More than emergencies: Making systems work for refugees

Ahmed Shibly, a falafel shop owner, benefited from ECHO's toolkit program, which provides assistance to refugees with small businesses to help improve their situation and thus secure their livelihoods. Photo by: Dina Baslan / ECHO / CC BY-NC-ND

In 2010, displaced households accounted for approximately 43.3 million of the world’s population. With a dramatic increase in protracted crises globally, today that number has soared to nearly 60 million men, women and children living in exile for an average of 20 years. During that time, as news cycles wane and years of displacement lengthen, the initial flood of emergency assistance gradually gives way to a meager trickle of support. Now more than ever it is imperative for the humanitarian community to rethink strategies along this relief to development continuum to better provide for the long-term needs of the world’s displaced.

Many tried and true traditional approaches to providing assistance have become outdated at best, and at worst, undermine our ability to adequately address the evolving needs of displaced people. For example, an estimated 59 percent of refugees tend to relocate to urban and peri-urban environments, but emergency operations remain best suited for camp-based populations. Similarly, although 80 percent of crises persist for more than 10 years, financing for humanitarian operations remains short term and therefore shortsighted, with a singular focus on emergency relief and limited scope to accommodate long-term needs. For more recent waves of displaced people fleeing protracted crises, traditional approaches are ill-equipped to provide durable solutions that last, and we as the international community have an obligation to serve them better.

In an effort to address this new normal, civil society has responded by designing increasingly more innovative solutions that empower refugees in times of displacement. A growing body of evidence illustrates the success of programs that provide financial assistance such as microcredit, micro-insurance, vouchers and cash transfers. These initiatives can help stabilize refugees financially, while also stimulating local markets. Evidence appears promising; when designed correctly, these instruments can be remarkably beneficial. Better still, when used in combination with complementary interventions, they become even more powerful.

Recognizing the multidimensional nature of poverty and the need for a multifaceted response, beginning nearly 15 years ago, BRAC — an international development organization based in Bangladesh — embarked on a mission to design a suite of complementary services aimed at radically transforming the lives of the very poorest. The result was a time-bound, two-year program combining economic, social and psychosocial support now known as the “graduation” approach. The approach includes upfront capital (in the form of livestock, poultry, or tools of a trade) for the participant to launch a microenterprise, consumption support, technical and life skills training, savings, financial education, health services, and regular coaching from a mentor. After two years and meeting a series of critical milestones, a participant is able to “graduate” from intensive support into sustainable livelihoods. To date, graduation has expanded beyond Bangladesh’s borders to more than 30 countries and millions of participants in upwards of 50 diverse programs implemented by governments, NGOs, MFIs and international organizations such as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Working with partners such as Trickle Up, UNHCR has adapted the approach to meet local needs in five pilot countries, incorporating interventions specific to refugees such as post-traumatic psychosocial support and legal counseling. In Egypt, refugees received cash assistance and links to wage and self-employment. In Ecuador, many enrolled in local job skills training courses and were provided financial education and savings accounts through partnership with the country’s largest bank. Regardless of context, integrated development approaches are designed to incorporate complementary interventions that reinforce one another and cater to the diverse needs of a household.

For the most vulnerable population, multifaceted programs can help build self-reliance and resilience to future shocks by not only stabilizing incomes, but also accommodating pressing needs, such as food, shelter, health care and school fees. This enables the participant to focus on building a livelihood and getting back on their feet.

In host countries, refugees too often become ostracized both geographically and socially, relegated to the margins of society and cut off from vital market opportunities. Out of necessity, it is then that the most resource-constrained become the most resourceful, engaging in the informal market when they encounter legislative or de facto barriers to formal employment. These barriers not only impede their ability to provide for their households, but prevent them from contributing to the local economy. Despite evidence demonstrating the contrary, such measures are predicated upon the false assumption that permitting refugees the right to work produces adverse impacts on local wages and employment.

If we are to sustain and support the millions of people currently displaced and those still to come, we must allocate resources to developing holistic and comprehensive approaches that equip them with the tools to succeed long term. As a community of practitioners, we should advocate for programs that

1. Develop a clear profile of the needs of refugees that reflects local realities, drawing on participatory approaches wherever possible

2. Incorporate long-term thinking from the outset, integrating a livelihoods strategy as the linchpin upon which wraparound services are built in the wake of emergency support. This can include skills training, financial education, and links to wage or self-employment, as appropriate to local contexts

3. Partner to leverage strengths of peer organizations and tap into local resources

4. Underscore the right to work in accordance with SDG 8

5. Integrate learning from evidence-backed programs with proven long-term impacts

As a community, we must continue to place pressure on donors to change the way the global humanitarian system operates, to provide longer-term financing that enables us to think past the onset of the next emergency. However, in the meantime, we as practitioners must also take advantage of the full range of tools at hand. This requires us to rethink our tried and true models to be creative in our approach, unafraid to test, iterate and evolve new durable solutions that meet the diverse needs of millions of displaced people. Only then can we become as resourceful as the individuals we serve, designing forward-thinking strategies that truly meet their needs.

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About the author

  • Lauren Whitehead

    Lauren Whitehead is a program manager for the Ultra Poor Graduation Initiative at BRAC, where she promotes global advocacy and technical assistance for the Graduation approach. Prior to joining BRAC, she was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to Ecuador where she supported the launch and evaluation of one of the first Graduation pilots led by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Lauren possesses a background in research, fundraising, and program design with a focus on livelihoods and financial inclusion, and holds degrees from Princeton University and Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.