Researching refugee crises and global displacement

Are today’s ‘grand challenges’ under-researched? That’s what assistant professor Corinna Frey-Heger suspected when she joined RSM’s department of Business-Society Management in 2018. She wanted to research a subject that moved her, and so she focused on displacement of people. Although the refugee crisis had not yet become an issue when she started her doctoral research, it did become more serious, particularly in Europe. Corinna went on to win the Grigor McClelland award in July 2019 and the EGOS Best Student Paper Award in 2018 for her research into the global displacement crisis.

What is it about your effort that makes a positive change?
“As part of my research, I did field work at an international organisation. In 2015, I went to Rwanda and was exposed to an acute refugee crisis and observed the responses. And while I researched this acute crisis, I discovered another – chronic – crisis that wasn’t spoken about so much.

“So my PhD research enabled me to identify some of the mechanisms that could explain how acute refugee crises were prolonged to an extent that forced refugees to spend decades in camps, dependent on aid. These are the kinds of conditions that lead to violence – including sexual violence – and poverty. Through my research I found out that these situations perpetuate themselves. Looking at it like this would have had an effect on the responses and how these problems were – and are – treated.”

What if I can apply this to issues that I care about or find important to research? That’s how I got to researching displacement of people.

Why do you do it?
“Being a researcher, I try my best to observe and document the underlying processes and mechanisms that explain how a certain situation or problem came about, or how an organisation might respond. And we try to learn from that so we can apply it to other, similarly complex, problems. I consider myself an organisational theorist, and we particularly look at the ‘how are things done’. What if I can apply this to issues that I care about or find important to research? That’s how I got to researching displacement of people.

“Through my field work, I found out that if we want to really tackle these issues, we need to understand how they came about and what they involve. It would be unfair to compare organisations that respond to grand challenges to those producing cars or building ships. In order to tackle grand challenges, we need to really understand the issue and its complexity. They have multiple stakeholders, and particularly in the case of displaced people, the challenge is extremely unpredictable. As one problem is being fixed, another problem evolves. I think it’s a fascinating and important research area.”

How can others get involved in doing something with you – or something like what you’re doing?
“There is a lot of talk about impact and improving organisations as a whole. I encourage looking at one component of innovation that is currently happening. Being a researcher means trying to identify the ‘small wins’, thus making incremental changes over a longer time – rather than trying to make one large change. Because in making one large change, organisations can miss noticing other issues that are either happening at the same time, or being caused indirectly by the large change that’s intended to be ‘the solution’.”