Despite having made progress on raising income levels and leveraging technology to create opportunity, humanity now faces one of its greatest crises. Forced displacement and involuntary migration, currently impacts more than 1 billion people around the world and the numbers keep growing. The recent events in Texas and Florida as well as Burma illuminate the problem.
Refugees are created every day, every minute, as a result of violence and conflict, climate change, environmental degradation and natural disasters, and regional economic inequality or collapse. As a result, millions are forced to flee their homes every year. While some find temporary accommodation locally, most cross national borders and find themselves in refugee camps, none of which are adequate and none are meant to be permanent. All of these individuals share a basic human desire to build a safe and prosperous life for their families. None will succeed if they become permanent refugees.
These human migration events are building unsustainable pressure on social, political, and physical systems, putting strain on an already aging global infrastructure and forcing individuals to relocate. Inequalities in wealth distribution exacerbated by a global race to the top by the developed world leaves us all to wrestle with the question of who will shoulder the responsibility for those left behind. National boundaries and identities are being pressured, sometimes to the breaking point.
Diverse events like the conflicts in Syria, Burma and El Salvador and droughts in India contribute to a growing population of displaced. More than 6 million people have been forced to relocate over the last 24 months. As the impacts of climate change grow, so will the number of climate refugees. Combined, the United States and Europe spend more than $15 billion annually to resettle asylum seekers, yet demand far outstrips the supply of aid and charity and those dollars have done little to restore the rights and dignity of these displaced millions.
Systems currently in place are stuck in the traditional mindset of providing handouts, categorizing refugees as a drain on local economies and resources. The current approach results in the creation of inadvertent cycles of dependency. A new paradigm is required to manage the challenge.
Meeting the needs of involuntary migrants requires novel approaches. Displaced peoples are often highly educated and have financial resources. More often than not, they do seek to return home, cognizant that they are viewed as a burden on their host communities and countries. The day to day life of a refugee is filled with permanent uncertainty and degrading circumstances is their true reality.
The refugee crises also provide an opportunity, probably the greatest single market event in the history of mankind. The same game-changing approaches used in traditional business, of understanding the target market and producing goods and services at scale that are compelling and priced appropriately, can and will be successful levers to transform the plight of these millions.
Almost every day a new innovative technology to reach consumers appears on the global market. That same innovation can be applied to the refugee crises across the four stages of their journey: at home as the crisis is unfolding; on the move to a known or unknown destination; during transition at a temporary camp; and finally during re-settlement: either back home or in a country.
The private sector can fill that void, serving these markets while also generating profits and improving lives. The refugee crisis is an opportunity of epic proportions – an opportunity to innovate across a range of industries. Given the lack of adequate government resources and growing anti-refugee government policies, leaders in the refugee movement are turning to private enterprise, hoping for innovative solutions to the vast human swell of displaced humanity.
Much more needs to be done. This week also marks the beginning of climate week and the opening of the UN General Assembly. Corporations and startups will swarm New York, hawking their technologies to open for business governments to solve dozens of other global business needs. With the refugee crisis exponential growth, let’s hope some of these technology innovators will turn their minds to a growing consumer base, one that desperately needs our help.
Rogers is president of Earth Day Network. Kane is a senior Lecturer in Technological Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Strategic Management Group and also in the Global Economics and Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management.