Connect with us

Charter Cities Podcast Episode 30: How Displaced People Can Build Economies with Alexander Betts

Kurtis Lockhart speaks with Alexander Betts, a Professor of Forced Migration and International Affairs at the University of Oxford, about refugee economics and the role that the private sector, technology, and innovation have to play in the global refugee crisis.

Key Points From This Episode:

• An introduction to Alexander Betts and his passion for running and debating.

• What Alex learned about UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) while working there and how it has informed his work.

• How his time in Silicon Valley influenced his thinking and led to Refugee Economics.

• Learn about the Jordan Compact and the opportunities it creates for Syrian refugees.

• The value of giving refugees basic socio-economic rights and entitlements.

• Replicating this special economic zone strategy for refugees in a context-specific manner.

• The main impacts of the Jordan Compact, its political successes and economic weaknesses.

• Why one of the main challenges has been the gender dimensions of the Compact.

• The critiques of the Compact that Alex takes most seriously, including what constitutes meaningful, dignified work for refugees.

• Why Alex believes a history of refugee self-reliance has been forgotten.

• Hear more about Alex’s research in Africa and the ethical scope for randomized control trials.

• The challenge of doing harm to vulnerable populations through random experimentation.

• How Alex explored a natural experiment model in Kenya’s Kalobeyei and Kakuma camps.

• Why the disconnect between the success of refugee self-reliance and economic inclusion and the lack of adoption more broadly.

• Comparing refugees’ economic lives in rural versus urban areas; the pros and cons of each.

• What interaction or contact does for social cohesion between host communities and refugees.

• How the costliness and fragmentation of African cities can lead to the exclusion of refugees.

• The role of cash transfers from organizations in urban assistance models for refugees.

• The key support, training, and access to opportunity that refugee-led organizations provide.

• Alex reflects on how to get big bureaucracy like UNHCR to embrace change and be more proactive rather than reactive.

• Combining status quo options to the benefit of refugees, host communities, and countries.

• Hear what Alex is working on now and the inherent value of participatory research methods.


Mark: Hello and welcome to the Charter Cities Podcast. I’m your host, Mark Lutter, the Founder and Executive Director of The Charter Cities Institute. On the Charter Cities Podcast, we illuminate the various aspects of building a charter city, from governance to urban planning, politics to finance. We hope listeners to the Charter Cities Podcast will come away with a deep understanding of charter cities, as well as the steps necessary to build them.

You can subscribe and learn more about charter cities at Follow us on social media, on Twitter and Charter Cities Institute on Facebook. Thank you for listening.

Kurtis: Hi. I’m Kurtis Lockhart, head of research at the Charter Cities Institute. Today on the podcast, I speak with Alexander Betts. Alex is a Professor of Forced Migration and International Affairs at the University of Oxford, where he currently leads the refugee economies program. His main research examines the Political Economy of Refugee Assistance with a focus on African countries.

His book, Refuge, co-written with Paul Collier, was named one of the best books of the year by the Economist magazine in 2017. He has written several other books on migration and refugee issues, the most recent of which, called The Wealth of Refugees, came out this year. He’s been named the Top Global Thinker by Foreign Policy Magazine, his TED Talks have been viewed over 3 million times, and he has previously worked at or advised the UN High Commission for Refugees, as well as the World Refugee Council. I hope you enjoy the conversation.

Kurtis: Welcome to the show, Alex. Thanks for coming on.

Alexander: Great to join you, Kurtis.

Kurtis: We have a lot to talk about. First, I guess, in addition to your work on refugee policy, I’m told you managed to clock in marathons at just over two hours and 30 minutes, which is fast. By day, you’re advocating for changes in international refugee policy. That strikes me as an area full of pain and disappointment and some frustrations once in a while. Then, after work, you’re running for almost three hours straight, which also strikes me as pretty painful. Alex, this begs the question, to be successful in changing something as entrenched as refugee policy, do you have to enjoy pain?

Alexander: No. Sometimes, it has very positive sides to the story. Indeed, running is a passion of mine, it’s something I occasionally get to combine with my fieldwork. I think, it’s no coincidence that the three countries I mainly work in, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda, are three of the leading countries for distance running. Just occasionally, I get to enjoy running with athletes, who happen to be refugees in those parts of the world.

Kurtis: Okay. I guess, in addition to running, I also read you’re a former European debating champion. Your latest book, you do have a chapter dedicated to persuasion, at least political persuasion. How does, I guess, this debating experience has helped you in your advocacy work?

Alexander: I think one of the things that it’s offered me is thinking about argumentation, it’s effective, being able to speak to a variety of audiences, not just other academics through published work, but also being able to speak to the general public, hopefully engage with policymakers, practitioners, and people from a diverse range of cultures and backgrounds. Hopefully, it’s left me with something other than lots of fond memories from when I was a student.

Kurtis: Okay. You actually worked at UNHCR headquarters in Geneva, while you wrote your doctoral thesis. I guess, in your books, you’re not exactly complimentary of UNHCR’s work. You provide some of the usual caveats of where UNHCR is useful but, generally, I think fair to say, not too complimentary. I’ll just ask, what did you learn about UNHCR while actually working there? Has that experience informed some of your current critiques and work?

Alexander: I was very privileged to have an opportunity to work at UNHCR, alongside doing my doctorate. It wasn’t for a very long period of time. I got to have six months as a professional member of staff, in my mid-20s, being based in the Executive Office of UNHCR in Geneva. It gave me a sense of how politics works in Geneva, about relationships with both donor countries and host countries.

What I was mainly working on was a global initiative called The Convention Plus Initiative, which looked at enhancing responsibility sharing around refugee issues, themes that have resurfaced since. Also, working on an initiative focused on durable solutions for Somali refugees. It gave me a sense of how the bureaucracy worked, the real dedication and commitment of so many UNHCR staff members, but also the realities of a large organization, very deeply accountable to its donors and constrained by the host countries within which it works. It gave me that perspective but also built a set of networks that have been very useful to me in my ongoing work.

I think, what I try to be in my work is not critical for the sake of it, but even-handed and critically engaged and to hold organizations accountable for the work they do. I think certainly, Refuge in particular was a book that was quite strongly critical of UNHCR at a moment at which I thought that was valid critique, that UNHCR’s response at the height of the so-called European refugee crisis in 2015, 16 was wanting. The political engagement and the sense of strategic direction at that moment wasn’t visibly obvious.

Now, I think UNHCR has done a pretty good job in developing some strategic response to that since. The global compact on refugees has emerged in a context of deep political constraint. We have real political challenges for UNHCR at a moment where we see the end of unipolarity, the rise of multi-polarity, changes in the distribution of power, shifts in the global economy. That means there are real constraints on asylum in rich countries, on accessing asylum, even in low and middle-income countries around the world.

