EXCLUSIVE TO NEWSWEEK MIDDLE EAST
By Hala Fadel
Technology can and must address the tremendous challenges posed by the worst refugee crisis in recent history
Some problems are so big, you don’t even know where to start. The refugee crisis is a problem of this magnitude. With the refugee population reaching around 20 million, governments are failing to address the atrocities and provide for their basic needs: survival, shelter, food, clothing, energy, healthcare and education.
With refugees flowing in by the hundreds to my home country Lebanon and with the crisis, described as the worst in recent history, deteriorating further, I felt overwhelmed and useless. By helping a few, I would not be alleviating the burden of millions of others.
Helplessness unexpectedly gave way to hope when I saw a gathering of refugees around a smartphone charging station. Rami, a twenty-year-old Syrian refugee, was charging his phone to help his sister study calculus on an app he had developed himself. Around the same time, the innovation and entrepreneurship organization that I chair, the MIT Enterprise Forum of the Pan Arab region, was closing the 9th edition of the Arab Startup Competition. It received a significant number of applications, either from refugees or about tech-driven solutions for the refugee crisis. That’s when I realized that technological innovation could be used to help refugees.
The applications have been truly inspirational: One applicant, Louay, developed a proprietary filter that purifies water into drinkable water. Louay, an engineer, had to leave his home city of Aleppo where he was working on something similar. He did not realize the scale of the problem he was trying to solve until he grasped how scarce water is as a resource for refugees. Yasser, an applicant to the competition led by Jusoor, an NGO of Syrian expatriates supporting the country’s development, created an employment app for refugees. Through his app, refugees share their skills on an online portal and people in host countries can tap into these skills for temporary work. This helps with employment law issues refugees face in most host countries. Marketing the app to increase its usage for maximum effectiveness is his challenge now.
Louay and Yasser are just two examples amongst many others. Refugees are more connected and more educated than what is generally perceived by the public. First, Smartphone penetration among refugees is very high and used widely and regularly by all age groups. According to the UNHCR, smartphone penetration stands at 86% and internet access is at a similar level.
In addition, many of the refugees are highly educated; it is not rare to find doctors, teachers and programmers. Whilst they have been stripped of their homes, they carry their spirit with them and many would love to feel productive again and be mentally engaged to help their community.
Finally, the refugee population is very young, with the average age being around 30. I truly believe these three factors – technology, education and youth – can be combined to solve the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II and form the building blocks towards finding long-term scalable solutions.
What if a smartphone can provide the gateway to the most acute problems faced by refugees such as education, healthcare, energy, unemployment, water and safety? If you think about it, all of our basic needs are increasingly relying on technology: education is shifting online, healthcare information and diagnostic are accessible through a smartphone, energy is hugely tech driven.
At present, there are some wonderful initiatives combining technology and refugees for positive solutions such as Techfugees led by Mike Butcher. The MIT Enterprise Forum Pan Arab Innovate for Refugees competition aims to put global energy and goodwill at work to propose technological solutions to this crisis, whilst including refugees themselves.
These solutions can come from any entrepreneur around the world, whether a refugee or otherwise. The competition welcomes all ideas that uses technology to reduce the hardships faced by refugees. I have seen first hand the potential of creativity from social entrepreneurs as they address community problems in the Arab World.
It seems to be a modern pattern: governments fail in the face of big problems and civil society and private initiatives fill the gap. It is all of our responsibility to collectively find solutions. The MIT Enterprise Forum’s Pan Arab Innovate for Refugee competition wants to encourage people to think outside the box and find creative solutions towards the refugee crisis.
I was deeply touched and somehow angered when sitting with Ali, a refugee from Yemen, who said that “the only real solution is political.” Right now, the political landscape globally may be changing for the better or for the worst. And whilst Ali may be right, what we realized together as the conversation unfolded was that increasingly, it is the common man, non-profit organizations and private donors who will find real solutions. Technology has empowered people to take responsibility for the problems that affect the community. It has given a new and broader meaning to democracy: empowering the individual and democratizing the solutions by making them available and affordable to all.
We can no longer rely on politics to fix the crisis. It is time for us to do our part and crack the crisis.