How the Vatican is supporting businesses which help refugees

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THE PAPAL encyclical on the environment, entitled “Laudato Si” and published in 2015, has been one of the most influential contributions to the debate about climate change and its connection with other woes like inequality and forced migration. Citing ideas first developed by the Orthodox church, it makes the theological case that the planet’s degradation is a spiritual problem, not a technocratic one. But it has limitations: one would scour its pages in vain to find any acknowledgment that private initiative, or even problem-solving human ingenuity, could ease the travails of the Earth. Where it mentions private enterprise, it is mostly in a negative context.

The Laudato Si Challenge describes itself as an initiative inspired by the papal pronouncement. But it might be truer to say that, in a small way, it counter-balances or fills in some of that fine document’s lacunas. Based in the United States, it aims to provide expertise to small businesses that offer solutions to the problems created by climate change and forced migration. This week it marked its second year of operation with a meeting at the Vatican that brought together small-scale, socially minded entrepreneurs and people who might help them develop their businesses. There was a particular emphasis on ways to ease the burden of refugees.

One presenter, Mariam Shaar, told an arresting personal story. “I was born and grew up in a refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon,” she said. “Fifty thousand people live in one square kilometre. We are not allowed to buy property outside the camp or work in [many] professions.” She is the founder of Soufra, a catering service run by refugee women in the camp, which now also has a roaming food truck and has been the subject of a documentary.

In the Pope Benedict Hall, surrounded by religious art and artefacts, she and fellow entrepreneurs gathered on December 4th to tell similarly dramatic stories to investors, philanthropists and religious leaders, including Cardinal Peter Turkson (pictured) from Ghana, who is the Vatican’s point-man on development and who acted as patron of the event. The companies presenting (both early-stage and mature businesses) spanned education, health, personal grooming and financial services. 

Chatterbox offers language lessons by refugees. Tarjimly (“translate for me” in Arabic) provides translation services. Natakallam (“we speak” in Arabic) does both. DoctHERs connects female doctors in Pakistan to “underserved communities” such as refugees. Leaf uses blockchain technology to connect the unbanked to the global economy. Uulala does this but also lets users build a credit profile through small transactions, such as paying a utility bill, and take out microloans.

An outfit called 51 labs, named after the 1951 UN Refugees Convention, is a start-up incubator from Kurdistan, in northern Iraq, which encourages collaboration between refugees and locals. The Lemon Tree Trust teaches refugees to grow gardens in the camps, while SEP Jordan sells refugee-embroidered scarves and bags. Samasource outsources digital work to the unemployed. WeatherTec turns atmospheric humidity into rain, to help fight water scarcity.

The initiative has already learned lessons from the problems encountered at the inaugural session last year, says Eric Harr, one of its founders. At that time, some $4m was raised from wealthy people around the world. Half was invested in nine companies focused on finding solutions to the problems of climate change. The rest was spent on organising the event itself. The Vatican was apparently not pleased with the resulting showiness, or the selfies. 

This time it was a smaller, more cautious affair, and the 90 participants were requested to refrain from using social media during the conference. Mr Harr says the challenge initially sought to do too much, acting as a start-up incubator and investor; now the event seeks simply to be a connector. Next year will focus on solutions to migration caused by the effects of climate change.

As the meeting was taking place in Rome, the 24th United Nations Conference on Climate Change was unfolding in Poland, and as is now standard practice, faith groups were raising their voice. A faith-based coalition spearheaded by the World Council of Churches called on the world’s governments to “fast from carbon” and hence apply the religious ideal of self-abnegation and asceticism on a planetary scale.    

But if more of the wealth commanded by the world’s religions were marshalled in an environmentally benign way, their contribution could go far beyond offering moral injunctions or even giving a boost to worthy start-ups. Pope Francis has been struggling, with mixed results, to bring some clarity and transparency to the Vatican’s murky finances. If a decent slice of those vast resources were deployed in ways that were not merely “ethical” (in the sense of avoiding activities like arms trading or tobacco) but pro-actively beneficial to the planet, it would really make a difference.

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