Thursday

14th Dec 2017

Opinion

Technology and digital banking could help refugees

  • A Syrian refugees camp in Turkey. Digital technology could transform the lives of many people. (Photo: European Parliament)

The average refugee is displaced for a decade. Take a moment to think about that.

Uprooted from their home. Fleeing for safety. Forced to desperately try to rebuild better lives for themselves and their families. Food, shelter and other more traditional forms of aid are vital in meeting their immediate needs in the aftermath of conflict.

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But the shocking length of displacement and the fact that 60 percent of refugees are living in cities and communities – not refugee camps – means that handing out stuff is no longer sufficient.

Technology and digital banking, in particular, can offer some solutions. Refugees are people who have the ability to decide for themselves what their needs are, and the response system needs to be shaped towards that fact.

At the International Rescue Committee (IRC), we know that the refugee crisis is manageable – not unsolvable. Manageable if we rethink our perception of today’s refugee, and exploit the digital opportunities for delivering aid and vital services.

That means treating refugees as we’d like to be treated ourselves. Not with prescriptive solutions to the challenges they face, but with the tools and resources they need to write their own story.

G20 summit

World leaders will meet at the end of this week (7-8 July) in Hamburg, Germany, for the G20 summit.

The German presidency of the G20 has shown their commitment to this kind of bold thinking. They have focused on building the resilience of refugees. Labour ministers, digital ministers, finance ministers and business leaders have discussed this at the highest levels.

Now is their opportunity to translate words into action.

Refugees’ resilience depends on structural changes that allow for self-reliance, rather than entrapping people in a system of dependence. That means safe and decent work, education, and a secure digital way of managing finances.

Refugees, who may be displaced for generations, need to manage their savings and wages. For over 60 percent of the world’s adults, a bank account is a given. But right now, many refugees are being denied that right – only seven percent of adults living in crises have one.

We must do better to help people fleeing a crisis, to overcome barriers to banking that include lost or invalid identity documents and inflexible rules.

We are pleased that the German presidency has pushed up the financial inclusion of refugees and migrants in the G20 agenda. Now the G20 must commit to the financial resilience and inclusion of refugees, and deliver policy solutions to address barriers.

Connectivity is key

For many refugees, their mobile phone is their lifeline, including for managing and receiving finances. So digital connectivity is key.

The G20’s digital ministers agreed a target for all people around the world to have access to the internet by 2025. But the IRC’s research has found that high-risk, disaster-prone countries are too often neglected in initiatives to expand digital infrastructure.

Let’s help refugees build their independence and get online whilst on the move. In the short-term, this means emergency electronic payments from aid agencies (cash relief) and, in the longer-term, money transfers, salaries and mobile banking. A secure, pro-market solution that helps to integrate refugees into a new economy.

This week, world leaders will have the opportunity to define G20 commitments and set the agenda for action when they come together in Hamburg.

They will also have the opportunity to bring business together with government and humanitarian agencies in support of refugees.

Let’s start to shift the mindset of a helpless population of refugees, who bring with them a "burden" of expense, and begin to recognise refugees as intelligent, independent and resilient people, who want to re-build their future for themselves and their families.

Let’s bank on a better future for them and let them define their own opportunities. It’s self-defeating not to offer them the services and tools technology offers to rebuild their lives. And it will be better for everyone in the long term.

Daphne Jayasinghe is an Economic Recovery & Development Policy Adviser at the International Rescue Committee.

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