As an ifellow, I am receiving training in innovative design thinking and project management, and to put into practice these new skills, I will be working in three objectives through the fellowship: 1. Strengthen an ongoing innovative initiative, which is the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) project called “Vivir la Integración” (Fully Living Integration); 2. Support the implementation of a SMS communication pilot project in Costa Rica lead by the Innovation team; 3. Design a totally new innovation project following the human-centered design approach. This time I would like to share with you a general description and thoughts about the first project I mentioned, the CSR scheme “Vivir la Integración”.

Some time ago, I had the chance to meet Maria, a Colombian refugee woman who had been living in Costa Rica for three years and was facing severe challenges to find a job. We were discussing with a group of refugees and Maria mentioned with frustration to the group, “Why? Why is it so difficult to find a job? We (refugees) have the right to work but no one wants to hire us, nobody knows who we are. We have a lot to offer but we need an opportunity to prove it”. Maria has a bachelor degree in business administration and an important work experience from her home country, however she hadn’t find a stable job since she arrived to Costa Rica.

Maria is only one case of the hundreds or even thousands of refugees living in Costa Rica who very often experience difficulties to find a job. This problem is caused for many different reasons as the lack of understanding and misperception about who is a refugee and pejorative stereotypes towards this population, challenges to validate their education diplomas in the country of asylum, confusion from the side of refugees about the market dynamics, among others. In this regard, a participatory assessment carried out in 2012 by UNHCR highlighted that 40% of refugees did no have any means of income and out of those who were working, only 20% were inserted in the formal employment market.

Costa Rica is known by its important tradition of international protection to refugees and its general respect to human rights. Since the year 2000 the government has granted the refugee status to approximately 12.000 persons of over 40 different nationalities. Refugees and asylum seekers are entitled to work in the country and the national legislation promotes the integration of the migrant and refugee population. Therefore, from a legal perspective Costa Rica is a very promising country for the local integration of refugees, but in practice there still challenges that need to be solved.

Considering the opportunities and challenges refugees face to have an equal access to employment, the Office made the decision of working in new creative solutions to build bridges between refugees and the private sector. UNHCR jointly with the local NGO ACAI (UNHCR’s implementing partner) created a Job Placement Programme that has tackled the employment barriers through the sensitization and establishment of alliances with the private sector, advocacy with main stakeholders, livelihoods trainings for refugees and an intermediation system for recruitment.

At the beginning the team began getting in contact company per company aiming at explaining about the refugee population, the rights they are entitled to and the potential they have as workforce. In this process we understood that we could have the opportunity of boosting the results of what we were doing through the consolidation of these new partnerships. Therefore, in September 2013 UNHCR Costa Rica signed a letter of understanding with the Immigration Board, the NGO ACAI and the Business Association for Development (Asociación Empresarial para el Desarrollo –AED-), which is the main organization in the country providing technical support to 120 affiliated companies on the matters of social responsibility programmes and policies; and together we created the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Scheme called “Vivir la Integración” (Fully Living Integration).

Based on the values of solidarity, equality and diversity, “Vivir la Integración” is a CSR project aiming at supporting refugees’ self-reliance.  The companies can join the project through different actions, such as: providing job opportunities to refugees, considering the refugees’ micro entrepreneurs services and goods for the needs of the companies, supporting the livelihoods training of refugees or conducting sensitization campaigns within the companies.

To date, this creative approach vis-à-vis the private sector has accomplished important results. For example during 2013, the team carried out two Job Fairs for refugees, 107 refugees were employed, 430 persons were trained on soft skills by diverse companies and recruitment agencies, and the team informed and sensitized over 100 enterprises. Now, with the CSR project “Vivir la Integración” we have the objective to support the sustainability and the strategic engagement of the private sector.

Why this CSR project could be considered a humanitarian innovation?

  • From the very beginning this project has been driven by the needs of refugees. Through an inclusive approach, the refugee population identified the challenges to access employment and jointly with them we created possible solutions.
  • Collaboration is a key component of this public-private partnership. “Vivir la Integración” brings together the private sector, civil society, a UN agency, the government and of course the refugee population. It establishes new ways of interaction and support between all these different sectors.
  • This partnership is based on a new perception to support the refugee population, focusing on their resilience and potential as development agents. “Vivir la Integración” highlights the human talent of refugees, and how the diversity and intercultural exchange they bring into the companies could represent an asset for the team’s performance. Therefore, “Vivir la Integración” is of common interest to all the involved parties, including refugees and the enterprises.
  • “Vivir la Integración” is the result of an ongoing dynamic creation lead by a multifunctional team. All the partners have built (and continue building) this CSR project, that now has evolved from an abstract idea to tangibles activities that are been progressively tested and implemented.

What do I intend to do during the Innovation fellowship to enhance the Corporate Social Responsibility project “Vivir la Integración”?

  •  Considering that refugees should always be at the center of an innovation project, through the fellowship I will go back to them as the affected community and users. I will engage them once again in the discussion of the employment challenge and receive their feedback about what we have been doing so far.
  • I will facilitate a reflection space with all the partners of the project (including refugees) with the aim to analyze what we are doing and ideate new ideas of improvement.
  • With the objective of building effective partnerships, during the first semester of the year I will be involved in the facilitation of a five-session training with a group of allied companies. Through the training we will build together with each enterprise a plan of action to support the integration of refugees. Moreover, for World Refugee Day, the partners of “Vivir la Integración” will be holding for the first time a public award ceremony for all the companies that have been supporting the local integration of refugees. This event will count with the participation of national authorities, the international community, businesspersons, artists and refugees themselves, representing a real integration experience.

In the video below a group of businesspersons share their good experiences about hiring refugees. They mentioned added values of these persons as their commitment, willingness to be dedicated employees and the great effort they put in their daily tasks. To finish this blog, I would like to capture some of the thoughts mentioned by the businesswoman from the local bakery store called “Musmanni”: “As a businessperson it has been a great life opportunity to meet them (refugees), because I have learned a lot from them (…) they have the right to work, refugees want and deserve building a new life here and what they need from our side is only an opportunity (…)”.

Video insert

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