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Seeking to find effective, digital ways of helping refugees

How can we use current technology to best help refugees? A new research project led by UiA will try to find the answer.

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Atme camp in Syria where thousands of refugees live. Credit: Istock.com
Most refugees nowadays live in environments where they have access to services and markets. This photo shows the Atme camp in Syria where thousands of refugees live. Credit: Istock.com

“Today there are many different digital solutions for delivering financial support to refugees. There are also many donors and aid organisations, but there is confusion about which digital payment solution will work best in different places. We hope to be able to do something about that”, says Associate Professor Hossein Baharmand.

He is affiliated with the Department of Working Life and Innovation at the School of Business and Law at the University of Agder (UiA) and is the leader of the project ‘DigCBA: Responsible Use of Digital Cash-based Assistance in Refugee Crises’. The project is a collaboration between UiA, Hanken School of Economics, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Westfälishce Wilhelms-Universität Münster and Makerere University, Uganda.

Different solutions

According to the UN, there are currently more than 21 million refugees worldwide. Most of them live in environments where they have access to services and markets on an equal footing with the local communities. The DigCBA project will look at how digital technology, such as mobile money, electronic cash and blockchain-based systems, can provide refugees with increased access to financial resources. This will also improve the effectiveness of the aid provided.

“Refugee crises vary so much, depending on where they occur. Some refugees come from digitalised societies, others cannot read or write. We hope to be able to create a framework to show organisations and donors which solutions we would recommend they use, to ensure the money arrives in the most efficient way possible”, Baharmand says.

Bildet viser forskere og samarbeidspartnere som står på en linje, med en plakat om prosjektet i midten. Lars Saaghus fra Strømmestiftelsen, Wojciech Piotrowicz fra Hanken School of Economics, førsteamanuensis Hossein Baharmand, Giulio Coppi fra Flyktninghjelpen, professor Bjørn Erik Munkvold, leder av UiA CIEM, og førsteamanuensis Torbjørn Bjorvatn fra Institutt for arbeidsliv og innovasjon er på bildet.

Members of the research group and cooperation partners gathered in November for a kick-off meeting. From left: Lars Saaghus from the Strømme Foundation, Wojciech Piotrowicz from Hanken School of Economics, Associate Professor Hossein Baharmand, Giulio Coppi from the Norwegian Refugee Council, Professor Bjørn Erik Munkvold, leader of UiA CIEM, and Associate Professor Torbjørn Bjorvatn from the Department of Working Life and Innovation.

Must be dignified

The project focuses on two values ​​in particular, namely efficiency and dignity. The method used must transfer as much of the donation to the recipient as possible, and it must be given to the recipient in a dignified manner. Refugees should not have to stand in a long queue at an office where someone else checks how much of the donated amount they should receive, for example.

“The use of credit cards is well established in some places. In other places direct payment via mobile apps is preferred. But not all refugee camps have mobile phone coverage, and perhaps there is no electricity to charge mobiles. We will study these variables in more detail”, Baharmand says.

Support from the Research Council of Norway

The DigCBA project has been awarded NOK 10 million by the Research Council of Norway and will continue until 2024. The project is affiliated with UiA CIEM - Centre for Integrated Emergency Management, where interdisciplinary research is done on how technological innovation can be used to  improve preparedness and crisis management.

“There is great interest in this, and the humanitarian sector needs this kind of research. You sometimes hear about how much of the financial support given to refugees disappears along the way due to corruption, admin costs and other challenges. This is an attempt to do something about that, to ensure that both the donors and the recipients of aid can feel safer”, Baharmand says.