A WEF Call to Action: How CEOs Can Help Deliver Solutions for Refugees and Host Communities

January 23, 2018

As more than 1,900 corporate leaders convene in Davos this week to “create a shared future in a fractured world,” they should prioritize the well-being of the 22.5 million refugees around the world. In a joint report with the Tent Foundation, I highlight how global businesses can move beyond corporate social responsibility to engage refugees in their core business, especially by including refugees in hiring and supply chains. As market leaders, policy influencers, and innovators, these businesses have assets that are not found in traditional humanitarian response and that can shape the broader environment for refugees’ access to labor markets.

The nature of forced displacement, and the political disruptions it has contributed to, has made the imperative to act more pressing than ever. Refugees have been displaced for an average of 10 years; for those displaced more than five years, the average jumps to over 21 years. There is a severe gap in funding for humanitarian response, and more than 84 percent of the world’s refugees live in developing regions, where governments are already struggling to meet the needs of their own citizens. Creating greater opportunities for the displaced to provide for themselves and their families is essential to any sustainable solution.

One of the most promising entry points for global businesses is including refugees in hiring and supply chains. As employers and buyers at the helm of extensive supply chains that reach deep into local markets, global businesses can play an important role in creating demand for refugee labor, products, and services. Commitments to support refugees should take place in the context of broader policy and investment initiatives that also benefit local communities, which are often experiencing high unemployment, flat or falling incomes, and other vulnerabilities. A notable example is IKEA’s partnership with the Jordan River Foundation, employing Syrian refugees and Jordanians to make hand-woven rugs, textiles, and other products which will eventually be sold in IKEA stores everywhere. Also in Jordan, Airbnb has launched a livelihoods initiative where refugees can advertise services like tours and other local experiences.

The potential for such efforts is largely dependent on conducive business environments and rights for refugees to work and own businesses. Host governments value their partnerships with global businesses—not only for the trade, investment, and services they offer, but also for their expertise and insight. As CEOs meet with government leaders at Davos, they should use the opportunity to forge collaboration across public and private sectors, including advancing policies that facilitate trade and investment and the economic inclusion of refugees. Donors, too, need to remain engaged, recognizing the public good provided by refugee-hosting countries and the support refugees often need to succeed, such as language classes and job matching services.

Global businesses can also lead the way on championing evidence on the economic benefits of refugee inclusion. Contrary to widespread misconceptions, refugees quickly become economic contributors to their host countries. Even in the short-term, refugee influxes typically have little to no effect on average wages or labor rates, and in some cases has caused wages for some native workers to rise by encouraging occupational upgrading.

Giving refugees the right to own a business can also bring substantial benefits to host communities. A recent study found more than 10,000 Syrian-owned businesses in Turkey, each employing 9.4 people on average. And what’s more, Syrians have invested more than $330 million in the Turkish economy since 2011.

There is no shortage of skepticism about whether global leaders at the World Economic Forum (WEF) are serious about addressing the needs of the poor and vulnerable. Visible progress through core business commitments would send an important signal that refugees are a crucial investment, not a cost—and that corporate leaders are committed to taking action towards, not just talking about, solutions that deliver social and economic impact.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.