UNHCR has to balance the concerns of countries around the world and it’s, given those constraints, I think, being quite effective in forging a strategy around development-based solutions to promote self-reliance. I’m very happy to give credit where it’s due. I think, since the moment we – refuge, there’s been some progress at the UNHCR level.

Kurtis: Okay. We’ll get a little more into I think, UNHCR, and some of the things you write about in refuge in particular. Again, a little bit more about your background. You finished your PhD, you hung around Oxford for a bit, and then you get a post-doc at Stanford. You’ve written a bit about how, I guess, being in Silicon Valley, amidst a bunch of startups and outside the box ideas, has influenced your thinking and framing. Can you just talk about that a bit?

Alexander: Yeah. I mean, I’d originally studied economics as an undergraduate. It was really by chance I had my first opportunity to work, doing voluntary work with refugees and asylum seekers in Europe, in the Netherlands when I was 19. One of the things that struck me while I was there was this tragedy of refugees not being able to work while they were in the asylum process, that could take sometimes many years, when they had skills and talents and aspirations and seeing people who wanted to make contributions, but couldn’t.

From Bosniak lawyers, to Iranian Olympic table tennis champions, I really thought, why shouldn’t these people have the chance to work and engage with the economy? For a while, during my doctoral studies, I thought of the refugee issue as about states, about government’s obligations to people in need. Then, I was a postdoc at Stanford and I was surrounded by startups, technology, innovation. I thought, this is great, but it’s irrelevant to what I do. Surely, what I do is about governments.

Then at some point, the penny dropped and I thought, “Actually, maybe there’s real potential for business actors, the private sector, social entrepreneurship, technology, and innovation to play a role.” While I was there, I came up with this idea of building a research project, focusing on those things, which became the Humanitarian Innovation program. Ultimately, given what I was really passionate about in that, was the economic lives and contributions of refugees, we changed the framing of that to focus much more specifically on refugee economies. Yeah, the big genesis of that thinking came from my experiences of having a year in Palo Alto.

Kurtis: Okay. With that, I guess, background, let’s maybe get into the books and the research. You and Paul Collier flied to Jordan in 2015. You start discussing with each other and with other stakeholders, what would eventually become the Jordan Compact. Do you want to first just tell listeners what the Jordan Compact is, and then maybe talk a bit about that initial trip and those initial conversations, how those ideas were translated into this comprehensive agreement between Jordan, several European states, and the World Bank?

Alexander: Yeah. I mean, the Jordan Compact emerged from an international agreement in February 2016, at a summit in London. It was really a way of trying to create better opportunities for Syrian refugees in Jordan. Jordan hadn’t, until the outbreak of the European refugee crisis, allowed Syrian refugees the right to work on its territory. Yes, of course, many had worked in cities in the informal economy, but they really struggled to get access to work permits and to be able to work legally.

The Jordan Compact aspired to change that with significant money being put in by the European Union, bilateral donors, such as the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, and concessionary finance from the World Bank. At the core of it was an idea of how this could be a win-win for Jordan and Syrian refugees. That Jordan had already, pre-existing, a series of special economic zones, but it was struggling to access either inward investment by companies, particularly in manufacturing, or access to labor, people to work in those economic zones.

The Jordan Compact suggested, well, actually, could trade concessions be offered by the European Union to economic zones that supported business opportunities for Syrian businesses no longer able to operate in Syria, employment opportunities for Syrian refugees? Could funding come to Jordan in exchange for the work permits to allow refugees to work in those contexts? It wasn’t just about manufacturing jobs in the economic zones. It extended to certain other employment categories, the garments and textiles sector, agriculture, construction.

It was a deal with a number of components, but was really about trying to unlock the blockage on Syrian acts to labor markets, and indeed, Syrian businesses being able to operate in Jordan until they could go home. The Jordan Compact struck that deal with those relevant actors. Now, Paul Collier and I had been involved in that process. We traveled to Jordan together in April 2015, which at the time was, ironically, the very start of the European refugee crisis. We didn’t necessarily know it would become that at that moment.

We went at the invitation of the government of Jordan and the Jordanian royal family, to explore ideas that could support the host country’s economic resilience to the large-scale movement of refugees, but also create socio-economic opportunity for those refugee communities. I’d already been working for a very long time on issues relating to the economic lives of refugees. We’d done a big study in Uganda at that point, trying to look at the positive impacts of Uganda allowing refugees the right to work and freedom of movement.

I was very interested in using that research to encourage other countries around the world to give refugees basic socio-economic rights and entitlements, the right to work in particular. I was really struggling to find an economist who would engage with these questions. I had, yes, a background in economics and started my career, but I’m a political scientist. I really wanted a high-profile economist to work with.

Paul Collier reached out to me. He’d received that invitation initially from Jordan and we agreed to travel together. We were there, we were mainly introduced to what was happening in Zaatari and Amman. We had the chance to brainstorm with government, NGOs, international organizations, including UNHCR. We visited, at point, one of the economic zones, that happened to be a 15-minute drive from the Zaatari refugee camp in Hussein bin Talal development area. It just struck us immediately in that moment, having heard from many refugees, that the sense that they just wanted to work, they just wanted the opportunity to support themselves and their families.

Well, why shouldn’t the government of Jordan at least offer opportunities to work that could be rejected in that nearby economic zone? We’ve got a whole variety of reasons why that wasn’t possible, why refugees and Zaatari shouldn’t be allowed to work. We pitched this initial idea, whether it might be possible, very tentatively, ran it by the government of Jordan, ran it by NGOs working in Jordan, ran it by the international organizations there, and there was a groundswell of support.

It then was adopted politically, DFID became very interested, then Prime Minister David Cameron traveled in early September to meet King Abdullah of Jordan and engaged in a conversation around some of these ideas. It emerged from that. The core of the ideas that we pitched in April 2015, and wrote about in an article of in foreign affairs, of using the pre-existing economic zones. It wasn’t about saying, “Oh, countries should create special economic zones for refugees.” It was saying, in Jordan, this was the political window. This was the opportunity available to change the legal landscape and potentially make it win-win for both Jordan refugees and, ultimately, Syria’s long-term trajectory. It was picked up and then adapted through that political process and the summit that took place in London in 2016.

Kurtis: Okay. I’ll talk about implementation in a second, but you mentioned the whole point wasn’t to get all countries to adopt zones and get refugees to move to these zones at all. It was just, like, what was available in terms of a better option in Jordan, and what was politically feasible. I guess, would you say, you and Paul Collier and the stakeholders involved, so the Jordanian government, UK Government, World Bank, were they at least open to the idea that should this novel thing or experiment be a success, let’s try and replicate this elsewhere?

Talk about that replication, because when you talk about it and write about it, I immediately think about Chinese special economic zones in the 1980s, Shenzhen and the other three that they started. Then, because of their success, scaled those zones up over time to involve, up to this day, I think something like 85 percent to 90 percent of Chinese municipalities are now some SEZ. Maybe talk about that replication bit a bit.

