OpenIDEO is an open innovation platform. Join our global community to solve big challenges for social good. Sign Up / Login or Learn more

Creating agency in refugee youth through social entrepreneurship

Young Change Agents uses the lens of social entrepreneurship to help youth in emergency situations see problems as opportunities.

Photo of Margaret
4 4

Written by

What problem does your innovation solve?

Entrepreneurship in refugee camps has been shown to reduce aid dependency, reduce boredom and crime, as well as giving life meaning. Although refugee camps are set up as temporary, the reality is some youth will be displaced for many years. Young people are not being provided programs which build agency and an entrepreneurial mindset - critical thinking, creativity, communication. They deeply understand the problems in the community, yet need the skillset and toolsets to make a difference.

Explain your innovation.

Young Change Agents is a social entrepreneurship program specifically designed for youth aged 10-18. It was initially developed based on the needs of displaced/disadvantaged youth in Cartagena, Colombia in 2013/14 and has subsequently been developed for youth in Australia. Target groups have included girls, youth with disability, teenage mothers and migrant/refugee youth. The program has two parts: a 2.5 day program which is has 12 parts (and can be broken down into smaller session over a longer period) where the groups use design thinking to develop a social enterprise idea and a second stage youth incubator program to help groups further develop their ideas. It had been developed with scale in mind. We build the capacity of youth workers, teachers and local entrepreneurs to work with the youth and have an online learning program specifically for this train-the-trainer model. This includes the resources required to run the program. The program is adaptable to the environment it is run in. In Colombia we had no technology and the program was delivered using paper/pens. In Australia, the youth utilise technology. We believe this program could be adapted for youth in emergency situations. This is based on studies including, "Entrepreneurship and Innovation: How Institutional Voids Shape Economic Opportunities in Refugee Camps” by Cambridge's Judge Business School and anecdotal evidence on entrepreneurial success in camps including Za’atari with its 3000 small businesses.

Who benefits?

Beneficiaries: a) adult teachers/entrepreneurs/youth workers from the refugee community who will receive capacity building in order to instruct the youth program b) refugee youth (focus on girls) who participate in the program - 40 participants per 2.5 day program with selected teams going through to the next stage c) The wider refugee population as the youth develop and launch their social enterprises. d) the host country as they see a decreased reliance on aid and a positive economic contribution. For example, a team of 5 girls aged 15 might focus on solving the problem of "rubbish". They might work on a social enterprise model to create products from recycled materials. Another team may look to address telecommunications issues and set up a mobile repair service or negotiate bulk rates with mobile providers. This can be scaled to 100's of youth per teacher/youth worker. Success will be measured based both on learning outcomes (primary) and no of youth-run enterprises (secondary).

How is your innovation unique?

This program is unique as it has been designed specifically for youth and promotes capacity building of adults within the local community to deliver the program. It uses design-thinking to take youth from communicating the issues they want to solve through to root cause analysis, ideation, business modelling, validation, prototyping, pitching and development. We have invested in developing the capacity building materials online and also have offline materials available where technology is not available. We are unaware of youth-specific social entrepreneurship initiatives within emergency scenarios, however there are models of success with adult-run enterprise within this context. For example, the UNHCR has offered space within the Za’atari camp to let the adult micro entrepreneurs sell their products. This program could complement programs like "The Tiger Girls" initiative in this same camp which provides educational opportunities to at-risk girls.

What are some of your unanswered questions about the idea?

1. What level of technology is available in each camp to facilitate the capacity building training or will we provide paper-based materials and F2F instruction 2. Which/how many languages will we need to translate to 3. Are there options to subcontract services from foreign aid budgets. (i.e as a customer of the social enterprises for example, the preparation of food, logistics, healthcare, education, security etc). 4. Which camps would have a higher likelihood of success (success factors including adults with teaching/entrepreneurial/youth worker background, youth interested in participating, potential for trade within the environment, buy-in from aid organisations etc)

Tell us more about you.

My name is Margaret O'Brien, I am the co-Founder of the Australian-based NFP social enterprise, Young Change Agents. I have worked across business and social enterprise as well as in international development. Young Change Agents has delivered this program to over 700 youth over 18 months. We have worked alongside partners including the Australian Red Cross, Cerebral Palsy Alliance and the United Women's Muslim Association. We would look to work in partnership with NGO's and local aid partners.

What is the primary type of emergency setting where your innovation would operate?

  • Natural disaster
  • Prolonged displacement

Emergency Setting - Elaborate

This program would suit settings where youth are in prolonged displacement. Whether they stay in this location for a number of years or move to a new host country, the skills they will learn on this program will be valuable in creating opportunity (economic, environmental, social).

Where will your innovation be implemented?

We would be looking to work with local partners and therefore cannot be specific on location at this stage. Due to the Za’atari camp having already shown some success in conjunction with the UNHCR and already offering some educational opportunities (eg Tiger Girls) this may be a suitable pilot location.

