in some cases for their host country nationals as well.

Kiva, a leading micro-enterprise organization that supports small businesses, is an early leader in this respect, enabling refugees to access no-interest Kiva Zip loans. Refugees who are building businesses with Kiva's help are in some cases collaborating with and hiring nationals in their host countries as well.

The Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Program is available to Africans across the continent. Because of the long-term nature of displacement, the swelling numbers and the growing urban dimension of refugee displacement, it's increasingly urgent that we develop and nurture new solutions. Tony Elumelu could give a huge boost to refugee economic integration by helping to support refugee entrepreneurs whose businesses benefit the communities in which they live and their host countries. His initiative is a potential game changer in the world's approach to one of its most persistent and vast human tragedies.