Alexander: I think, for me, there was a sense that creating the right to work for refugees was really the driver in this, the right and the opportunity. The way in which that plays out needs to be context specific. It needs to be based on the available opportunities in the host country, the political opportunity that’s there, and the skills and aspirations and backgrounds of the refugee population and the host community population. I think it needed to be context specific.

There was certainly a sense, including for the government of Jordan and the donors, that this might be a chance to pilot something, learn from what worked, and then see if there was an opportunity to scale and replicate. Indeed, ultimately, that did lead to DFID, the European Union, and the World Bank, approaching the government of Ethiopia and developing the Jobs Compact in Ethiopia, which focused on the idea of investing in Ethiopia’s industrial parks model, already a strong part of their national industrialization strategy. Already heavily invested in by China, but also many other investing countries and businesses, and expand employment opportunities.

Again, in a country that up to that point, prohibited refugees working to allow initially 30,000 job opportunities for refugees in those industrial parks. Now, ultimately, Ethiopia hasn’t delivered on integrating refugees in those industrial parks, but the move did lead to the refugee proclamation in 2019, which in law for the first time, means that refugees in Ethiopia have some right to work.

I think, there was a sense of learning, but not in a sense that economic zones would be the answer in all places, in all contexts. Also, an awareness that economic zones is a very broad category. Special economic zone doesn’t have to mean any one model. It just tends to mean a geographical space, which is differently regulated from others so that it might offer subsidies, tax breaks, incentives for investment, to cluster jobs in a particular way, or trade concessions, for instance. What that looks like could be different.

There was that sense, but not necessarily a roadmap. There were discussions as well around possible adoption in Malaysia, whether it might play differently in different regions that are more obvious locations for manufacturing investment. That was there in the background, but there was no replication plan. This was a Jordan specific, contextually developed plan for all its ultimate strengths and weaknesses.

Kurtis: Okay, great. I guess, beyond conception of the Compact in 2016, let’s talk about implementation since then. First, I guess, how much have you been involved in the actual implementation? Were you involved more heavily early on in idea formation and that sort of thing and then backed away? Or have you remained as maybe the thought leader for the initiative and left implementation to others? Do you just want to describe your role there?

Alexander: The implementation has been very much picked up elsewhere. Implementation has been with the governments, the minister of planning and international cooperation in Jordan, with international organizations, including UNHCR, the World Bank, the donor governments. That’s where implementation ran. My involvement was confined to 2015. I attended the London Summit in February 2016 but, by that point, I had no role in the negotiations, no role in the operationalization or implementation.

The idea was very much one that we developed in the initial discussions, wrote about in foreign affairs, and then it got picked up and developed very much a life of its own at the implementation phase. Yeah, actively involved researcher and thinking and brainstorming in the very initial phase, but the actual Jordan compact, and even the language of the Jordan compact was something that I wasn’t directly involved in.

Kurtis: Okay. Essentially, I guess, setting the intellectual foundations and then letting the local partners on the ground take the ball and run with it. Okay, so we know what the Jordan Compact is. It’s been four or five years now. What do you see as the main impacts of this experiment, this intervention? What went wrong and what went right with these five years of retrospective?

Alexander: Yeah. I mean, it’s had a mixed record. It’s been rightly the subject of subsequent research and critique. I tried to look again at it in my new book, The Wealth of Refugees, that’s just come out, where there’s a chapter, which has some critical retrospective reflection on what we’ve learned from the Jordan Compact. I think, what I tried to argue is that I think, politically, it’s had very strong elements of success. Economically, it’s had very significant weaknesses.

What do I mean by that? Well, politically, I mean, the big success is that it unlocked the right to work for Syrian refugees in a country which previously didn’t provide the right to work. As we know, that’s a very difficult thing to achieve, to open up the political space for refugees to access the right to work. Of course, there have been limitations on that. It wasn’t for all sectors of the economy. It was for areas like textiles, garments, construction, agriculture. It retained restrictions on high-skilled categories, for instance. It did lead to around 200,000 work permits being provided to Syrian refugees, which was the initial target. I see that as a massive success.

I’ve been back to Jordan and visited special economic zones and factories in the economic zones, and witnessed firsthand Syrian businesses managed by Syrian refugees operating in the economic zones, employing Syrian refugees and Jordanian nationals. I’ve spoken to Syrian refugees employed, talking very positively about their employment opportunities, what it means for them and their families, and seen in some detail the labor standards that are implemented in some of those factories, the minimum wage being made available, the opportunities that are available for annual leave.

There is clearly a positive effect on employment opportunity in the formal sector that’s coming from that. Gradually, it has expanded so that it’s not primarily about the economic zones, but it’s about employment opportunities outside the economic zones. Also, there’s some talk of a Jordan Compact 2.0, potentially; one that takes the learning and tries to think about not in special economic zones, but on a national scale, how more meaningful employment opportunities can be available to both refugees and Jordanians that help create a sustainable national economy.

Politically, unlocking the right to work is an achievement. Economically, there are elements of the Jordan Compact that are a failure. The idea that it would be very easy to get inward investment in manufacturing from companies around the world in Jordan was a little bit of a naive aspiration. Manufacturing companies generally want to cluster in the regions of the world where labor intensive manufacturing is going. That tends to be East Asia, Southeast Asia, it tends not to be the Middle East and Jordan.

Labor intensive manufacturing is also challenged by the realities of automation. Trying to get businesses to relocate to those economic zones, into Jordan, off the back of the Jordan Compact, proved very difficult. Some companies, subsidiaries of Walmart, the IKEA group, did invest in Jordan as a result of the Compact. For the most part, there was not that business investment.

There were also some areas that needed much more depth of due diligence in terms of the implementation to do with the areas that refugees frankly wanted to work in, to do with questions like minimum expenditure baskets, to define what meaningful work would look like for refugee populations. One of the areas that I think has been most challenging is the gender dimensions of the Jordan Compact, that a lot of it was targeting, for instance, Syrian female workers in the garments industry.

Subsequently, it’s been realized that many of them didn’t want jobs for themselves. They wanted employment opportunities for, in many cases, their eldest male children, or their male children, or family members. If the aspiration was to involve female workers, well, there weren’t the complimentary support services, like childcare, or transportation to enable that to happen. There was a lot on the implementation side that could have been done better with the right baseline studies, the right due diligence, the right consultation with refugees and the host communities. I think, economically and socio-economically, it has been limited in its success, and might have achieved more with a little bit more forethought and background research.

Kurtis: You mentioned the prospect of a Jordan Compact 2.0. Do you want to talk about that a bit?

Alexander: It’s very early. I don’t really know the content of that. Then, again, I think a lot of people look at me as a researcher involved in developing an initial idea and assume I’m on phone calls every day to the relevant governments and international organizations. That’s just not the case.

