Exploring different approaches to refugee entrepreneurship programmes

REN volunteer, Robin Lee, interviews REN member, Fernando Martínez Cure (International Labor Organization) to explore the ‘push’ approach and the ‘market systems’ approach to refugee entrepreneurship programmes.


What is your role in the International Labour Organization (ILO) and what projects are you working on?

I am a Technical Officer at the ILO in Geneva, Switzerland, focusing on SME development and refugee livelihoods. I support project officers in the field around the world, helping them to better include refugees in their local market systems. The market systems framework is designed to analyse and understand a particular market, and identify its entry and leverage points for improved refugee integration. 


We have adapted the market systems approach for refugees; we focus on working with migration in several projects throughout the world, helping governments and NGOs to understand the approach and how to implement it correctly. This is different from a ‘push’ approach – to develop livelihoods you need both supply and demand.


Could you explain the difference in approaches, and the rationale for not following the ‘push’ model? 


The ‘push’ approach to refugee intervention, which I’ve designed and executed in previous positions, involves entrepreneurship training, business incubation and so on. You recruit refugees in a variety of ways, for example by going to the refugee camps or finding out the places where they gather. Then once they join the programme, you teach them the baseline skills for starting a business – finance, management, production, value, accounting and so on. We held business competitions, where they present business plans at events to pitch for venture capital. Then we followed them to the market through mentoring and coaching, lasting for a couple of years. That is a typical refugee entrepreneurship project.


However, I joined the ILO in the past year, and I’ve been impressed with the organisation’s constant challenge to classic ‘push’ models. Some of the programmes I have worked on in the past have been  based on the assumptions that refugees lack entrepreneurship skills or resources (and therefore need training and assistance obtaining capital). There is also the assumption that refugee businesses do not stand the test of time if they don’t have coaching or mentors. I always used to make these assumptions. 


The market systems approach starts with no assumptions. Let’s say we find that refugees do lack entrepreneurship skills. We then ask ourselves, why is that the case?


When I was working within the ‘push approach’, there were other business service providers in an area – the government, NGOs etc. – that provided entrepreneurship assistance, but there were still many refugees willing to take part in our programmes. The services in effect separated refugees and existing providers from each other, and although we managed to help some refugees there would still be structural problems when we left. And when public funding runs out, or government priorities change, what happens then?


So how does the market systems approach work? 


Say we identify that a lack of business skills suited to the host country is a problem (though often refugees are very entrepreneurial). Instead of running our own programme, for example, we help existing business service providers identify profitable business models to teach to refugees. We work with local stakeholders – we call it market facilitation – to pilot different business models with the population. Some will fail and some will be viable; those that are viable can be adopted by the business service providers to train refugees. After that our work can stop, we stop messing with the market system and the market should start working by itself. 


We also look closely at the formal and informal rules that refugees face day to day, and work with the local and national actors to make sure that those rules do not exclude but instead serve a practical purpose in the life of migrants.


What have been the successes and challenges with this approach so far? 


A huge success has been the rapid expansion of programming influenced by the approach. We have now implemented it in over 20 countries, within different and complex migration and host market contexts. It has been great working with UNHCR in particular. They see market systems as a viable, valid approach, and we have launched joint initiatives to support the economic integration of refugees. 


The main challenge is that when you do push interventions, you can see outcomes from day one – you can spend money very quickly and therefore show immediate results. With the market systems approach, it’s less easy to measure. You have to be comfortable with a certain degree of uncertainty, and it’s less standardised and more complex. However, although it’s harder, I believe it’s the right way to do it. 


You can read more on the ILO’s market systems approach here: www.ilo.org/aims There is also a step-by-step guide (https://www.ilo.org/empent/Projects/refugee-livelihoods/WCMS_634395/lang–en/index.htm) and assessment case studies: https://www.ilo.org/empent/Projects/refugee-livelihoods/publications/lang–en/index.htm