More people around the globe are displaced from their home countries today than at any time since the end of World War II. Some have left countries convulsed by extremism, and it’s crucial that these elements don’t follow or take root among refugees and other migrants fleeing from armed conflict or the violence of poverty.

Among the many methods used to peacefully counter extremism are dialogue and diplomacy. But design can be crucial, too — especially for facilities such as refugee camps.

“If we can create safety, good health care and education in the camps that is based on thoughtful design and relationships and place-making, I’ve got to believe it’s going to help [counter extremism],” said John Griffith, head of global operations at the Minneapolis-based American Refugee Committee (ARC).

Griffith, a former Target executive, is deeply steeped in the design dynamics that distinguish the retailer, and he believes that “design democracy” needn’t be rare or expensive. In fact, it “can happen every day,” he said.

If so, each day — and the future — can be better for refugees and other displaced people, including the more than 3 million whom ARC serves in 11 African and Asian countries.

ARC’s most notable prototype of how integrated design can deliver social services more holistically is its Asili project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. For Asili and other ARC efforts, Griffith stressed the organization’s collaboration, and said that among ARC’s private-sector partners are architectural firm RSP, based in Minneapolis, and globally noted California-based design firm IDEO. From the public sector, governmental entities including the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) play a crucial role.

Partnership can indeed act as a force multiplier, USAID Assistant Administrator Eric Postel said during a recent visit to Minneapolis.

“The beginning of our mission statement is ‘We partner,’ and that’s what we are increasingly doing, because there is so much interest, energy, ideas and creativity around the world — including here in this state,” Postel said.

Minnesota is a “hotbed” for global engagement, he added, listing the state’s deep diaspora communities, nongovernmental organizations, faith-based organizations and business people, as well as multiple multinational firms as testament to the depth and breadth of local efforts having a global impact.

Minnesotans, Postel said, “have a lot of humanitarian impulses — they help their neighbors, and they help their neighbors around the world.”

The depth of that hotbed will be apparent at Thursday’s “Diplomacy Begins Here Summit,” hosted by Global Minnesota in partnership with the State Department and Global Ties U.S. Taking place at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, the summit’s subject of “Peacebuilding Approaches to Countering Extremism” will reflect the state’s stake in international issues.

Postel pointed to ARC’s efforts as well as those from many Minnesota-based entities such as the GHR Foundation as examples of how design isn’t only about places, but processes, such as interfaith dialogues. “There is a special skill and art to this, and I think that is one of the things they bring in a profound way,” Postel said.

All of these efforts can play a part in countering extremism. “In some countries, and in some cases, the work has been shown to hold off extremism or deal with some of the tensions that are precursors,” he said.

And despite rising isolationist tendencies in the West, ignoring global challenges may only make them metastasize.

“Maybe 30 years ago, if there was a country that was poorly governed, and it was in the middle of nowhere with no likely trade prospects for us and not geopolitical strategic influence, we would just ignore it,” Postel said.

“But now,” he added, “somebody in that country can get infected with Ebola and Zika and get on a plane and be here in 12 hours. And we know that those places when they are ungoverned, people can practice blowing things up and have a base. And so I think more Americans have seen that we literally can’t leave any place on the planet ungoverned, untouched, because then those problems can fester there and come home to us in one plane ride.”

Citing Brexit and Western discontent over the challenges of globalism, Griffith sees “huge pressure building across the system to become isolationist in our thinking.”

Because this shift comes amid the imperative of developing innovative and inexpensive peacebuilding ways to counter extremism, including place and program design, USAID and Minnesota individuals and institutions will play an even more prominent role.

“We’re trying to work ourselves out of a job by helping these countries develop,” Postel said.

But until then, Postel said, “We’ll keep at it in partnership with Minnesota.”


John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.