What I’ve heard from colleagues in Jordan is the mooting of an idea, but I don’t know what the content of that is, or where it’s likely to go. I think, what I have heard is threads of a conversation about saying, “Okay. Five years onward, a moment to recognize some successes, some failures, some key areas to learn, Jordan facing major challenges, not least in the context of COVID-19, continuing to host significant numbers of refugees.” We need to ensure that Jordan continues to be a willing host for refugees, not just now, but in the future. How do we take what we’ve learned and not give up on this aspiration of mutually beneficial, meaningful, dignified employment and socio-economic integration opportunities for refugees?

Kurtis: Okay. You went over some of the things that you felt went well, some of the things that you thought went less well. Are there particular critiques that you take most seriously and some that you take less seriously? Because I know, these things can get heated. A lot of people have very passionate, rightly passionate opinions. What are the critiques you see as most serious?

Alexander: Yeah. I mean, I spend a lot of time reflecting and engaging with a lot of the critiques and I take them very, very seriously. I take my responsibility as a researcher involved in the initial idea formation very seriously. I think there’s a real question about what constitutes meaningful work for refugees, what threshold we have to think about for employment opportunity to be dignified and meaningful. I think there’s different ways of looking at this. Is it simply giving opportunities to refugees so that they have the autonomy to have a broader set of options, and take them or leave them?

Certainly, I think there’s a case for that argument, given the very constant feedback I get from speaking to refugee families, “We just want to work, we just want to support ourselves and our communities.” I think outwardly, we need to try to think about what is meaningful and what is dignified and what thresholds we consider in that. I think, a further consideration I take very seriously is the gender dynamics that I mentioned, that when we think about livelihood opportunities for refugees, the interventions we adopt are gendered and there’s a need to keep in mind those different effects and consequences.

Kurtis: Is this more referring to – I read that there were fewer work permits given to women broadly in this Compact then, that’s made the main gendered critique?

Alexander: I mean, there’s additional critiques. There’s the categories of work and employment, there’s the support services, such as childcare availability. There’s that consultation process. I think there’s a variety of areas that are relevant: the type of work, the nature of work, what livelihoods need to look like, as well as simply the number counting of the quantity of work permits, which also have that skew in it.

Kurtis: Okay. One of the things that struck me reading Refuge was that this underlying principle of the Jordan Compact, refugee self-reliance. It isn’t that new. It was funny, reading some of the articles around it. It seemed like it was this brand-new thing, the future of refugee responses, but you and Paul Collier say similar models were used in, say, the 1920s in Greece after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. I think, you also went over African models in the 1980s with Akara and then in Central America towards the end of the Cold War. I guess, why the short memory around this?

Alexander: Yeah, it’s fascinating, the reinvention of the wheel, the short memory of international institutional debates. Refugee self-reliance is a century old in terms of even its institutional form. There’s been great historical work done by Claudena Skran, Evan Easton-Calabria, looking in depth at the 1920s. Ironically, given what happened in 2015-16, there’s a history in the 1920s in the interwar years of refugees from what is now contemporary Syria, fleeing to Greece, and being given large plots of land, supported by the International Labor Organization in order to be self-reliant and to achieve opportunities, the agricultural development that benefit refugees in the host community.

Even some of that language supported by the League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees resonates with what we see today. In my own archival research, I’ve looked at cases from the 1960s and 1970s, where the norm in East Africa, in countries like Tanzania and Uganda, was spontaneous self-settlement in rural communities, being given plots of land, and supported with development assistance, with the idea that that benefits refugees and host communities.

We see, for instance, examples of the language of self-sufficiency, the language of mutual benefit for refugees and hosts arising in UNHCR documents as early as the 1960s and the United Nations Development Programme, being a natural development partner of UNHCR. There were international conferences, as an idea called Refugee Aid and Development emerged in the 1980s. The International Conferences on Assistance to Refugees in Africa 1 and 2 of 1981 and 1984. The International Conference on Refugees in Central America, CEREFICA, in 1989 that ran until 1995, focusing on Central American countries in the aftermath of the Cold War.

Those conferences in the 1980s in Africa, focusing on Central America, had so many of the elements that we seem to think we’ve invented today, in the context of the Global Compact on refugees around refugee self-reliance. They’re old ideas that have been repackaged for a new generation. The Ugandan model, I think, is a great case of that. The Ugandan model has almost been discovered by the international community, after the 2015-16, so called refugee crisis, as the panacea that Uganda provides the right to work and freedom of movement.

Now, Uganda has been doing that since even before independence in 1962. Some of the architects of that model have been unlikely sources, like Idi Amin, who we commonly associate with the expulsion of the Uganda nations, who was actually building that self-reliance model as a way to support refugees from neighboring countries, given that he was reliant on people from Southern Sudan, as it was then. People from former Zaiya, people from Rwanda as the basis for his military leadership, basis of his political cabinet, given the opposition he faced from Buganda within Uganda. There’s a back history to this that, for whatever reason, is forgotten, reinvented. The tragedy is that we lose the lessons and insights that come from that historicization.

Kurtis: I guess, maybe moving on, because you did mention Uganda, Uganda is covered in your most recent book, The Wealth of Refugees, which is out now. On the book, so you get a big grant from the IKEA Foundation to study refugee responses a little more, I guess, systematically than you had in the past, or had been done in the past in several East African countries, Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia. This is the book project essentially.

With the book, I see you, and you can tell me if I’m on the mark or not, as, I guess, trying to get closer, and it’s not quite there, but trying to get closer to an ideal “randomized experiment.” Trying to get it, I guess, causal effects. Has actual randomization been discussed at all? For example, you have Somali refugees coming over the border, or today, Tigray refugees and randomly allocate them and their family to a particular camp over another? Or is this just completely out of the question for ethical reasons?

Alexander: Yeah. I mean, we’ve been able to do the pilot study in Uganda earlier on. We expanded that in the refugee economies program to these three countries in East Africa. We focus on those three countries, because they’re in the same region. Some of them are hosts populations of the same nationality. For instance, Somalis across all three countries, but they have very different regulatory frameworks.

Uganda, the right to work and freedom of movement. Kenya, an encampment policy and no right to work for refugees. Ethiopia, gradually moving from one of those extremes to the other. It provided an opportunity to do research that looks at the economic lives of refugees in those countries, including how their economic lives are shaped by those regulatory contexts, and to also engage in impact evaluation methods to assess some of the more innovative policy framework.

We look at contexts like the new Kalobeyei settlement in Kenya, which is or was intended to be an integrated settlement for both refugees and the host community with market-based opportunities. We look at, for instance, the Dolo Ado camps in southern Ethiopia, which have received significant private investment, and evaluate them.

The bulk of the methods is survey-based quantitative methods, deep qualitative research based on a variety of methods from participant observation to semi-structured interviews. We couple that with my broader interests in the politics and political context of that work. The search there is to find out what works.

