How a refugee agency can work with the private sector

When the United Nations’ Refugee Agency UNHCR wanted to find out more about working with the private sector in operational partnerships in 2019, it asked the Partnerships Resource Centre (PrC) at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) to assess the evidence. The UNHCR aims to improve the way it protects, assists, and addresses the needs of refugees, asylum seekers, returnees and stateless people.



PrC worked with researchers of the Public-Private Partnership Center at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, and with associate researcher Marije Balt. After almost a year of gathering facts and considering the analysis, PrC’s research team under the leadership of managing director Marieke de Wal produced an official report with recommendations for working in private sector partnerships, which has now been published by the UNHCR.

Research components

PrC’s research team used a range of methods to investigate several important components:

  • a stocktake of private sector engagements (PSEs) that are ongoing or occurred in the past two to three years;
  • a benchmarking exercise of similar agencies;
  • a literature review of trends in PSE beyond fundraising;
  • a case study of PSE in Malaysia; and
  • consultations with UNHCR headquarters staff about strategic considerations and implications for UNHCR’s PSE in the future.

Private sector companies are increasingly seeking to expand their definition of 'value creation' at the heart of their business models. Their focus has changed from pursuing only economic outcomes to contributing value to social and environmental concerns. So there are many businesses that strive to support UNHCR’s mandate to work in to jointly find short-term and durable solutions for refugees and other people that come under the label of ‘persons of concern to UNHCR'.

Research key findings

UNHCR engages with almost 250 private sector actors in more than 60 countries to improve the protection and well-being of people of concern. Many UNHCR staff members involved in private sector engagements can clearly see the goals of the partnership, particularly if they have previous experience working with or in the private sector, are innovative in their approaches to operational programming, and understand their political economic context. They also tend to have experience of partnering with other stakeholders such as national and local government bodies.

What holds organisations back from engaging in anything beyond fundraising? Sometimes it’s as simple as a matter of timing. Annual planning cycles don’t encourage designing longer-term interventions, and for targeting higher-level impact outcomes – the sort that are desired by the private sector. UNHCR staff sometimes think that budgeting frameworks used by private sector organisations tend to prioritise activities that they would implement directly, rather than activities that are implemented by someone else or another organisation.

Finance and ops

Partnering includes financial contributions as well as operational partnerships – and financial contributions may not always go to UNHCR. In these cases, UNHCR’s role is as a convener or catalyst rather than as an implementer.

So the research team advised the UNHCR to assess each project as follows:

(a) define the impact goal;

(b) identify the stakeholders that could contribute (from the public and/or private sector);

(c) and negotiate the partnership type suited to achieving this aim.

Both parties can then renegotiate and develop the partnership to achieve their evolving goals.

Strategic recommendations

The research team recommended nine strategic actions that UNHCR should implement if it is to optimise its engagement with the private sector and in partnering:

  1. approach and measure partnering for a range of outcomes;
  2. decentralise the setting of partnership objectives;
  3. strengthen working relationships across the organisation;remove barriers such as annual planning cycles and budgeting, and establish institutional incentives for partnering;
  4. partner with the private sector to help staff to develop their capacity;
  5. demonstrate the same level of support for operational partnering as for fundraising;
  6. position the Shared Value Partnerships Unit (SPU) in Private Sector Partnerships (PSP) for global engagements, trade delegations, and go/no-go lists;
  7. develop a strong value proposition;
  8. map which headquarters departments can be matched with any types of partner, for what purposes, and how.

Other recommendations

Alongside the strategic recommendations, the research team suggested other moves that UNHCR could take that would make sure its partnerships helped in the way they were intended to:

  • develop a professional orientation towards goal-driven partnering as a matter of urgency;
  • map every type of partnership within its headquarters to understand how deep and broad the experience within the Agency;
  • create a support service dedicated to supporting staff at headquarters and in the field to develop single- and multi-stakeholder partnerships;
  • establish a partnering hub to break down silos between different partnership units and allow for greater coordination, coherence and streamlining.

Delivering potential

Only such a transformative approach to supporting and professionalising partnering across UNHCR and within stakeholder organisations would give UNHCR the potential to deliver on the demands of the Global Compact on Refugees and the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, concludes the research report.

More information

Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s top-ranked business schools. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who can become a force for positive change by carrying their innovative mindset into a sustainable future. Our first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes encourage them to become critical, creative, caring and collaborative thinkers and doers. Study information and activities for future students, executives and alumni are also organised from the RSM office in Chengdu, China. www.rsm.nl

For more information about RSM or this release, please contact Marianne Schouten, communications manager for RSM via +31 10 408 2877 or mschouten@rsm.nl.

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