After #NowConf | How can mayors, funders and activists collaborate to #unfail the "refugee crisis"?

On January 21-22 I participated in NOW, a 2 day event bringing together mayors from cities and towns receiving the largest numbers of refugees from Syria as well as activists and individuals currently seeking asylum in Europe. I will dedicate this post to a brief summary of the key issues highlighted by participants, followed by proposals for how we could contribute towards building actionable and sustainable solutions.

The first part of the event consisted in a kind of intense briefing of the situation in countries closest to Syria. In a short time the populations of small countries in the region, Lebanon and Jordan, have grown manyfold (1.1 Million refugees in Lebanon, 630,000 in Jordan - in addition to Palestinian refugees already there). Some reading materials with up to date, detailed information:

Armenia: Anna’s report from Yerevan is a good introduction.

Jordan: Five Years On | Syria Crisis-related needs and vulnerabilities in Jordan.

While many of the cities and towns receiving refugees face similar challenges there is a significant difference. Some are transit locations, which asylum seekers pass on their way on to other destinations. They include major cities in Greece, Italy and Turkey, as well as small coastal towns from which people leave on boats to take their perilous journey across the sea. There, volunteers do their best to care for their immediate physical needs and the mandated administrative/security procedures to grant them entry onto the mainland.

Other cities and towns  are receiving the newcomers on a more long term basis. This happens in two different phases, each one posing its own  political, administrative and infrastructural challenges for the hosting communities. The first one is the period of time between arrival and the approval or rejection of the person’s application for refugee status. This period could be very long, as in the case of the Palestinian refugees in Jordan, or that of Mr. Teferi in Norway. The second one is the period that begins once an individual has secured refugee status. In this period, the challenge is navigating the difficult period between receiving the papers and being fully established in the social and economic life of the host new community.

While the details differ, the problems and needs mentioned by mayors, NGOs and activists fall into one or more of the following:

  • Resource efficiency: How to get better at covering necessities of both refugees and citizens/ residents on very limited resources? As an example Jordan is one of the most water scarce countries in the world and 70 per cent of the population suffers from inadequate water supply below the national standard of 100 liters/person/day. Aging infrastructures, inefficiencies in operation and maintenance. interrupted provision of water services etc. Could resource scarcity be mitigated through Open Source technologies for recycling of sewage, seawater desalination at scale, deep drip irrigation etc? Affordable, modifiable technologies are required to manage the current crisis as well as to secure peace in the region.
  • Interoperability, knowledge transfer and Institutional memory: I heard many calls to “make information available about how the system works”, and "calls for online platforms to fix a perceived lack of information" thought to be a "key obstacle for labor market access". Here too I head that “we need a database of all the initiatives and resources available to help refugees” and "we need to make existing information about getting your paperwork done, how to set up a new business etc". There are three underlying assumptions: 1) That some people understand in detail “how the system works” as a whole and 2) That they can transmit that kind knowledge into brochures or documents and that 3) This information material will make the system navigable and penetrable for newcomers. These three assumptions do not hold up to scrutiny and could fill an entire blogpost with reasons as to why. For now I will simply refer you to the Brickstarter report as it is a light, beginner-friendly introduction to some of the issues.
  • Scalability of public services: How to build/rethink provision of public services so that they can accommodate changes in the number of people to serve? Many of the participants complained about the lack of resources to provide education or training for newcomers. Others mentioned the provision of health and social care services, especially psychological support for the traumatised. I heard a lot of calling for more resources to be put into existing services, but little examination of how existing services are performing and even less awareness about more effective, flexible and cost-efficient approaches. Are we sure that throwing money onto more of the same will result in better outcomes?  Sugata Mitra’s work on Minimally Invasive Education, Miguel Chavez’s experienced from building Makerspaces in Favelas, Freifunk and many others offer alternative approaches with promising results. The political will, and practical ability, to welcome and accommodate newcomers depends on it. In this recent talk, I present a proposal for how we can break out of the zero-sum thinking in the provision of care services as an antidote to rising social tensions between social groups.

One of the outcomes of the conference was that Mayors from Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, Italy and Austria signed a declaration to work together in solidarity across borders:

Politically, this is an important signal. However the event didn’t get into the part I find the most interesting- how they expect to go from intention to implementation.

