Neoliberal Refugees?

Blair Sackett, University of Pennsylvania

Published on: March 19, 2021

Photo provided by author. A small storefront selling household items.

“Think of refugees as economic agents!” Abdul rallies, eyes wide with enthusiasm.

Abdul, a North African senior manager in his late 40s, is standing in front of 100 humanitarian workers in Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya. Squeezed shoulder to shoulder in the shiny new staff cafeteria, the workers are enthralled, leaning forward and listening intently. Laying out the organizational vision for the coming years, Hamza, Abdul’s colleague, urges, “We want a water business run by refugees, with refugees buying water.” Rather than basic sanitation assistance, refugees need to engage with “the private sector” to achieve “self-reliance.” To applause, Abdul expounds neoliberal thinking to the room of humanitarian workers: “We are changing the process of doing business. We need to do things differently—more efficiently!”

While neoliberal policies and thinking—characterized by downsizing and privatizing government services and privileging business and the free market—have swept the globe in recent decades, their encroachment into the humanitarian sector is relatively new and demands urgent attention. Beginning in the 1970s with U.S. President Jimmy Carter, and continuing with leaders like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who advocated for reduced taxes, deregulation of business, and an ideology of “empowerment” for the poor, neoliberal policies spread globally following the end of the Cold War. In the Global South, and particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, they were implemented through Structural Adjustment Policies by the IMF and the World Bank.

And as data from my ethnographic research in Kenya indicates, neoliberal ideals are taking root even in the unlikely context of a refugee camp. As shown in the excerpt above, Abdul and his colleagues in senior management want to privatize industry and development in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya—home to approximately 190,000 refugees, the majority of whom are fleeing violence and insecurity from South Sudan, Somalia and Sudan—and engage refugee labor in order to cut costs and increase efficiency.

These trends within humanitarian organizations both locally and globally illustrate a key paradox. The “free market” is built on rights to property, employment, and market access. Yet, the refugee camp setting is a unique context. Refugees in Kenya, like many countries, are legally obligated to reside in refugee camps in remote and marginalized areas. Refugees are denied a work permit, which is necessary for formal employment. Without freedom of movement and employment, they are limited in their ability to access the free market.

As the number of displaced people in the world continues to grow—surpassing 79 million in 2019, the situation of refugees, particularly those in the Global South, is of growing importance. Refugee crises are increasingly protracted, and resources stretched thin. Yet in response, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and NGOs—alongside workers like Abdul—have called for less humanitarian presence and assistance, instead advocating for service provision by market-based refugee businesses.

This trend within the UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations is in part linked to significant budget cuts that hinder the ability of humanitarian workers to keep lifesaving and sustaining services going. For Abdul and his colleagues in Kakuma, this meant envisioning a smaller humanitarian footprint: less staff and less aid. Agencies have laid off staff (particularly refugee staff employed by agencies for small monthly stipends) and cut monthly food rations by as much as half. They implemented new fees ($30 a year) to attend high school, which aid workers refer to as “community contributions.” While neoliberal ideology helped Abdul and his colleagues reconcile a structurally difficult situation, refugees face reduced capital. Rather than turning a profit, most refugees are cutting a loss.

But while this neoliberal logic rang loud and clear within staff offices, the message didn’t find its way into refugee households. Instead, refugees saw layoffs, decreased material resources, and diminished educational opportunities. Without access to formal employment and bank loans—and with limited farming opportunities in Kakuma’s desert climate—refugee NGO jobs (paying $32-100 USD a month) and money from selling rations were crucial sources of capital to start businesses. Kalenga, a Congolese NGO worker who ran a technology program for schools in the camp, used savings from his stipend to buy a sewing machine and give a job to an unemployed friend. Eliza, a Southern Sudanese woman in Kakuma, started a business selling okra to support her family of seven by “selling our food from the ration, like oil. The money that I got, I went and bought okra.” With decreased resources due to layoffs and ration reductions, refugees were actually less able to start new businesses and make successful business deals towards self-reliance.

Even for those refugees with businesses, aid cuts meant fewer customers with the resources to patronize them. For instance, Rebeka, a Congolese refugee in her late twenties, supports her young family of four by walking several miles to buy clothes in the neighboring town and carrying the clothes to the camp in a big bundle balanced on her head to sell. When she started this business in 2016, her profit was enough “to feed and clothe the children.” But, as she explains, “If rations are reduced, business goes down. If you open a business these days, there are no customers, because there are no rations… If the business has no customers, where will the money come from?” Rebeka shakes her head and laments, “the children are crying of hunger!”

In the U.S., President Biden and his new administration have made laudable strides in re-committing to refugee resettlement. Yet, even with increased numbers (if an executive order is signed), the reality is that majority of refugees will continue to live in the Global South, where funding shortages continue to lead to cuts in food rations and reduced aid. Biden should increase U.S. commitments to these crucial crisis contexts. Rather than empty rhetoric for self-reliance, humanitarian organizations, like the UNHCR, should advocate for increased refugee rights and access to opportunity. Without rights and resources, programs of “empowerment” do not look very empowering at all.

Blair Sackett is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on refugees and forced migration. Her dissertation seeks to understand how refugees manage scarcity and make ends meet within the structural constraints of Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. She is also writing a book, Seeking Refuge, Finding Inequality: Refugees Navigating Institutional Barriers, co-authored with Annette Lareau, on the institutional barriers refugees face upon resettlement to the U.S.