Rebranding refugees as entrepreneurs and camps as places of opportunity shows the boundless cynicism of neoliberal humanitarianism.
On 9 June, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) co-hosted TEDxKakumaCamp, the first ever TEDx event held in a refugee camp. The talks were organised under the euphoric theme “Thrive” and promised to tell “stories that uplift and inspire not just the communities that host them but the entire world”.
This theme was in keeping with the TED brand, which typically consists of speakers narrating their personal journeys of discovery to inspire audiences into their own attitudinal change. Rather than being held in the conference centre of a major world city, however, this event took place in one of Africa’s oldest and largest refugee camps which houses nearly 150,000 people in north-western Kenya.
Media coverage of TEDxKakumaCamp has been overwhelmingly positive. Al-Jazeera’s journalists, for example, simply asked a self-congratulatory Melissa Fleming, the UNHCR’s chief communications officer in Geneva and co-curator of the event, about her personal determination to make the grandiose spectacle happen.
However, there is another, much less positive, way to interpret the event. This critique is not addressed at those refugees who had the courage and talent to share their stories at TEDxKakumaCamp nor the many thousands watching on open air screens, cheering and hoping for a better tomorrow. Instead, it is aimed at the degree to which humanitarian organisations like the UNHCR have now wholeheartedly embraced neoliberalism’s most cynical narratives.
Think yourself out of oppression
Western humanitarian approaches to refugee camps have been going down the road of neoliberalism for several years now. While there was once talk of dependency among refugees, today’s aid agencies advocate “self-reliance”, “self-governance” and “participatory approaches”. Ilcan and Rygiel describe a trend whereby displaced persons are increasingly encouraged to be “self‐governing” and are expected to “refashion themselves as resilient, entrepreneurial subjects”. In this understanding, refugees should not look to politics or broken asylum regimes for solutions to their displacement and misery; they should look in the mirror.
TEDx coming to Kakuma is a very lucid expression of this philosophy. The TED format essentially fetishises and commodifies the art of inspiration and individual innovation. Though there are notable exceptions to the form, talks are known for promoting rags to riches tales under the implicit motto: if you don’t think of yourself as disadvantaged or oppressed, you can’t be.
This message may resonate positively with many people living in refugee camps like Kakuma. But the problem with this rhetoric of resilience and entrepreneurship – particularly when promoted by the UNHCR – is that it makes false promises and diverts attention away from structural inequalities, discrimination and policies of containment.
For many years, for example, Kenya’s government has shown refugees (especially those from Somalia) nothing but open hostility as it has threatened and conducted forcible returns. It announced it would close all camps and expel their inhabitants in 2016. It upholds a strict encampment policy, forcing the majority of refugees to reside in the inhospitable north. And in 2014, its authorities rounded up Somali refugees in Nairobi’s Eastleigh district, raiding homes, abusing women and girls, and methodically pocketing bribes.
The situation in Kakuma refugee camp itself is only marginally better. Movement is restricted by a curfew, while Kenyan police conduct punitive operations in particular neighbourhoods, intimidating those who stand in their way. Furthermore, food rations are cut in half or reduced substantially almost every year as donor countries fail to meet their financial obligations to the World Food Programme (WFP).
No amount of individual positive thinking is enough to escape these realities.
Kakuma camp is a vibrant place, full of life, love, business, solidarity and creativity. On the surface, the TEDx event may therefore seem commendable. People who live in permanent situations of displacement should not be relegated to the status of “refugee victims”, but have their voices heard. However, doing this through TEDx as a media brand, which transports the values of neoliberal globalisation to the site of the refugee camp, is both cynical and harmful. The fact of the UNHCR organising this event shows the extent to which humanitarian agencies are abrogating the political responsibilities of states and instead using their influence, standing and resources to offer dubious entrepreneurial fixes.
At a time that Europe and North America are trying to shut their doors to refugees, and many African governments feel confident to emulate these hostile policies, personal stories of transformation may make us feel good. But they are sadly full of false promises that only serve to spread the gospel of the “globalised neoliberal consumer self” in the South.
TEDxKakumaCamp might attract some additional donations for the camp operation, put the crisis ‘back on the map’ momentarily, and help erase memories of the UNHCR’s corruption controversies of last year. But reality for Kakuma’s residents will hit hard once the dust settles, food rations are slashed again and police brutality resumes. Like other strategies that try to find solutions in individual self-governance rather than in national and international politics, TEDxKakumaCamp is little more than a concerted distraction.