Exploring uncharted territories for businesses: the creation of market economies in refugee camps

Auteur Cansu ÖZMERT
Directeur /trice Jean-Christophe Graz
Co-directeur(s) /trice(s)
Résumé de la thèse

Twenty-five years ago, refugee camps were accepted by the international community as the best way to provide protection to refugees, considering that crisis in their home country will not last long and they can eventually go back. Today, the situation is far from what has been foreseen as two-thirds of all refugees are in protracted situations and not only new conflicts but also environmental crisis are knocking on the door. Humanitarian needs are steadily increasing, while funding for humanitarian aid remains insufficient (UNHCR, 2018a). However, the escalation of already existing conflicts and the growing media coverage of refugees show that forced displacement will remain on the international agenda in the years to come. In this context of limited humanitarian budgets and unpredictable crisis timeframes, forms and spaces of humanitarian assistance undergo sweeping changes. Refugee camps become potential spaces for unexplored market opportunities for the private sector, including refugees themselves. The recent partnership between the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), World Bank and the International Finance Corporation (IFC) for the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya is a case in point (Apurva, Onder and Varalakshmi, 2016; Shara and Klau-Panhans, 2017). This partnership aims at gathering data on revenues, consumption patterns, consumer preferences in both refugee camps and host communities to highlight future opportunities for private businesses and social entrepreneurs.


Existing literature on humanitarian aid is remarkably interdisciplinary and draws upon disciplines such as law, international relations, economy, geography and development studies. Among this literature, we can notably identify two main lines of research on: 1. the emergence of market-based approaches. 2. the emergence of technology-based approaches. However, studies don’t explain how these two approaches and the shift to platform capitalism are incorporated by humanitarian organizations to give rise to concrete structures and instruments capable of creating new markets. By undertaking this project, I will examine the following question: How does UNHCR contribute to the formation of new markets in refugee camps? My theoretical framework will build upon Economic Sociology, Science and Technology studies (STS) and International Political Economy theories (IPE) to reflect upon the link between institutions, technical devices and data in the creation of new markets. Given the important protracted refugee situation and the ongoing UNHCR-World Bank-IFC project in Kakuma camp, my geographic scope will be Kenya and my methodology will rely mainly on ethnographic approaches and content analysis which are highly efficient methods for in-depth investigation of complex issues and interactions. In addition to a thorough content analysis of strategic documents emanating from UNHCR, observations and approximately thirty semi-directive interviews will be conducted with relevant actors from UNHCR, IFC, World Bank, the private sector and Kakuma camp. With this project, I expect to provide new insights on the role of intergovernmental organizations with respect to global humanitarian and economic governance. In addition, I anticipate to demonstrate the power of new technologies and data as the driving forces behind the construction of new markets. Last but not least, I want to bring new perspectives to the present and future discussions revolving around refugees and refugee camps by showing that they are not spared from the drive to digitalization and marketization.

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