Refugee camps and what enterprises can learn from them

Refugee camps are microcosms which develop internal dynamics as well as external relationships. Depending on the degree of intervention by authorities which control the surrounding area, they can be highly autonomous with own norms, rules and with limited enforcement of local law. The result is often a fertile environment where accelerated entrepreneurship rich on creativity and pragmatism fosters. During my visits to selected refugee camps common patterns and new lenses emerged through which these communities can be viewed and discovered.

When hearing of refugee camps, whether in conversations or in media, we tend to think of a passive group of individuals almost entirely dependent on the outside for any form of assistance. We naturally sympathise with the many who endure sometime unimaginable hardship while hoping for a better future. However a closer look into refugee camps reveals a potentially unexpected and even fascinating inner life from which we on the outside could and perhaps should learn.

In the past few years I have visited four quite distinct camps, the Zaatari camp (2013) in northern Jordan only ten miles from the Syrian border which is still home to almost one hundred thousand mainly Syrian refugees and now Jordan’s fourth largest city, the Chatsworth camp in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province (2015) which at the time provided refuge from xenophobic attacks to hundreds of foreigners from within the region, the camp outside the French port city of Calais also known as the Jungle (2016) which at peak was inhabited by about six thousand mostly Africans and Asians and finally the Sahrawi Smara refugee camp (2017) which is part of a network of Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria’s remote desert region established more than forty years ago.

The incubator

Refugee camps are unique structures as they differ in a number of ways from other established social structures from commercial organisations through communities, associations to clubs or family units. Broadly there are four key distinguishing and re-emerging internal factors and one external variable:

  • Inhabitants learn to operate in a new and highly fluid as well as volatile environment within the camp and beyond in an unfamiliar country. For instance, most of the refugees in Calais have no previous experience of living in France.
  • Inhabitants face and address almost inevitably unfamiliar issues. These can range from fixing a broken tent to organising medicine for an ill family member.
  • Inhabitants are mainly transient and the vast majority of inhabitants consider their stay merely as an interim solution. The short time horizon is likely to increase individual risk tolerance and appetite.
  • Inhabitants represent a highly diverse amalgamation of communities across various demographic dimensions.
  • Low level of regulation of camps. In the organically grown camps in Chatsworth and Calais for instance law enforcement within the community is essentially non-existent. Police presence in both camps is limited to the outside parameter and not policing within the camp (external).

These factors are creating unique environments which are ideal innovation platforms full of raw creativity, entrepreneurship and competitiveness. The Jungle with its makeshift water supplies, shower facilities, muscle powered mobile battery charging facilities, bike repair workshops, convenience stores, restaurants, tea shops, even art exhibitions and places of worship is an excellent example of most basic enterprises, unregulated and within a confined physical space. It is something that is almost impossible to observe anywhere else and if at all can only be found in the world’s least developed regions.

The autonomous organism

Services within camps typically develop organically and become increasingly sophisticated as demand increases and diversifies over time. These services are supplied by inhabitants in resource effective ways while pushing regulatory boundaries e.g. unregistered and untaxed businesses, non-compliance with existing local health and safety regulations. That results in low barriers to entry allowing entrepreneurs to start businesses with minimal investment and with ongoing low overhead costs. Combined with the lack of central planning and regulation within camps – this applies less to the Zaatari camp – this enables services within the camp to evolve and be adapted as the situation of the camp and its inhabitants change. For instance charities start to supply certain services, a large group of inhabitants leaves the camp due to new opportunities or parts of the camp are flooded.

Outside relationships

Despite its unstructured, unplanned, unregulated and diverse nature, interestingly refugee camps tend to be perceived from the outside as homogeneous entities. Like any organisation they project an image which determines which and how external relationships with for instance local residents, authorities, NGOs (non-government organisations), charities, police and security services are developing. Here few examples. Compared with those living in the Calais camp, key NGOs are heavily involved in the Zaatari camp. Those taking refuge in the Chatsworth camp experience a high degree of sympathy and support from local communities in the Durban suburbs. The Jordanian and Algerian authorities retain a relatively high degree of control over activities inside the respective camps on their territories whilst working together with various multinational agencies such as Oxfam, UNHCR or Germany’s Technisches Hilfswerk. There is collaboration with banks, too, for instance allowing refugees to set up accounts and access funds using biometric data.

Of course, camps do not run own public relations campaigns and the ability to consciously end centrally improving their image is very limited. Rather the general impression camps present to the public is a result of a variety of impacting factors which in turn shape external relations. In this context, individually and collectively, inhabitants maximise the benefit from outside interactions while pushing back external restrictions and controls.

Colourful baggage

Camps bring together a remarkable mix of people who are not only of different ethnic, cultural, religious and social backgrounds but also equipped with different skill sets and professional experiences. In the Zaatari camp for instance Christian business men from the urban north western parts of Syria are likely to live side by side with Sunni labourers from the eastern desert regions. That blending of individuals creates a unique culture with the ability to unite potentially conflicting groups under a set of clear and simple common goals. Camps quickly develop own labour markets where capabilities, competencies and skills are traded before being deployed by an entrepreneurial class. Mostly men – women are exceptions – with strong business drive who typically owned or managed enterprises previously.

But how can we learn from it?

Current trends in management, sociology, politics and other domains focus on increasing agility, responsiveness and transparency. At the same time enterprises aim at reinventing their business models while simultaneously disrupt the own and often other industries. In light of that, it may be worthwhile to take a look at the inner lives of refugee camps. Provided an open mind, some of the observations may lead to reconsidering established ways in which we innovate and to designing entirely new and unorthodox zones where ideas and human potential can thrive with these features:

  • Deregulation – allow teams to address issues by exploring solutions unrestricted as the benefit of the solution may outweigh the cost of eliminating or adjusting these restrictions.
  • New issues – allow teams to address issues which at first sight may appear to be outside their designated area of competence as it enables the application of solutions from other domains.
  • Conflict teams – bring together individuals within teams who historically weren’t working well together as the new environment and shared experience may show positive impact on attitudes and behaviours.
  • Time horizon – time-box the zone to increase risk taking by teams as this is may drive willingness to experiment beyond what would be otherwise acceptable to the individuals.

If you read this from the comfort of an air-conditioned office in any of the world’s metropolises, you may be forgiven for not recognising immediately the connection between refugee camps and the way you, the people around you and the organisations and structures you are part of work. However recreating some of the conditions may help enterprises to innovate, experiment and transform.