Basic Needs for Refugees: Food, Water, Clothing, Shelter… and Cell Phones?

True or false: your human rights, as defined by the international system, include being able to WhatsApp your cousin in Mogadishu from your house in Marsabit? If you selected ‘true’, you are in luck: in 2016, the UN officially recognized access to the Internet as a human right, and this right should apply to refugees as well. Digital needs, whether in identification, cell phone use, or internet access, are as critical to refugees’ safety and security as food, shelter, and water. The private sector can and should engage in these areas, as they are mutually beneficial. Companies can access new, large markets while refugees can gain new sources of employment, better access to services, and more connections with friends and family around the world.

Digital documentation and identification technologies can accelerate refugees’ access to crucial products and services, as well as their ability to operate in the economy. Documentation for refugees and access to SIM cards are extrinsically linked in most countries – mobile network operators (MNOs) increasingly require customers to show IDs that meet ‘Know Your Customer’ (KYC) requirements to secure mobile access. However, refugees around the world face delays in the issuance of identification documents that meet these requirements. In the absence of timely, clear ID issuance processes for refugees, private sector investment in innovative biometric and identity verification technologies could allow refugees easier and quicker access to documentation they need to access SIM cards and mobile money, which are fundamental not only to connectivity, but also to financial stability. For example, digital fingerprinting and iris scanning are two emerging identification verification technologies already in use in some refugee-hosting contexts like Jordan, Kenya, and Uganda. These technologies allow refugees to be registered into aid systems faster than traditional mechanisms like ink fingerprinting and also make food distribution and purchasing more convenient and secure.

However, these technologies come with their own unique ethical qualms and must be accompanied with strong data and privacy protections, perhaps through blockchain technology. Ultimately, although fingerprints, iris scans, and even UNHCR-issued IDs do not currently meet KYC requirements, central banks can relax these conditions so refugees can access the mobile and financial services they need. Iraq and Haiti have already adopted modified requirements by introducing a tiered KYC system with transaction limits that are successively increased as refugees provide additional personal information. Working within refugees’ constraints around documentation is both the right thing to do and advantageous for business, opening up entirely new markets for MNOs and banks.

Once refugees have access to their IDs and thus to SIM cards, their second and simultaneous digital need is simple: cell phones. These devices open up a world of possibility: refugees can stay in touch with family and friends, stay up-to-date on developments in their host countries and countries of origin, stay abreast of and tap into  work and education opportunities, and even access energy. Data from refugee-hosting contexts in East Africa and the Middle East are promising, as mobile phone ownership is relatively high. However, most people own basic phones and feature phones, with no or limited access to the Internet, as opposed to smartphones. This could be due, in part, to the high cost of handsets relative to income – for example, in sub-Saharan Africa, an entry level smartphone costs on average nearly 63% of monthly income. Previous research suggests that a smartphone affordable to the mass market in the region would cost $20, and there are several efforts by major MNOs and phone manufacturers to sell phones that are close to, but do not yet match, this price point.

Although not intrinsically digital, energy access has a clear link to mobile phone use: refugees report their main energy need is charging their cell phones, to the extent that charging stations are now integrated into humanitarian response, as well as longer-term development work. However, in some refugee-hosting areas, refugees lack energy access in their homes and may not be able to afford going to a for-profit charging station. The private sector, particularly cell phone and portable battery manufacturers, can learn from the renewable energy sector’s experiences in refugee-hosting contexts to create affordable mobile phone solutions that address barriers to meaningful interaction with the digital world. For example, solar home systems remain out of reach for many refugee households in East Africa because of the need for an upfront deposit. However, in places like Dadaab and Kakuma, with up to 26 days of sunshine in a month, could a lease-to-own, pay-as-you-go model for smartphones or solar-charged battery packs work? Philanthropic organizations and donor governments can and should provide patient capital and convening platforms to allow private sector actors to test different methods for product-market fit, payment compliance, and last-mile sales and delivery in different refugee-hosting areas.

With a SIM card and (smart)phone in hand, and hopefully an energy source to keep it charged, refugees can access mobile data to get online. However, mobile data may not be easy to access in practice. First, data can come at a prohibitive price—1GB of data costs an average of 9% of monthly income in Africa—especially in contexts where most people earn less than $2 per day and already made significant upfront investment in buying their phones. Secondly, 3G and 4G mobile network coverage that allows people to access the internet may not be available in all refugee-hosting areas, especially those that are remote and removed from major economic centers.

Amidst these seemingly intractable problems, there is good news: there are actors already employing innovative models to address issues around mobile data. On the data front, Amp Global rewards users for engaging with content in their app with ad-supported mobile data rewards. On the connectivity side, Vanu works with MNOs to make connecting currently off-grid markets profitable. UNHCR even expressed optimism about this work, noting that competition in the sector could make it more affordable to expand a cellular network to a remote, refugee-hosting area. Additionally, entities like the Universal Service Fund under the Communications Authority of Kenya have the mandate to expand connectivity to rural, remote areas typically considered ‘unprofitable’ by MNOs. Interventions deployed to support refugees to get online and have better connectivity may catalyze the ‘curb cut effect’ – a phenomenon when initiatives designed to affect and benefit marginalized groups end up benefiting all of society – so no one is left behind.

Private sector efforts to create products for refugee markets is the ultimate example of ‘doing well while doing good.’ Refugees have a clear set of digital needs, ranging from documentation and registration to phones and mobile data. However, market frictions and inefficiencies mean that many refugees will spend years waiting and saving to access products and services they need. This is a clear gap that private sector efforts—innovating around identity technology, venturing to produce a low-cost smartphone, creating PAYG mechanisms for digital technologies, and enhancing connectivity in refugee markets—can and should fill, with new customer segments for businesses and access to life-changing goods and services for refugees as the ultimate win for both groups.

By Liviya David, Business Development & Research Analyst, Botho Emerging Markets Group

This article was originally published by Botho Emerging Markets Group here.



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