Refugee Camps: Potential Grounds For Startup Societies

Refugee camps: We’ve seen the news and many of us certainly wouldn’t want to live in one. However, there is something relatively unique about them. While most nation states have highly complex legal, economic and political institutions, a refugee camp has little in comparison. This makes them an opportunity for new and experimental governance.

Enter Vinay Gupta…software engineer, disaster consultant and global resilience guru. According to Vice he is, ‘The man whose job it is to constantly imagine the total collapse of humanity in order to save it.’ Not only is he a highly skilled computer programmer concerned about environmental risk, state failure, war, resource scarcity and the poor, but a man with the vision of a better world for those currently at the bottom of the food chain. His core aims are to find technological and engineering solutions to alleviate the suffering of those in poverty and those displaced by catastrophes.

A tech geek, a philosopher, a doer, he is the living embodiment of the saying ‘Keep your head in the clouds and your feet on the ground.’ His achievement so far: the design of a self-governance system for refugees. Really, it’s a system of self-governance for whoever wants it – but it can be applied most readily where no functioning state still exists. It could also be applied in slums, for example. Although named a ‘State in a Box,’ Gupta notes, ‘This effort is called State In A Box because the likely form factor of a deployable solution is actually about 20 trucks, and State in About Twenty Trucks is somewhat unwieldy.”

Is this an idea way ahead of its time? Or a brilliant solution eager for implementation?


Although he is a tech geek, there is no lack of philosophical, political or even spiritual wisdom behind Gupta. He appreciates that one reason for the lack of solutions for refugees worldwide is that nation-state governments did not arise, and have not evolved, to solve global issues. Yet the harsh reality remains: refugees (22.5 million of them), among others (such as the 65.6 million forcibly displaced, the 10 million stateless people, and the 10% of our population who live in extreme poverty), often face some of the most basic challenges of survival such as finding food and water, and staying warm.

He has no shortage of exuberant solutions...Gupta has suggested that ‘the obvious solution would be for the oil-rich Gulf States to take them in en masse – build a couple of new cities…do some of that, ‘make the desert bloom’ stuff in Saudi Arabia, and settle a few million people there. Problem solved. 'Failing that, he has also suggested turning refugee camps into universities where refugees can study online, and it is hard to argue with his statement that ‘There is no problem in this world that access to 150 million more educated human beings would not improve.’

But he is the first to point out that, before any real progress can be made to improve the livelihoods of refugees, we need to accept the permanence of their situation. Although some will return home at the end of conflict, millions live whole lives in refugee camps, and the faster that fact is accepted, the faster a better-quality lifestyle with a sense of homely permanence could be designed.

Why could this solution not be applied anywhere? Because established institutions are founded on antiquated realities: ‘our thinking about the State derives from historical accidents like monarchy, gold and paper ballots. The structures of our democracy rest on foundations built when travel was slow and before the invention of the public key cryptography. Taxation rests on a framework which predates credit cards and electronic bank records…’ and so on. The SIAB solution would be virtually impossible to implement on top of these long-established, albeit inefficient practices. While in the commercial sector there is regular restructuring to improve inefficient systems. In government, innovation is much slower, so state services are much less cost-efficient. We pay for stability with inefficiency, as the public sector is fundamentally less open to structural change. In practical terms too, the State in a Box idea would never work in the US as it would be impossible to put their 70,000-page tax code onto a website that a normal user could understand. Gupta therefore suggests that it might only work inside a refugee camp or a crisis area, where the majority of the complexity has been wiped out of societal infrastructure by disruption, and you essentially start from nothing and work upwards. A refugee camp is the perfect testing ground, as there is often a lack of, and need for, state functions such as security, economic regulation and support, taxes, services etc., and nobody providing it.


State in a Box (SIAB) is the project attempting to build a state, from scratch, with modern technological infrastructure. It revolves around an analysis of what the core tasks of the state are, followed by a systematic approach to apply technology so that it might complete each one of these functions. Basically, with only a bunch of smartphones (enough for everyone), a load of computers, and networking gear, every person would get a kind of website which performs the functions which the state should be providing for. Because it is on blockchains, it’s would not be a website but rather a distributed application: Gupta argues that it would be possible to run a state-like entity on the Ethereum platform, which would provide six of the most important services which a government normally provides. Each refugee in a camp, for example, would get property rights and would be identified on a register. There would be the possibility of electoral democracy and taxation. Each person could log into this website with a secure ID token or biometric password, and after verifying that he or she was a citizen of that entity, they would get to interact with the processes. They would be able to see, for example, ‘here’s my bank account, I’ve made these transactions, here are the bills/laws I’ve voted on, here are the people I’ve chosen to represent me and these are the decisions they’ve made which I agree with. Here’s the patch of land I own, and on it there’s a house (or a hexayurt)’ etc.

A camp would become a microstate with participatory democracy, budgeting, proper identity database, proper healthcare systems, collective budgeting and bargaining: the re-emergence of collective control in the absence of central government. Gupta’s mission has evolved from the SIAB idea to a Special Economic Zone city (comparable to Hong Kong and Singapore), made up entirely of self-governing refugees dually empowered by SIAB and economic regulations friendly to business creation and free trade. This would not only benefit those within the microstate, but whole regions currently marginalized in the global economy, as they would gain powerful trading hubs from which to operate. Basically, imagine what a Tanzanian equivalent of Hong Kong would do for the whole of East Africa.

The key issues? Unwillingness for participants to collaborate, lack of trust in the technology, and technological illiteracy. Refugee camps often have a conglomeration of people from different cultures, political systems and languages. Different cultures have different ideas about property. Are those unfamiliar with technology suddenly going to trust in software to count votes fairly? And only 50% of refugee children have access to primary education – even if the language barrier were to be overcome, people need to be able to read. And it’s all very well saying that by 2020, 90% of the world’s population over 6 will have a smartphone, but the 10% excluded are probably going to be exactly those which this project is reaching out to. Yet Gupta isn’t concerned about these issues. When I asked him about the issue of trust in technology, for example, his words were, “Well, they don’t really have a fucking choice, to be honest.” With regards reading, he argues that more and more children are teaching themselves to read by using smartphones.

Another core issue is the technological expertise needed to create such a project. While Gupta has written a white paper on Identity Services, it is necessary to look further afield in order to find evidence that such a wholesomely state-like platform might be possible. We can see the progress in developed states, governments and institutions, as some are beginning to use blockchain to carry out some of these functions.

Sweden is in the process of putting real estate transactions on the blockchain, so that all parties involved will be able to track the progress of agreements. In Ghana, Bitland, a blockchain-based initiative of tech pioneers from the US, Denmark and Ghana, is creating a service for individuals and groups to record title deeds on the Bitland blockchain to act as a permanent and audible record. The UK government is trialing the blockchain to create a more immutable system of welfare and payments.  The Estonian eHealth Authority has recently signed a deal with a blockchain pioneer, Guardtime, to put their nation’s medical records on the blockchain. While projects are largely in their early stages, there is an exponentially growing interest in the technology and its potential, there are experiments on the brink of unfolding, which will undoubtedly help important lessons be learnt.  

So, bits and pieces of this refugee camp microstate are beginning to appear. Technologically it will become possible within the near future. But what might make it a reality? And later, scalable? Michael Strong said that that startup culture was essentially about thinking ‘what sucks, and how can I fix it?’ Maybe politicians will soon realize that refugee SEZ microstates would be the most efficient way out of the refugee crisis. Maybe they will realize, but different political interests will interfere. Maybe a few bright and caring entrepreneurs will quietly crack on.