These Entrepreneurs Are Trying To Revamp Refugee Camps

Humanitarian innovation that takes refugees into account is challenging a decades-old system that has been resistant to change

Syrian refugee women walk through Al Zaatari refugee camp — REUTERS
Apr 06, 2017 at 2:20 PM ET

At the sprawling Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, tens of thousands of women fleeing war face another kind of dilemma: going to the bathroom at night. Unlit toilets have allowed rape and sexual assault to become rampant in those areas, forcing many women to use use unsanitary, makeshift toilets dug into the dirt.

That bathrooms are out of immediate reach for female refugees is a design flaw that entrepreneur Huda Elasaad describes as not only tragic, but also unnecessary. She says her organization’s portable toilet – a simple, cheap and culturally aware innovation — can  solve it. Without power or plumbing, Elasaad’s toilet, developed as an MIT offshoot project called change:WATER labs, will vaporize up to 95 percent of daily sewage. It will use a polymer material to soak up liquids and residue will be collected once or twice a month.

When the toilet rolls out this summer, change:WATER CTO Huda Elasaad will also be taking her place among a burgeoning entrepreneur community that is looking to interact with refugees as active partners, rather than passive recipients, in the aid and services they receive. They are social entrepreneurs driven by making money, rather than the political climate that decides the fate of many NGOs. They are already disrupting a multi-billion dollar aid industry that, despite good intentions, has long been criticized, even among aid workers, for its excessive spending, inefficiency, and still under-researched levels of corruption.

“There’s so many people like us who are delving toward the social entrepreneurship path,” said Elasaad, a water treatment and sanitation systems expert. She said that community, made up of many people with Middle Eastern origins, is “all about the lives of refugees. The quantity and quality of the groups are fantastic, people looking to build, to protect the dignity of these people.”

Such programs as change:WATER are coming of age as the world struggles to provide for the more than 65 million displaced people, the highest levels of displacement ever recorded.

For Elasaad — half-Syrian, half Egyptian — and the company’s CEO Diana Yousef —who is of Egyptian origin — the mission to help alleviate the refugee crisis in the Middle East, where 39 percent of the world’s displaced people reside, is a personal one, since the crisis is centered in the region they’re from. Turkey ranks as the region’s largest host country, with 2.5 million refugees. Lebanon hosts the most refugees in ratio to its population, with one refugee for every five citizens.

Change:WATER is not a philanthropic endeavor, but a for-profit company, already having received $120,000 in seed capital from university and corporate prizes and grants. The team plans to fill a need for dignified sanitation solutions in the donor-funded and crisis-response markets “where buyers are eager to replace their inadequate and costly sanitation hardware,” the company’s executive summary reads. In refugee camps, it will sell the toilets to organizations like UNICEF which are already managing the camps. It will aim for every family to have their own toilet, providing the dignity and safety to refugees, while cutting as much as half of the operational costs.

They plan to also sell to the world’s 2.4 billion people without access to basic sanitation facilities, many of whom are not officially registered as refugees by aid agencies, despite being displaced as a result of climate change or other factors. Eventually, the stand-alone toilet might become a home good, like an oven or a washing machine, but the founders are still in the early phases of delivering the product to the populations in need.

Many refugee start-ups began rapidly appearing on the market after the image of Aylan Kurdi, a drowned three-year-old washed up on the beach, went viral on social media in 2015. The world’s attention spiked, and nonprofits like the London-based Techfugees began hosting hack-a-thons and developing apps and design hacks compatible with the plight of the modern refugee, who may have a smartphone and little else.

Such initiatives are coming up against decades-old humanitarian systems that are built on complex and multi-leveled bureaucracy. Even former UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said that the financial foundations of NGOs have become increasingly unreliable as global crises only continue to accelerate.

“The last few years have seen conflicts break out or escalate in a myriad of places, and these crises are becoming both more unpredictable and increasingly interlinked,” said Guterres back in 2014, adding that displacement was increasingly being driven by population growth, urbanization, poverty and climate change.

