In 2018, the global number of displaced persons reached 68 million. These humanitarian emergencies are beyond anything experienced in living memory and have overwhelmed the underfunded and unsustainable humanitarian system. In efforts to expand the financial capacity of the global humanitarian system, there has been a growing emphasis on tapping into private sector resources. By better understanding the private sector’s core competitive advantages and strategic interests, this project explores the factors contributing to the emergence and effectiveness of joint humanitarian and private collaboration efforts designed to benefit refugees. Through desk research on existing partnerships, semi-structured interviews with key stakeholders, site visits with partners in Jordan and Uganda, and expert roundtables and public discussions, the Urban Institute has gathered insights on both conceptual and practical aspects of partnerships benefiting refugees. This study develops a practical playbook to better equip both humanitarian agencies and private firms to evaluate various options for collaboration, generate ideas, and share tips for operationalization.


  • Systematically review, document, and analyze key features of existing humanitarian-private sector collaborations across multiple contexts
  • Conduct a systemic stocktaking of successful (and unsuccessful) collaborations with the objective of distilling good practice principals
  • Design and apply a stylized conceptual model of private-humanitarian collaboration linking private sector expertise with the needs of refugees
  • Provide humanitarian actors an applied playbook for tapping into private sector resources to help improve the socioeconomic wellbeing of refugees
  • Make an original, evidence-based contribution to the literature on humanitarian-private sector collaboration in refugee settings


  • Private companies and humanitarian organizations face significant startup costs, which can be prohibitive.
  • Local intermediaries play a key role in the inception of a successful partnership, as they bypass information asymmetries, reduce risks, and mitigate competitive tendencies that can become significant barriers to partnership creation.
  • The most successful partnerships are flexible and receive strong support from senior leadership with clear goals and open communication.
  • Private entities must have a clear and robust business case for serving refugees, as this can benefit both the private entity and the refugees they help.


  • A global refugee clearinghouse, with an international secretariat and strong regional presence, can help match private companies with compatible humanitarian organizations.
    • By being free from the influence of major existing players such as global non-profits, corporations, or development banks, a clearinghouse can more effectively achieve three primary objectives:
      • Overcoming information asymmetries in the private and humanitarian partnership space, as each sector would be more aware of the other’s needs, aspirations, and worldviews.
      • Undertaking monitoring, evaluation, and learning through research to ensure that lessons from past partnerships are well-documented, disseminated, and replicated.
      • Providing partner due diligence through transparency to allow for potential partners to understand each other better before entering an arrangement.
  • Making use of innovative financing mechanisms such as blended finance, impact bonds, or results-based financing, will allow for there to be multiple sources of funding that can avoid monopoly by any stakeholder or sector.
  • Showcasing successful cases of private and humanitarian actors’ benefits from partnerships will motivate potential future partners to explore such arrangements. Building on this idea, companies and non-profits should share data as best as they can, to enable more robust cost-benefit analyses.

The project was completed in June 2018.

Links to Reports

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future