Now, a social scientist, the gold standard of research, is based on experimental methods, intervention-based studies with an element of randomized control trial built in. I suppose your question is, how far have you gone with that randomization? Is there the scope that you can assign a particular intervention to a treatment group and not to a control group, and then see what works on that basis? Or are there practical and, indeed, ethical challenges for doing that?

Kurtis: I guess, has that type of research been shunned or disapproved of in the past because of these ethical concerns?

Alexander: I think, there’s an openness to doing it. I think more and more international organizations need an evidence-base for their work. They want to know what works. I think, there’s no axiomatic objection to that kind of work. It just has epically high barriers to entry. I think one of them is the intervention to proceed on a no-harm basis. The control group shouldn’t arbitrarily restrict access to entitlements from that control group in a way that denies people things they’re entitled to, or thereby does harm. That’s a real challenge working with vulnerable populations. That’s one of the reasons why we have done very little of that.

What we have done is tried to explore the use of natural experiments. For example, one of the things that was very interesting about the new Kalobeyei settlement in Kenya, established in 2016, was that it initially was intended to be to relocate refugees from the old Kakuma camps, an old humanitarian model with inclined food assistance to the new model. There was a reluctance for people to move, and there was a new humanitarian emergency in South Sudan. Ultimately, it powered new arrivals, post-2016 arrivals from South Sudan. Those new arrivals were allocated either to the new Kalobeyei settlement with its market-based model, or to the old humanitarian model before pre-existing Kakuma camps.

What we were able to do was have that element of randomization, based on the assumption that the decision to allocate to Kalobeyei or Kakuma was quasi-random. It was based on when they arrived, not where they came from, or why they arrived, or any other pre-existing characteristics. That enabled us, over a period of time, to follow the same population that had arrived in both contexts, and see against the baseline, what changed. Therefore, to be able to attribute the change in those trajectories to whether they were in Kalobeyei or Kakuma, whether they were in the new settlement model, integrated, market-based, or the old humanitarian model of refugee camps, etc.

That natural experiment model is something that others have adopted in this type of space, that doesn’t rely on changing the intervention, that creates the conditions for rigorous methods that have an element of quasi-randomization. That’s where we’ve gone. We’ve also done something that was based on randomization, but on a very small scale. For instance, collaboratively with the World Economic Forum, and UNHCR, and the Aliko Dangote Foundation, we ran what I understand to be one of the first, if not the first executive leadership courses for refugee entrepreneurs in a refugee camp.

We ran that in the Kakuma refugee camp. We had about nearly 300 applications. We selected the top 60. Using stratified random sampling, stratified to ensure balance across the camps, across gender, across nationality, we selected 30 to be involved in the course, and 30 as a control group, to try to assess the impact of the involvement in the course and the follow up mentorship scheme.

It’s important to be able to do things like that in an ethical way, because it gives us insight into whether what we’re doing works. Otherwise, it’s post-hoc. It can have different causal explanations. Correlation is not the same thing as causality. As we think about intervention-based studies with partners, ethics has to be at the forefront of what we consider. Equally, if we can achieve that ethically, and in a way where everyone benefits from the intervention, or receives benefits from being part of a control group, then it might be that that offers the robust evidence that creates a sense of let’s work on the basis of what works, rather than what we’ve always done.

Kurtis: Okay. I guess, in The Wealth of Refugees book, you talk a bit about how the UN Global Compact on refugees has increased the popularity of the self-reliance approach, extending the right to work. It’s also, you said, suffered from pretty poor implementation. This is the one of the things that struck me, if giving the right to work and economic inclusion, like you saw in Uganda, has all these benefits for both refugees and the host communities and the donor countries, why isn’t it more widely adopted? Why this huge disconnect between the success of the policy itself and then the lack of adoption more broadly?

Alexander: Yeah. I mean, I think the Global Compact on refugees has self-reliance at its core. Its pillars are self-reliance, plus the existing three durable solutions. The other three durable solutions, resettlement, repatriation, going home, local integration, are simply not available to the majority of the world’s refugees. For the most part, despite all of the other elements, the Global Compact is really all about trying to encourage self-reliance. That focus on trying to operationalize more development assistance that mutually benefits refugees in the host community is, I think, very welcome.

The challenge though is the politics and the practice. Politically, creating the right to work and other related socio-economic rights for refugees is extremely challenging. As you know, three of the chapters of the book are about that politics and how it unfolds specifically in Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia.

I mean, it’s worth highlighting that many of the countries around the world that do allow refugees the right to work and freedom of movement, Uganda, Turkey, Colombia, to some extent in each of those cases, are not perfect substantive democracies. They don’t have perfect human rights records. The politics that surrounds this is deeply ambiguous and extremely complex. Opening up those rights relies upon those governments and the elites in power being able to demonstrate benefits to their legitimacy, their access to resources, and their ability to channel those resources in support of their own citizens.

It relies upon, in more democratic countries like Kenya, the real challenge of having to take public opinion with them. For Kenya, that’s been extremely hard at a national level. I mean, recently, Kenya has announced a repeated threat to close the Kakuma camps and Dadaab, and it’s justified it based on a populist security narrative about the presence of Somali refugees. Now, in one region of Kenya, Turkana County in the northwest, where Kakuma and Kalobeyei are, the governor just batten on up and said, “Well, hang on. There are real benefits to us having refugees.” He said, “Turkana County has two resources, oil and refugees.” He’s had a background as a humanitarian worker. He’s seen the negative consequences to the host community of refugees going home and humanitarian aid community packing up. He said, “We need to all benefit.” He’s taken a different view from the rest of the Kenyan government.

The politics of this is something we shouldn’t be naive about. Host countries around the world are very often concerned about the development benefits to their own citizens, not necessarily about refugee rights, per se. Donor countries are also very often concerned with migration and migration management rather than refugee rights, per se. In a way, UNHCR is in a really challenged position of being between, and this is a crude generalization, but between donors interested in migration control and host countries interested in developmental benefits for their host communities.

What UNHCR needs to do is come up with a way in which it fulfills its mandate of protection, assistance, and solutions for refugees working with these political realities of where the donors are and resettlement countries, on the one hand. On the other hand, where the host countries are and where their interests lie. Turning that into self-reliance for refugees is very politically complex and challenging.

Now, on a practical level, one of the insights of the work we’ve done, which is in the book, is that self-reliance is hard to achieve, because even when we see innovative projects like Dollo Ado camps in Ethiopia, like Kalobeyei in Kenya, the risk is that they simply circulate a finite pot of aid money. They might do it through market-based mechanisms, but the pot is still coming from the aid community and it’s finite.

Household incomes remain low, sustainable sources of employment remain inadequate. The shift that has to happen is from a focus on the micro economy, to macro-economic growth within these border regions of self-reliance to be realistic. Self-reliance is defined by UNHCR’s the ability to meet your own needs independently of aid, whether it’s individually a household or community level. The threshold for achieving that is a really seriously high bar. To achieve that, you’ve got to build infrastructure, roads, electricity, inward investment from companies. You’ve got to build economies in remote, challenging borderlands, or unlock opportunities that are beneficial in urban areas and cities, that persuade governments that the economic gains to the host community is sufficient to justify the presence of refugees. Practically, self-reliance is a very hard thing to achieve.

