Corporate Leadership Amidst the Global Refugee Crisis

Sixty-five million people uprooted from their homes. Twenty-one million refugees scattered across borders. Families capsizing at sea in search of sanctuary. A toddler face down on a beach; a child’s face covered in blood and debris. These are but a few haunting snapshots of the global refugee crisis unfolding before our eyes.

Earlier this week, world leaders gathered at the United Nations to take action. So did 51 U.S. firms in a display of true corporate leadership because, simply put, a crisis of this scale requires all hands on deck --governments, foundations, international organizations, and, yes, the private sector.

To be sure, governments must lead the response to the refugee crisis from diplomacy to end conflicts to humanitarian aid to treat the dire symptoms. The United States has played a key leadership role in this regard. Following a sustained campaign by the Obama Administration to rally nations to step up their efforts in response to the largest mass displacement crisis since the Second World War, on September 20th, President Obama joined UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, as well as leaders from Canada, Ethiopia, Germany, Jordan, Mexico, and Sweden, in co-hosting a Leaders’ Summit on Refugees at the United Nations.

Some 50 countries and international organizations participated in the Summit and announced a host of concrete and consequential commitments. These included increasing their humanitarian contributions to international organizations by $4.5 billion over 2015 levels; doubling the number of refugees they resettled or afforded other legal channels of admission in 2016; and enhancing access to education for one million refugee children globally and access to lawful work for one million refugees globally.

While such sovereign initiative is necessary, it is insufficient. That is why the President issued a Call to Action in June, asking U.S. firms to mobilize in response to the refugee crisis. The business case for the Call to Action was clear. First, given that the average protracted refugee situation is 26 years, economic integration is key to a sustainable and long-term response whereby refugees can become contributing members of their host economies. Second, responding to humanitarian crises requires solutions and services that the private sector is often able to devise and deploy more deftly than governments or international organizations. Lastly, tapping the skills and talents of refugees can yield real returns for the private sector and avert, as one refugee businessmen put it to me, “brain waste” on a global scale.

As Special Representative for Commercial and Business Affairs at the Department of State, my colleagues and I in the U.S. government engaged and worked closely with many U.S. firms as they weighed their response to the Call to Action. While many were keen to engage for social impact reasons or because they saw themselves as “supporting talent not refugees,” others initially saw no clear role that they could present to their C Suite executives. Yet through sustained engagement, sharing of best practices, and the establishment of a public-private partnership through which companies could learn what their peers were doing and spark their own creativity, companies from across the American economy began to embrace this cause as their own.

This week, 51 U.S. firms spanning Fortune 500 firms, tech companies, and SMEs answered the President’s Call to Action and demonstrated American corporate leadership on the global stage. They committed to investing, donating, or raising more than $650 million that will provide support for over 6.3 million refugees across more than 20 countries; education opportunities for more than 80,000 refugees, including through digital content, mentorship, and classroom support; employment opportunities for more than 220,000 refugees, including through mentorship, training, and job placements; and greater financial inclusion and economic integration for 4 million refugees.

Importantly, the commitments they announced reflect an approach not driven by giving charity but by tapping core services and products to generate a social or economic return. Figure 8 Investment Strategies pledged to recruit, hire, and train refugees in the financial analysis sectors and LinkedIn will develop a customized platform to match refugees who are looking for work with employers interested in hiring them. Pearson has pledged to extend its partnership, Every Child Learning, doubling their initial investment of $2.2 million to work with partners to develop educational solutions and programs for Syrian refugees and vulnerable Jordanian children, and HP has pledged to establish six “Learning Studios” in Lebanon and Jordan that will offer refugee students access to the latest education technology. Underscoring the entrepreneurial talent of many refugees, George Soros announced that he will invest $500 million in start-ups, established companies, and social impact initiatives, including companies founded by refugees.

Indeed, the defining feature of the above private sector commitments is to not just narrowly view refugees as people in need but to also more broadly focus on their potential contribution. When one Sudanese refugee I met was resettled in the United States, a benefactor circulated her resume to serve as a nanny. Yet one employer saw something else. Looking past her lack of a U.S. degree, accent, and the circumstances of her arrival, the employer saw a qualified and motivated financial analyst with hard work experience who she hired after an apprenticeship and rigorous selection process. Her first day on the job was World Refugee Day.

Preceding the Leaders’ Summit, President Obama met with a number of the U.S. companies above to thank them for similarly lifting their gaze and for their leadership. Yet he also noted at the Summit that a great deal of work remains to be done by governments and the private sector alike. That work begins with follow-through on the commitments announced this week. It must, however, also extend to more companies stepping forward. We remain ready partners to creatively explore the realm of possibility for a singular reason: people’s lives and livelihoods turn on more such public-private partnerships just waiting to be built.

About the Author: Ziad Haider serves as the Special Representative for Commercial and Business Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

Editor's Note: This entry originally appeared on

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President Barack Obama speaks during the Leaders Summit on Refugees during the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters, Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2016.
Posted by Ziad Haider
September 28, 2016


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