So what is needed in order for this commitment to be delivered on? Based on discussions with mayors, activists and refugees it looks like the participants at NOW need:

  1. Efficient and sustainable coordination across geographic, linguistic and technological barriers.
  2. A globe-spanning sustained effort to help community leaders, mayors, politicians and fight back against populist rhetoric and divisive narratives.
  3. Ability to learn about and experiment with novel or unconventional approaches towards tackling root causes of problems which affect both newcomers and the host communities which welcome them.

In practice this would require:

  • Active engagement of a lot of affected people in mapping and making sense of urgent problems related to a sudden influx of newcomers in education, housing, employment/entrepreneurship, language/social skills and finance. The reason being that those affected will only get behind efforts to solve problems if they trust the people involved, and have shared ownership in the process. Part of what builds trust is if people can recognise their own perspective, language and experiences in the description of the situation. That they are taken seriously as experts in their own lives- that their own ambitions, words and thoughts weigh at least as much as input of credentialed domain experts (who may never have set foot in the neighborhood). This was echoed by newcomers frustrated by discussions about training them to fit into pre-defined slots in society, based on what they perceived to be unfounded assumptions by institutional actors about what they could or could not achieve: “Do not put a cap on my dreams, just give me access to the tools and see what I can build with them”.
  • Continuous mapping and connection of different private, public and third sector actors efforts into coherent shared plans that take into consideration the budgetary, logistical and political constraints within which each group is working. I can tell you from experience that is it not easy. The reason being that the incentives are aligned against it. We all agree that at the system level good documentation saves everyone time and resources. At the individual level it is more difficult to motivate the additional investment of time and effort. Where you see people doing this consistently is where it is a part of a shared culture and work ethos. To get this going you have to create the incentives for people to do additional work involved, instill the ethos, teach people the workflow and enforce it top down. Over and over. Until there is a critical mass doing it and others can share the effort of spreading and maintaining the enabling culture.

Take a minute to think about what this means.

If the participants in the event want to see the transnational cooperation happen in practice, then they will have to learn to think and work as networks of individuals interacting inside, outside and all around different organisations. Each working at the hyperlocal, micro-level, while sharing and learning with others working in different contexts as a natural part of the everyday workflow… not just something afforded to people who can travel and spend 2 days talking with one another at a conference. And all of this done in ways that build granular, immediately relevant and continuously updated institutional memory accessible to all. Affecting behavioral change at this scale is hard, but it can be done.

I think we can contribute in two ways.

1. At LOTE5 we are organising this reflexive design exercise on Collaborative inclusion: how migrants-residents collaboration can produce social values. The event is run by Ezio Manzini, one the world’s leading designers for social innovation. You can partner with us if you want to help make it into a workshop on addressing specific problems tied to reception and inclusion of asylum seekers. Or just sign up and participate.

2. We also have a way to produce cheap, accurate ethnographic data around problems like the ones mentioned above, with a focus on surfacing creative and actionable solutions. This would enable you to engage a large number of participants (thousands) in a participatory process for designing solutions to meet their own needs. This methodology is being employed/supported by a growing number of actors including the current Swedish minister of Nordic cooperation and strategic foresight, the European Commission, the Rockefeller Foundation, the United Nations Development Program and United Nations Volunteers as well as the cities of Milan and Matera in Italy, and of Bucharest in Romania. We have developed a methodological guide for doing this - email me if you would like a copy (cannot post online):

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And then elections happen.

I was reminded of this story when reading the headlines these days, how Germany’s trend of receiving refugees was considerably reversed in 2016 and worse, people are now sent back to the borders of Europe (elsewhere called “voluntary deportations”?!).

Also, I re-assigned this story to the “Policies of Care” challenge. | @Franca

We’ll see how this works out

We may see general rebellion as regressive policies on multiple fronts are pushed e.g. Poland on female reproductive rights. Also national govs running out of dough = more decentralisation and growing influence at regional/local level. Mayors can have huge influence and tip scale with creative responses. One big obstacle issue is Frontex and other strong lobbies for EU border control, but as EU loses clout, also this may change. Who knows.