Kurtis: Yeah. Yeah. This is good, because you mentioned both rural areas and urban areas in your answer here. One of the findings from this book I found interesting and a bit paradoxical was that you found rural areas were more welcoming to refugees than urban areas, which is counterintuitive, right? Because usually, cities are seen as these cosmopolitan, tolerant things and rural areas, are seen as a bit more xenophobic. What I guess, underlies this finding?

Alexander: I think, it’s really interesting to do something that hasn’t really been done, much which is to compare refugees’ economic lives in urban areas and in rural areas, like camps and settlements, and look at the difference it makes, as well as looking at the different profile of the populations within urban areas compared to camp and settlement contexts. We found a whole variety of differences. I mean, just on the outcomes level. I think, it’s worth highlighting that we found, generally refugees in cities earned more and were more likely to have high levels of employment. They have higher incomes, they’re more likely to be employed.

On the flip side, they weren’t necessarily happier in terms of subjective well-being, and they weren’t necessarily healthier. Indicators of food security weren’t necessarily any better. There were pros and cons to urban living and camp living. We also found that in many cases, the choice to relocate to cities was a strategic one, often taken by households to split their families and for one family member to perhaps go to a city and send money back to the household in the camp. There were also sometimes movements back from cities to camps and settlements based on a change in circumstances.

There’s a complex set of issues there. The one you focus on is really interesting. We look at questions of social cohesion. Under what conditions the host communities welcome refugees. It’s an area where I highlight some of that work in the book, not in massive detail. We’ve got more work coming on this, that fleshes out the research and the causal mechanisms. We found, for instance, asking questions about host community attitudes to refugees, that generally, host communities were more welcoming in the camp and settlement context.

Why was that? It was very often, I suspect, because the presence of the aid community provided economic opportunities that were otherwise scarce. We see that as well from my qualitative research that, in Turkana County, employment opportunities for the host community tend to come from employment with NGOs, international organizations. The humanitarian industry is bringing jobs to that context. In Ethiopia, in the Dollo Ado context, similarly, employment opportunities have been created by the presence of refugees in ways that are recognized.

Kurtis: Hence, what the governor of Turkana said about their resources being oil and refugees, right? Yeah.

Alexander: Exactly. It’s one of the few, scarce opportunities in these remote regions, and so it’s valued. Even for entrepreneurship in the host community, also, when we break down the population, we found that there were more positive attitudes in and around the camps from the host community members that had more interactions with refugees.

Kurtis: The contact theory. Yeah.

Alexander: Exactly. Contact theory. We were always testing contact theory. What does interaction and contact do for social cohesion? At least from the OLS regression findings, and we’ve done more to use instrumental variables to deal with questions of endogeneity and reverse causality, which I won’t bore you with. We found, from the regressions, a really strong correlation between contact and positive attitudes amongst the host communities. Related to that, the type of contact matters. It’s in economic areas that it needs the most positive outcomes. Employment and consumption matter.

Very often in those remote areas, if you’re an entrepreneur in the host community, refugees provide potential employees and potential customers and consumers. That type of interaction tends to lead to positive outcomes. Those are some of the interesting mechanisms. I think, what’s been fascinating to look at is those questions of social cohesion, and to look at what explains variation in host community attitudes towards refugees, across the countries, across the urban and rural contexts, but also disaggregating the profile of the host community members that have the most positive or most negative attitudes.

Kurtis: Yeah. Then another thing I found interesting was your chapter on urbanization in the book. An interesting thing that you point out is that, around the globe, a pretty sizable majority of refugees are urban refugees, right? They’re not in camps. They go to cities. The reverse is true in East Africa, where a very small proportion, very small, I think it was 16 percent in Nairobi, and then four something percent in Ethiopia, refugees choose to live in these three major cities, Nairobi, Kampala, and Addis over the rural camps.

This is, I think, despite you finding that these urban refugees make, I think, on average, it was 300 percent higher incomes than rural refugees. Right, this is crazy. It got me thinking about this 2017 report by the World Bank called African Cities. This report said basically, that housing in African cities is something like 55 percent more costly, relative to cities and other regions with comparable incomes. It said that African cities are about 20 percent more fragmented than other developing world cities, which increases transport costs. That these high costs mean that these cities are less integrated into global supply chains.

I guess, my question is, do you think the costliness and the fragmentation of African cities disproportionately leads to this exclusion of more vulnerable populations, like refugees, which can maybe help explain why we see way fewer choose to live in cities than in rural areas?

Alexander: Yeah. I think that’s a really important observation of one of the points in the book. I mean, we constantly have this this general narrative of the majority of the world’s refugees are now in cities in urban areas. It reflects wider trends in urbanization. Generally, on a global scale, that’s true. It leads people to say, “Well, why in your work, do you focus on camps, but we also focus on cities?” In East Africa, the majority, the overwhelming majority of registered refugees are in camps and settlements, not in cities.

Now, of course, those statistics may underestimate the number of refugees in cities who are not registered. We are looking at the registered refugee population. Those statistics you pointed out are UNHCR’s data on the distribution of registered refugees. Of course, it’s worth saying that that part of the story is the regulatory framework, that in some cases, e.g. Kenya, refugees are required by law to live in the designated areas. Choosing to move to Nairobi, can be done with permits, but is often done illicitly. Hence, that may have an effect on the choice, but also the data.

There’s an element of that. I think the other element that’s important to note is the gap between urban assistance and camp assistance. In each of those countries with very slight variation for very particular circumstances, refugees are giving up assistance by moving away from camps and settlements to urban areas. If there are limited opportunities, whether because of law, economics, or socio-cultural discrimination to become autonomous in a city, then there are reasons why many people might choose or feel compelled to remain in a camp context. That unless you have opportunities through your own networks, through remittances, through access to the informal economy, refugees’ urban economic lives can be a struggle.

We document for instance, the systematic gap that exists in socio-economic outcomes for refugees, compared to the proximal host community members, already in challenging neighborhoods of these major African capital cities.

Kurtis: Despite these refugees making, on average, 300 percent higher incomes in urban areas than the rural refugees, they are still much below what the host country native population is making. Okay.

Alexander: Which begs the interest – so urban refugees earn more, on average, than camp refugees. Urban refugees, on average, earn less than proximate host community members, the citizens of those cities. I suppose, part of it is a question about I mean, not only does income move when you move from a camp to a city in an upward direction, so to does cost of living, so too does the cost of rent, etc. I suppose also, what you highlight is the relative situation also presents itself, being relatively less well off than citizens we interact with on a daily basis.