Experience in Implementation Country(ies)

  • No, not yet.

In-country Networks

Young Change Agents have worked with the Australian Red Cross within Australia and are in early discussions with their International team about how the program could apply in an international context. Again, we would be very open to discussions with locally-based organisations who we could colloborate with on this.

Sector Expertise

  • I've worked in a sector related to my innovation for more than a year.

Sector Expertise - Elaborate

Young Change Agents have delivered our program to over 700 youth in 18 months. This includes: - 30 youth with disability in conjunction with Cerebral Palsy Alliance, Telstra and NSW Family and Community Services - 120 girls as part of the Australian Governments' Women in STEM and entrepreneurship initiative - 50 disengaged youth in rural and regional areas - 25 young muslims - 10 teenage parents (with the Australian Red Cross) - 400+ youth from disadvantaged areas

Innovation Maturity

  • Roll-out/Ready to Scale: I have completed a pilot and am ready or in the process of expanding.

Organization Status

  • We are a registered non-profit, charity, NGO, or community-based organization.

Organization Location

Sydney, Australia


How has your Idea changed based on feedback?

Feedback from the Australian Red Cross has given me a different perspective of where the pilot program should be. They have valuable on-the-ground partnerships, resources and volunteer networks in areas with many displaced youth. Pilot options could include Myanmar, Philippines, Vanuatu or the Solomon Islands.

Who will implement this Idea?

Young Change Agents would take the lead in program development and collaborate with the Australian Red Cross on the ground. Young Change Agents are based in Australia but would travel as required. Australian Red Cross has local partners and volunteers in the local communities.

What challenges do your end-users face? (1) What is the biggest challenge that your end-users face on a day-to-day, individual level? (2) What is the biggest systems-level challenge that affects your end-users?

Following basic neccesities being met (food, water, shelter) the biggest challenge is a lack of agency and a sense of hopelessness. Youth in emergency situations don't feel they can contribute to solving their own problems. In feedback from the first iteration of our program in Cartagena, Colombia working with displaced youth, this was highlighted to me by the following comments: "I would have thought it was too dangerous to open a library here" (in the context of opening a library and literacy program in the neighbourhood) "I used to think, "why don't people help us", now I think, "we can helps ourselves" (of a female participant in our social enterprise program). Additionally this lack of agency is coupled with lack of education, lack of mentoring and access to funding and connections

How is your organization considering sustainable growth in order to continue making an impact over time?

Young Change Agents is an Australian based social enterprise that operates on a fee-for-service model (programs and online learning licence fee). Additionally we have also received grants including the Women in STEM and Entrepreneurship (WISE) grant from the Australian Government. We have partnered with the NSW and QLD State Governments (Department of Education) to roll out our programs in Australian schools. We also work with local Government to run holiday programs and theme-based programs (for example, reducing violence against women where the youth will design social enterprise models)

Tell us about your vision for this project: (1) share one sentence about the impact that you would like to see from this project in five years and (2) what is the biggest question/hurdle you need to address to get there?

IMPACT: By 2021 we aim to bring our programs to at-risk youth across the Asia Pacific reaching a minimum of 3 countries and 50,000 youth. We aim to do this through partnerships and capacity building of 100+ local teachers and mentors on the ground. QUESTION: How do we develop our pilot country projects to ensure we develop strong community-based partnerships, maintain quality and develop local business networks and seed-funding?

How do you currently measure (or plan to measure) outcomes for this project?

In all of our programs we use a social impact measurement framework includinga theory of change. (which may be different per local community based on the circumstances of the emergency situation). We would measure how the youth progress against our soft skills and enterprise skills learning objectives.

What is the timeline for your project Idea? What are the key steps for implementation in the next 1-3 years?

1. Identify pilot country, local implementation partners and funding 2. Empathy activities with local youth in order to adapt program to their needs (how many sessions/days, what resources are available etc) 3. Development and validation of local approach (validation against 5 riskiest assumptions) 4. Pilot program with local staff and youth 5. Evaluation and review 6. Capacity building and rollout 7. Additional countries (repeat steps 1-6)

My organization's operational budget for 2016 was:

  • Between $100,000 and $500,000 USD

How many of your team’s paid, full-time staff are currently based in the location where the beneficiaries of your proposed Idea live?

  • No paid, full-time staff

Is your organization registered in the country that you intend to implement your Idea in?

  • We are a registered entity, but not in the country in which we plan to implement our Idea.

How long have you and your colleagues been working on this Idea together?

  • Less than 6 months

What do you need the most support with for your innovation?

  • Understanding User and/or Community


Join the conversation:

Photo of Christopher Laughlin

Hi Margaret, I like this idea and would love to discuss further. I am also based in Australia. Please contact me on LinkedIn.

Photo of Margaret

Thanks Christopher - I have now linkedin with you and happy to chat. Can you email me some possible times to

View all comments