By Nina Strochlic (NG, April)
Bidibidi, with a quarter million people living in many villages in northwestern Uganda, is the second largest refugee camp in the world, after the Rohingya camp in Bangladesh. [To create the camp,] a forest was razed and 250 miles of roads were carved through head-high grass and over streams to make room for a flood of South Sudanese fleeing war just a few hours north.
A great experiment is underway at Bidibidi. An industrial skyline of water and cell towers hovers over sturdy mud huts and small farm plots. Schools and health centers are built from brick, slathered in concrete, and fitted with glass windows. Taps run freshwater, small solar panels power streetlights, as well as radios blasting music from barbershops, televisions airing soccer matches in community halls, and cell phones snaking from charging stations in shops.
In Uganda, under one of the world’s most progressive policies, those who’ve fled the nearby civil war can live, farm, work freely. Here, Bidibidi’s future is discussed at the highest levels of government and the international community. The goal: To build a livable city out of a refugee camp, one that might endure even if the refugees return home someday.
Unlike many refugee camps, which are isolated and gated, Bidibidi merges almost seamlessly into its surroundings. The refugees’ homes, surrounded by corn, peanuts, and sesame plants, are nearly identical to those in the Ugandan villages.
Long-term stability means shifting the refugee-camp paradigm from humanitarian aid toward private industry. A California-based think tank called Refugee Cities is lobbying refugee-hosting governments to build development zones that could draw foreign investment. “If you create the legal space in which economic activity is allowed and people are given basic legal stability, you can unleash tremendous dynamism that ultimately creates prosperity,” founder Michael Castle Miller says. “Not just for people there–but throughout the country.”
Blueprints and budgets drafted by various humanitarian organizations show how economic development might come to Bidibidi: wi-fi zones, mini-electric grids, large-scale production facilities. For now, business is small-scale, and private companies are only starting to think about how to tap Bidibidi’s idle labor force.