“This clearly puts in question the adequacy and sustainability of the resources available for humanitarian response. Already today, with the exponential increase in needs we have seen just in the last three years, the humanitarian financing system is nearly bankrupt,” he said.

But Kilian Kleinschmidt, the former director of the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, said that the “aid industry” suffers from a deeper white savior complex, swooping in to provide the basics that they assume to know poor people need: food, water, shelter, and other emergency materials.

“The entire humanitarian system is colonialist, it knows how to deal with very poor people who have not had exposure to the modern world, that is what it knows best,” said Kleinschmidt, who worked with the UN for 25 years in the Middle East and Africa. “The UN, and all the other groups, are following a narrative that’s been around since World War II, that you have to feed the victim until he’s not a refugee anymore. They actually don’t want refugees to achieve independence because that would cut into their programs.”

Zaatari refugee camp today hosts some 80,000 Syrian refugees, making it Jordan’s fourth largest city. Like the other refugee camps in Jordan, it is perceived by many as an open-air prison from which residents are eager to escape. Of the 670,000 Syrians registered with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Jordan, the majority of people — more than 85% — are leaving for black market opportunities in the country’s urban centers.

Kleinschmidt said the camp was a “storage facility” for people, where the UN decided upon all personal matters in food, sleeping, and shelter; and where crime and violence was rampant. For a long time, it also wrongly saw Syrians as a unified community, rather than what it really was: a highly diverse and traumatized group that continued to carry sectarian affiliations, identities and grudges.

Kleinschmidt resigned from the UN just over two years ago, disillusioned by what he said was the UN’s internal politics and a labyrinthine bureaucracy long resistant to modernization. He founded his own aid consultancy called Switxboard, which plans to collaborate with refugees as full business partners in order to create sustainable, smarter solutions, in such upcoming projects like waste management in Iraqi Kurdistan. He predicted that in the near future, traditional aid agencies will start fading out as private sector, more “humane” initiatives forge a new way.

“The aid system as such has failed to fix anything, despite the billions we’ve poured into it,” he said. “The current humanitarian system won’t exist anymore in the next coming years, we will toward impact investment and social entrepreneurship where it’s not forbidden to do business.”

Martha Thompson, a lecturer at the MIT D-Lab who specializes in humanitarian innovation, said that as more NGOs and private sector overlap, both sides should tread carefully in order to keep “refugee participation as a priority,” especially “where people have very few access to resources.”

The humanitarian field is all the more sensitive in the age of Donald Trump, who is aggressively delivering on promises to cut U.S. foreign aid. That does not bode well for the world’s expanding migrant and refugee population. Since 2015, one million people from impoverished and war-torn countries washed up on European shores, spurring panic and the transfer of billions of dollars to to keep those refugees in the Middle East. Despite the occasional celebrity campaigns, the world has become tired of the six-year-long Syrian civil war and the world’s other seemingly endless conflicts.

While the international tech industry has come to the fore with projects capable of communicating across cultural barriers, those dealing with humanitarian aid still face serious funding challenges and have come up short in critical areas such as education.

“The main risk of the new digital humanitarianism is that it fizzles out or wastes valuable energy, with limited impact,” said an October report by the Migration Policy Institute. “Policymakers should consider convening meetings of … young entrepreneurs, policy experts and refugees to improve collective understanding of what is feasible, legal, and has the greatest potential to improve refugees’ lives.”

Thompson, though, sees potential opportunity in smaller, more agile local NGO which appreciate the principle of co-designing projects with refugees in order to create sustainable, hopefully cheaper solutions that refugees themselves help design and that therefore truly meet their needs. This would avoid “developing, for example, solar things, which people would throw away, or from which they would remove the metal and use for something else.”

“Refugees need to be innovators to survive,” she said. “Our main challenge is learning how to make an ecosystem that will support them to make do with the resources they have.”