Kurtis: Yeah. That keeping up with the Joneses mechanism could explain some of the lower levels of subjective well-being that you’re seeing.

Alexander: We don’t look at that. I mean, there’s evidence elsewhere that, yes, it’s not absolute income that matters. It’s relative income to those with whom you interact. It’s those horizontal inequalities that matter. There are hypotheses you could generate from that, but we haven’t looked at that.

Kurtis: Okay. A few things maybe. First, do you see a role maybe for cash transfers from organizations, like give directly here? Take Uganda, which you said, gives the most freedom to urban refugees, but the jobs of these refugees often don’t immediately at least cover the cost of living in Kampala. Refugees in Kampala are still making three times higher incomes there than in the rural areas in Uganda.

Presumably, they’re also probably learning more skills and establishing larger, higher quality networks in Kampala as well, both of which presumably give them access to better jobs in the future. If you were to provide a cash transfer to help cover some of the initial cost of living increases in the short-term, while the Kampala refugee is scaling up and forming these new networks to move to better employment in the long-term. Do you think such a scheme would maybe make sense and, I guess, could it be made sustainable and scalable is also the question?

Alexander: I think, we have a challenge where there is no adequate urban assistance model for refugees around the world, that UNHCR developed its very welcome urban refugee policy quite a long time ago now, but the implementation and operationalization of that has never quite reached fruition. How should refugees access assistance? Of course, there’s politics around urban assistance models.

Host governments are very often reluctant to create a pull factor for refugees to move to cities, and for assistance models to create that pull to cities. That translates into the way in which international organizations operate. Now, of course, there are urban programs, including livelihoods programs, vocational training programs, many NGOs, grassroots organizations provide even basic forms of assistance in cities. There’s not nearly as much coherence, or organization, or even investment in urban assistance programs as there is in camp-based humanitarian programs where the infrastructure is there. There’s a mismatch, which has consequences.

Now, does it need innovation in terms of the type of assistance model we adopt in camps? Yes, in a whole variety of ways. I mean, you mentioned cash. I think, we’ve done some work on cash assistance in the camp settlement context. We did an impact evaluation of the world food program’s gradual shift from in-kind food assistance, to a restricted model of food assistance called Bamba Chakula, get your food in Swahili. Bamba Chakula was a way of saying, here’s an SMS-based currency, redeemable by selected entrepreneurs, who were both refugee and host entrepreneurs, for Kenyan shillings. We distribute that Bamba Chakula via SMS to refugees. They can spend on a designated set of items in those retail shops to access food, increasing their choice, but also developing an infant industry model for protected refugee and host community food retailers.

They then shifted from that to beginning to roll out unrestricted cash assistance. What we found in the move from in-kind, to restricted, to unrestricted was generally what’s born out of the literature. Increased choice, greater resource efficiency is huge loss in terms of the resale of in-kind food assistance. You get back some of that inefficiency with cash assistance. We did some of our originally insights, highlighted some of the challenges of that in a camp context. One of them was around indebtedness.

That move from in the case of Kakuma-Kalobeyei, from in-kind assistance, food assistance to semi-restricted, to unrestricted, meant that at each stage, refugees were left with debt to particular retailers. The Bamba Chakula model had tied them to a particular food retailer, undermining their choice, because they didn’t have enough money to meet their food needs. They took food on credit, and then had to go back, sometimes handing over their SIM card that access their monthly entitlement to the retailer. Then when unrestricted cash arrived, they had debt that they had to pay off, meaning that the cash went straight in hand to their pre-existing retailer, undermining choice, undermining the putative efficiency gains that come from a cash assistance model.

When you’re vulnerable, potentially in debt, cash assistance needs to take into account those dynamics of indebtedness that can affect. Do I think cash assistance could work in urban areas? Yes. I think there’s lots of scope for innovative delivery mechanisms around digital delivery, also around potential use of micro-finance and micro-credit. That’s an area where evidence generation needs to be embedded in the innovations.

There’s other stuff in urban contexts that needs to be thought about innovatively, like the role of refugee-led organizations. We’ve documented literally dozens of refugee-led organizations in cities like Kampala, in cities like Nairobi, that have historically been locked out of humanitarian assistance models, locked out of international recognition, but provide key sources of support, training, access to livelihoods opportunities. The whole urban innovation model needs a significant amount of innovation.

Kurtis: Okay. Yeah, I know that cash transfer thing, just – I was reading your book, and then for some reason, I was looking over Raj Chetty’s Moving to Opportunity scheme here in the US, that’s being evaluated in various places. Then Mushfiq Mubarak’s seasonal migration work in Bangladesh, and there seem to be perhaps a similar opportunity. We could talk about this for a long time and I realize time is scarce and I have a couple more questions.

As I mentioned earlier, your books, I think, rightfully critical of the status quo in an international refugee policy, including the UNHCR, you mentioned the organization created for a post-World War II world that doesn’t really exist anymore. It lacks institutional clarity about its fundamental mission and it’s become reactive, rather than proactive. I guess, when and why did the UNHCR switch from proactive agenda setting and trying to facilitate political deals to end refugee crises to this more reactive humanitarian operations? I guess, given incumbents with monopoly status aren’t usually that amenable to institutional change, how do you get a big bureaucracy like UNHCR to embrace change?

Alexander: As I said at the outset, I think since Paul Collier and I wrote Refuge, the direction of travel, the UNHCR has been, from my perspective, a lot more positive. That things, like the Global Compact on refugees, the willingness to be open to critical engagement, to evidence, to involve other partners has grown. The agenda around self-reliance and development-based approaches is much stronger.

I think, one of the areas where I wanted to see more work is on political engagement and economic engagement, that politics and economics have a huge bearing on outcomes for refugees around the world. The legal side and the operational assistance side of UNHCR’s work have always been very strong, but they’re not the only things that matter.

Kurtis: You said, their employees are mostly lawyers and technocrat operations people, right?

Alexander: That was the majority of the staff, humanitarian workers or lawyers. I mean, the two biggest divisions in the organization historically have been division of international protection, the legal arm broadly, and the operational side, the delivery of humanitarian aid, mainly to refugee camps. If we want to unlock durable solutions, if we want to change how governments respond, we want to create the right to work, it’s a lot about politics and development economics. Gradually, they’ve started to now hire economists to think about the development piece. The politics is something I think they’re aware of, but still, there’s no equivalent professionalization of the political analysis and the political facilitation role.

Now, UNHCR has been very successful historically in creating inter-governmental facilitation, playing a leadership and a catalytic role. My late and brilliant colleague, Gil Osha, wrote extensively about that in thinking about the history of UNHCR as an organization. At moments like the Indochinese Comprehensive Plan of Action in 1989, the International Conference on refugees in Central America, UNHCR-led, it provided deals that were mutually beneficial to governments, but also made real inroads into providing protection and solutions for refugees.

