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Bridging the Humanitarian and Development divide

By Sam Bickersteth, Chief Executive

This last month I’ve been thinking a lot about Refugees.  In November I met Therese  (pictured below) in Nakivale refugee settlement in southern Uganda.  Theresa is from the Democratic Republic of Congo from which she fled with her children after her husband was taken by rebel militia.  She arrived at Nakivale in September 2019 and currently lives in the resettlement centre waiting to receive her plot of land to build a home on.  She receives two meals a day.   Therese is ambitious and determined that she doesn’t want handouts and aid, but instead she told us that she just wants the chance to build a business and new life for her family.  

Opportunity International exists to meet the needs of women and men who want the dignity of running their own businesses but who presently lack access to financial services.   There are millions of refugees and others who have no way of accessing loans or secure savings.  This injustice in the lack of provision of financial services is particularly acute for the global total of 71 million people who are currently displaced from their homes.  

To address the specific needs of refugees we are investing in the provision of financial services to refugee settlements in Uganda.  The aim is to liberate entrepreneurs, like Therese, to grow their businesses and create jobs within the community. Until now there has been no one providing financial services operating inside the settlements, only savings and credit unions set up by the refugees, with limitations in access to capital.  

In response to the scale and permanence of the global refugee crisis the international community has agreed a Global Compact on Refugees.  It includes addressing the business and livelihood opportunities with the private sector and financial institutions.  This week the first Global Forum on Refugees convened in Geneva, bringing together governments, non-governmental organisations, private sector and refugees themselves.  I attended and had the chance to set out Opportunity International’s perspective on the transformative potential of  credit, savings and insurance.

At the High Level Dialogue on Jobs and Livelihoods I referenced our work with Opportunity Bank of Uganda.  Our project has started to provide financial services to refugees in Nakivale.  Most are presently dependent on food or cash handouts from the UN yet most want to settle down and build normal lives. We are carefully redesigning and adjusting our products and identifying mechanisms to limit the lending risk.  The Global Forum on Refugees provided a platform to bridge the humanitarian and development divide, to start to think of refugees as economic actors instead of victims, and to deliberate on creation of sustainable financial interventions.  Not all refugees are entrepreneurs but we want to make a difference to women and men whose entrepreneurship and job creating potential is so constrained.  A handshake can represent a contract.  Listening to Therese's wishes i'm reminded why we at Opportunity focus on handshakes not hand outs.  

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