Benjamin Stephan on Diaspora Investments and Refugees

SFGC: Where are you from? Where have you lived? Where’s your favorite place you’ve visited?

Benjamin: I’m from Vienna, not the imperial Austrian capital, but rather the hinterland of Washington, DC. Geographically speaking, I’ve lived in St. Louis and London. In keeping with Pico Iyer’s orthodox that home has less to do with a piece of soil than a piece of soul, I’ve also lived vicariously through family, friends, and strangers who I’ve met while traveling. Asking my favorite place I have visited is such a loaded question, like asking a mother who her favorite child is. I’d have to say Seno, Laos because of the discoveries I made about my family, and because of the generosity and strength of the people who don’t have much but are willing to give so much.

SFGC: What is it about International Migration and Public Policy that drove you back to school for a second master’s degree?

Benjamin: My initial degree was in International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies. I wanted to refine my studies to focus on the nexus between migration and development. Migrants are inherent stakeholders with resources to contribute to development in their homelands. There is no greater indicator of development’s success than empowering people with the freedom of movement, and there is no greater indicator of development’s failure than forced displacement.

SFGC: Now working at The Aspen Institute’s Diaspora Investment Alliance, what is most exciting about connecting people to their country of origin through sustainable investments?

Benjamin: DIA’s mission is to unlock diaspora capital to achieve high social and financial impact in countries of origin. We are designing pathways for diasporas to strategically invest and/or donate in their countries of origin at significant scale and in sustainable ways. It is exciting to match migrants’ desires and capacities with opportunities that lead to impact. I enjoy working with the myriad of actors involved – migrants along the entire wealth spectrum, governments, donor entities, financial institutions, NGOs, academics, etc. – and it’s fascinating to learn the many incentives which contribute to the overall objective of origin country development.

SFGC: Pandoo Nation’s Rescue Camp mini-game incorporates gamified elements of refugee camps in an attempt to educate players on this subject. What do you believe young users can learn from this exposure?

Benjamin: So much. Firstly, that a refugee camp can be many different things – temporary, permanent, a makeshift camp, a mobile village, a city, etc. Users will learn the many push factors that drive people to flee their homes. Most importantly, I hope that users will come to see refugees not as a “burden,” but rather as stakeholders in the solution who have capacities in their own right. This presents a unique opportunity for donor and host nations. Migrants, and particularly refugees, are some of the most entrepreneurial people the world has to offer.

SFGC: Global Citizen Crush!?

Benjamin: It’s weird to say that my parents are my crush, but this question certainly goes to them. My mother was an orphaned child refugee from Indochina who, after an incredible life journey, settled with a position at the World Bank. My father I credit for my own wanderlust and ability to step outside of my comfort zone; when he was my age, he was eloping with his kayak to surf the mighty rivers of Central America and the American West. I’m blessed to have such wise parents who can teach so much.