We saw moments like that in the aftermath of the Second World War, when UNHCR, from a very small budget, small beginnings, established itself through the Hungarian refugee crisis in 1956, through gradually demonstrating that it could operate in the Cold War context, in regions of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It’s that political leadership and political engagement that’s been really strong.

Now, of course, that is more achievable at particular junctures in history. For example, a bipolar Cold War context, UNHCR could work very closely with the US and its allies. In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War in the 1990s, the US was the global hegemon, and in many cases, a benevolent hegemon, prepared to fund liberal international order.

Now, when we have wider distribution of power, the rise of China, a country that isn’t fully engaged with the refugee and humanitarian system, the rise of the bricks that sit on the periphery of that humanitarian system, when we see rising populist nationalism in Europe and North America, when we see transformation in the global economy, with manufacturing jobs being gutted in Europe and North America, there is a profound change in the politics of refugee protection, which sits embedded in those wider trends in geopolitics and the international political economy.

UNHCR has always been effective, insofar as it realizes the wider global political context that it is part of, and looks for opportunities and overcomes the constraints that come from that. I think, there’s a struggle for UNHCR to recognize the structural shifts and the implications they have for its work. We face a deeply constrained global environment with rising levels of displacement. The climate changes issue and its interaction with fragile and failed states will drive higher numbers of displacement.

The status quo ante of a generous, open Europe and North America, which I would fully support on a personal basis is unlikely to re-emerge in the way we would imagine it in the early 2000s, or the 1990s. I mean, shouldn’t romanticize those eras, because there were challenges then, but I think, we face a fundamentally different world order and UNHCR needs to recognize that. It’s as you say, it’s not an aberration that international organizations and UN agencies struggle to adapt to profound changes at a global structural level. It just needs to analyze them, engage with them, and not bury its head in the sand. I feel there’s progress there.

Kurtis: Just a couple more questions here. In your books and in your TED Talk, you talk about three status quo options for a lot of refugees. Right now, one is camps. The other is go to a city in a neighboring country. The other is risk your life trying to get to Europe or another haven. Then you present four new options that benefit everyone. They benefit refugees, host communities, host countries, and donors as well. One is enabling environments, the other is economic zones. Third is matching. Then a fourth is humanitarian visas. You go into each of the four.

CCI, we just published a paper that links charter cities as a concept to a few of these options, written by Sarah Doyle. When you laid out those four options, I paused, I saw, I guess, a potential option that wasn’t really delved into as a combination of two of these. I guess, this comes back to the setup of the Jordan Compact. I guess, have you thought about combining the economic zones piece of that with the matching piece?

There are some, I think 5,400 special economic zones around the globe. A lot are just being built now, or are set to be built soon. We’ve talked to some of these and, invariably, one of the biggest problems for these guys, for these new zones, is attracting an initial labor pool. These zones, they have jobs available and aggressively want to fill them. Refugees have labor and skills and aggressively want to work. Obviously, there are frictions involved in making those matches, but should we think about a matching system at the level of the economic zone, instead of with matching at the national or regional level with government?

I guess I bring this up, because a lot of these zones actually have a lot more liberalized immigration rules than the country in which they’re located.

Alexander: Yeah. I mean, I suppose there’s a lot of opportunity to connect a vision for self-reliance, and more dignified opportunities for refugees in the first countries of asylum, with global mobility opportunities. In many cases, they should go together, right? We want to move beyond camps and create settlements that create more dignified opportunities to live, to work, to access education.

Equally, given what we know about the protracted nature of conflicting countries of origin, we don’t necessarily want to insist that people stay even in those better settlements for 10, 20, 25 years. At some point, we want people to move on with their lives and have meaningful participation in a political community, meaningful membership of a society, and the ability to plan for their futures. That means that, at the moment, we have resettlement as one option for that.

Now, resettlement is available to less than two percent of the world’s refugees. At certain points, it’s been less than one percent. It means that we need to be imaginative about what that resettlement looks like. Now, this idea of alternative pathways has been urged of saying, well, labor migration visas, family reunification visas, education visas, whatever it may be, is an opportunity.

I think that labor migration pathway is a really exciting one. Organizations like Talent Beyond Boundaries are starting to do things, even in the context of COVID-19. Like labor migration opportunities for refugee health workers from the Middle East to come to Europe. I think, that’s tremendously exciting.

I think, having a model of self-reliance that connects to mobility opportunities that are politically sustainable, that are mutually beneficial for refugees, their families, their communities, and for receiving countries, receiving communities, and companies, employers is really desirable. Where I agree with you is the self-reliance in radically rethought settlements and urban assistance models connected to greater global mobility, is a really exciting way forward. I’d welcome the connection of those two.

I think, the idea that it goes directly to special economic zones is not necessarily to be fixated on that. As I said, my goal in thinking about Jordan was never to – for the sake of it, push back special economic zones. It was just that that was the context specific opportunity, and was an innovative way of thinking about incentivizing job opportunities that might not otherwise be available through the market.

Now, if meaningful, dignified work opportunities can be created in particular parts of the world, and refugees have a variety of options to select from, and it improves everybody’s welfare compared to the status quo, then that certainly might be worth thinking through.

Kurtis: Okay. I guess, last question is more just a high-level, just what’s your next project? What are you working on now? When can we expect to read or hear about it?

Alexander: I think, one of the things that’s really troubled me for quite a long time is the way we do work as refugee researchers. I’m a white male European sitting in the University of Oxford. I came to this area, because I was deeply inspired by working with refugees as a 19-year-old and inspired by the skills, the talents, the capacities to contribute. As a researcher, I feel that I and, by extension, my colleagues, need to practice a bit more what we preach.

What we’ve tried to do in all of this research, and much of the research on which the book is based, is use participatory research methods to work with communities, to train refugees, and host community members as research assistants, as enumerators, in some cases to translate our research findings into other languages. In one case, we translate it to report into Somali and then disseminate it back to the communities.

I want to take that to a different level. One of the things I’m doing together with colleagues, is trying to work on a pilot model for a refugee-led research hub, based in Nairobi, in which we build the capacity of aspiring refugee researchers, aspiring social scientists, to lead research, to be involved in research design, to be involved in co-design, to be involved in publication, co-publication, and play a leading role, so that we can match the experiences of displaced people with high-quality research training, and enable the leadership and the voices to come from people other than me.

Kurtis: Yeah. Well, with that, I think that’s a great way to end. Alexander Betts, that’s all the questions I had. Thanks again for coming on the podcast. That was a great discussion. Appreciate it.

Alexander: Thanks, Kurtis.

Mark: Thank you for listening to The Charter Cities Podcast. For more information about this episode and our guest, to subscribe to the show, or to connect with the Charter Cities Institute, please visit Follow us on social media, on Twitter, and Charter Cities Institute on Facebook. I’m your host, Mark Lutter, and thank you for listening to The Charter Cities Podcast.

Follow & subscribe for updates.