March 9, 2016 / 2:25 PM / a year ago

U.N. looks to business to cut aid bill for refugees in East Africa

NAIROBI, March 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Mesfin Getahun, an Ethiopian living in a remote refugee camp on Kenya's northern border, earns $10,000 a month from his wholesale and retail business and employs more than 30 people.

After arriving in the camp 15 years ago, he worked as a restaurant cleaner, slowly saving money for his own business, which sells food and household goods.

"Being a refugee is not a reason for being unsuccessful in business and life," he told the United Nations, which profiled him as one of several successful entrepreneurs in the huge camp of Kakuma, home to some 180,000 refugees from the region.

"All it takes is dedication and the will to work hard to achieve one's dream."

Mesfin is part of what aid workers hope will become a new breed of refugees who can provide for themselves, boost local economies and relieve the pressure on an aid system buckling under the unprecedented number of global emergencies.

The United Nations is appealing for $20 billion in humanitarian aid in 2016, five times the amount it sought a decade ago, for crises stretching from Syria to a dozen African nations hit by drought.

"It's not the case that finance and humanitarian resources to respond don't exist," said Pete Manfield, regional representative for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

"It's that we are not adequately working with others, particularly at the local level, to find where capacities exist that are not being used."

Manfield was speaking at the launch on Tuesday of an online platform linking the private sector in East Africa with aid agencies and local government to improve the response to emergencies.

Aid groups hope greater private sector involvement will cut costs and improve access to conflict zones like Somalia.

"If Coke has access to deliver Coke and we can't get vaccines in, surely there's a discussion (to be had)," said Manfield.

NEW MODEL

The United Nations is piloting the new model for private sector-refugee cooperation in Kalobeyei, a 15 square kilometre (5.8 square mile) extension planned for Kakuma, which has become congested since civil war broke out in South Sudan in 2013.

Permission to extend Kakuma came with conditions attached, said Raouf Mazou, country representative for the United Nations refugee agency.

"The challenge that was given to us by the governor of Turkana was to say: 'Don't do another refugee camp... Do something which will serve both the host population and the refugee population'," Mazou said.

The United Nations has replaced some of the food aid ration with cash so that local businesses can sell their products to the refugees.

It hopes Kalobeyei will become an urban settlement, not a camp, where both refugees and locals can live, do business and get services like electricity, Mazou said.

Solar lighting company D.light, which sells lights for as little as $5, has joined the East Africa platform.

"There's an opportunity to really create a sustainable market for renewable energy in these places," said Kate Montgomery, the company's director of global partnerships, adding that $2.1 billion a year is spent on fuel for displaced people around the world.

Companies like Unilever and Safaricom, Kenya's leading mobile phone service provider, are already making a good profit in Kenya's camps.

The Kakuma branch of Equity Bank, the Kenyan bank which has the largest number of depositors in East Africa, has 50,000 customers, both refugees and locals.

RIGHT TO WORK

The East African initiative reflects the global challenge of providing for refugees at a time when a record 60 million people have fled their homes because of violence, oppression or drought.

Kenya hosts the second largest number of refugees on the African continent, some having arrived as long as 25 years ago. Legally, all refugees must live in camps and they cannot work.

With limited funding for protracted displacements, the United Nations has repeatedly cut food rations for refugees in Kenya.

There have been tensions between poor locals living around the camps, who often suffer drought and hunger, and the refugees who receive free food, healthcare and education.

"The majority of refugees if given an opportunity... could fend for themselves," said Mazou. "The support we provide to refugees has to be limited and has to lead to self-reliance."

Refugees who set up businesses are usually better at rebuilding their lives when they return home than those who have depended on aid for 20 years, he said.

The Kenyan government remains cautious, fearing the initiative could encourage refugees to settle permanently in Kenya, competing with locals for jobs and government services.

"When you create permanence, the whole mentality and psychology of being in a place is entrenched," Tom Amolo, Political and Diplomatic Secretary in the Foreign Affairs Ministry, said at the launch.

"We will work with you... but it will also not detract or remove the primary responsibility of international organisations to do their part."

Reporting by Katy Migiro, editing by Tim Pearce.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.

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