By Ellen McGirt
May 3, 2017

It turns out we may have been doing the math on refugees all wrong.

An insightful new article from Karen Coates, a senior fellow at Brandeis University’s Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, and a fellow with the International Women’s Media Foundation, sheds light on new and ongoing research that helps quantify the economic value that displaced people, despite their dire conditions, can bring to a host community.

At least a dozen local, regional, and global analyses published in the last five years provide credible evidence that refugees and migrants offer long-term economic benefits for their new communities. J. Edward Taylor, a professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California, Davis, and director of the Rural Economies of the Americas and Pacific Rim Program, led two such studies, from Rwanda and Uganda, finding that every dollar spent by governments and organizations on refugee aid is multiplied as added income.

The same is true here in the U.S. as well. According to many experts, the children of immigrants “are among the strongest economic and fiscal contributors in the U.S. population, contributing more in taxes than either their parents or the rest of the native-born population.”

And that, in Fortune’s world, is what’s known as a business case.

The analyses may be arriving just in time. By the end of 2015 some 65.3 million people around the world were displaced from their homes by conflict, famine, persecution and other horrors, a new record nobody wanted to set. And many are abandoning hope of living any other way. RED CEO Deborah Dugan recently returned from a trip to Dadaab in Kenya, the largest refugee camp in the world. It is also home to some 245,000 Somali people. Some, after enduring a five to eight year vetting process, longer believe they would be welcomed in the U.S. “They’re now choosing to go back to Somalia, to face the same conflict they left,” she told raceAhead. “It’s a terrible thing to see.”

But I’m sensing a ripple in the force. For the better part of last year, I’ve been having occasional conversations with senior executives, many of whom are in positions of real influence, who have become increasingly bothered by the refugee crisis. I’ve collected enough of these asides to feel there’s something brewing. It’s a truly hairy problem, complicated by war, corruption and local politics, inextricably linked with the human needs for safety, shelter, food, health care, education, dignity and meaningful work. Heroic stories of people and communities taking in refugee families are always inspiring. But to begin to solve these problems at scale will take a new type of thinking.

This new research offers what most responsible entities need to take meaningful steps toward committing to the hard work of doing the right thing. That’s what business cases are for, right?

So, I’ve got a prediction and a request.

First, the prediction. More and more, compassionate leaders from important multi-national corporations will become increasingly aware of the nature of the worldwide refugee situation. They will begin to propose solutions, at first close to their core businesses – then, with a view to inventing new solutions across multiple levels. And it will be driven in large part because someone visited a camp or because employees care. (It’s happening at LinkedIn, Cisco, Airbnb and UPS, for starters.) These solutions will ultimately have multiple, beneficial use cases, and a lot will go wrong. But the work will necessarily include unusual alliances, broad political engagement and a deep collaboration with refugee populations. And money. People who represent shareholders are going to have to drop some real cash.

Now my request. If you see some a glimmer of interest in these issues within your organization or your leadership, fan the flame. (It works.) If you know someone who has visited a refugee camp or has a personal connection to the migrant experience, ask them to share what they know. Get an idea. Run it by someone. Cold call a like-minded. By connecting the nodes, you can write the kind of business story that really does save the world.

But I do want the exclusive.


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