Argument

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Refugee-Run Organizations Deserve More Money

Governments tend to fund large humanitarian agencies, but small groups run by refugees are a better investment.

By , a freelance researcher and writer covering refugees, migration and conflict, with a focus on Southeast Asia.
Venezuelan migrants stay at migrant shelter.
Venezuelan migrants stay at the Divina Providencia migrant shelter in Cúcuta, Colombia, on the border with Venezuela, on Feb. 7, 2019. SCHNEYDER MENDOZA/AFP via Getty Images

Within days of the Ugandan government announcing a lockdown in April last year, Robert Hakiza woke up one morning to find women from Kampala’s refugee community outside his home. “Would you help us? We don’t have anything to eat,” he recalled them saying.

A refugee himself, Hakiza fled the Democratic Republic of Congo for Uganda in 2008, where he set up Young African Refugees for Integral Development (YARID). To help some of Kampala’s 80,000 refugees who were struggling to put food on the table as the local economy ground to a halt under COVID-19 restrictions, Hakiza began fundraising over WhatsApp before turning to GoFundMe. He soon raised around $7,000. But it wasn’t nearly enough to help all the refugees and poor locals who he knew were in need.

Within days of the Ugandan government announcing a lockdown in April last year, Robert Hakiza woke up one morning to find women from Kampala’s refugee community outside his home. “Would you help us? We don’t have anything to eat,” he recalled them saying.

A refugee himself, Hakiza fled the Democratic Republic of Congo for Uganda in 2008, where he set up Young African Refugees for Integral Development (YARID). To help some of Kampala’s 80,000 refugees who were struggling to put food on the table as the local economy ground to a halt under COVID-19 restrictions, Hakiza began fundraising over WhatsApp before turning to GoFundMe. He soon raised around $7,000. But it wasn’t nearly enough to help all the refugees and poor locals who he knew were in need.

Organizations run by refugees like Hakiza have long plugged gaps in humanitarian work, working in parallel to and often largely ignored by the formal system. They have never received significant funding from donors. But as COVID-19 closed borders and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other international organizations limited their services, refugee-led initiatives became even more important. In camps where social distancing is next to impossible, refugees made and distributed masks while sharing information about how to stop the virus’s transmission. In cities, refugees helped one another when they were left out of government emergency programs offered to citizens during lockdowns.

With this overdue acknowledgement of their role, the money is now starting to flow to them from private foundations and the UNHCR—albeit slowly. Philanthropists are leading the way, and larger donors should follow.


Refugees rely on a mixture of informal networks and registered organizations in camps and cities around the world to educate their children, access health care, and earn a living. But donors have limited understanding of these self-help systems, said Alexander Betts, a professor at the University of Oxford and co-author of a recent book on refugee-led assistance. “Until COVID-19 struck,” he said, their work “wasn’t seen as an indispensable part of humanitarian response.”

The sudden interest in refugee-run initiatives comes as the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide is at a historic high of almost 80 million people, according to the UNHCR as of 2019. At the same time, the gap between humanitarian needs and funding is larger than ever. In 2020, donors contributed less than 50 percent of the budget requested by the United Nations for humanitarian responses, a shortfall of more than $19 billion.

Because many refugee-led groups are run by volunteers or with minimal staffing, they can do far more with less.

“The refugee system is failing refugees,” said Mustafa Alio, a Syrian refugee in Canada. He and other advocates have been pushing for greater representation of refugees within the humanitarian system that ostensibly responds to their needs. In 2019, those efforts began paying off: He served as a refugee advisor to Canada’s UNHCR Global Refugee Forum delegation.

However, representation is not enough, Alio said, because refugee-led organizations also need resources to help their communities be an equal partner at the table. Almost all these groups operate on shoestring budgets, funded by diaspora groups or refugees themselves. “We are working with our own money, with our own resources, even as refugees,” said Lublanc Prieto, a Venezuelan in Colombia who started her own foundation, Refugiados Unidos, in December last year.

Funding from the formal aid system is paltry, even though donors and humanitarian organizations committed 25 percent of overall financing to national and local organizations at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit. Since the summit, most estimates suggest somewhere from 1 to 3 percent goes to these organizations, with refugee-led groups receiving only a sliver of that.

The reason for these paltry amounts is the fiduciary requirements that come with receiving taxpayer money. Traditional donors are skittish; they worry most refugee-run initiatives won’t be able to manage budgets in the same way established, larger humanitarian organizations do. Many also lack formal registration and bank accounts. But they are also nimbler and better placed to respond quickly to refugees’ needs.

Because many refugee-led groups are run by volunteers or with minimal staffing, they can do far more with less. Supporting them directly is much cheaper than funneling money through a larger nongovernmental organization (NGO) with international staff that, in turn, may need to subcontract a local organization to run activities.

Where direct funding is available, the amounts are tiny. The UNHCR’s NGO Innovation Award recently gave seven refugee-led organizations $15,000 each. Later this year, the agency will begin awarding $4,000 grants under a pilot program to strengthen support for refugee initiatives. This recognition matters. But globally, the funding is “very small and very inadequate,” Betts said. Instead, refugees trying to get initiatives off the ground depend on prizes, crowdfunding, and chance meetings with philanthropists.

The pandemic has the potential to catalyze systemic change, said Sana Mustafa, the associate director of partnerships and engagement at Asylum Access, a U.S.-based organization that champions responses led by refugees, such as Mustafa, a Syrian refugee herself.

One promising sign is the shift in engagement between the UNHCR and refugee-led organizations during the pandemic. Prieto saw how the agency’s engagement with Venezuelan-led civil society in Colombia changed. “They realized that the people and the community trust us,” she said. But the UNHCR mainly needed Prieto and other refugee leaders to create links and help them reach the most vulnerable; it was not about handing money over.

Instead, private foundations are driving changes in funding.

In Uganda, Hakiza’s organization received a grant of $100,000 from the Open Society Foundations (OSF) to support its pandemic response between July and December last year, effectively doubling its normal budget for that half of the year. YARID is not alone among refugee-led initiatives in sub-Saharan Africa that benefit from philanthropic largess. Since mid-2019, OSF has invested $3.4 million in grants for refugee leadership and refugee-led organizations, with one third of that amount going to East Africa.

It makes sense to invest in smart activities that other humanitarian actors aren’t doing, said Anna Crowley, division director for protection at the Open Society Foundations. “They can do it with relatively little resourcing,” she said of YARID and other grantees.

And larger amounts of money are now becoming available. Last week, a coalition of refugee-run organizations convened by Asylum Access was awarded the $10 million Larsen Lam ICONIQ Impact Award, a major philanthropic bet on a new way forward. In addition to YARID in Uganda and Refugiados Unidos in Colombia, the coalition includes Basmeh & Zeitooneh in Lebanon, Refugees & Asylum Seekers Information Centre in Indonesia, and St. Andrew’s Refugee Services in Egypt. The six partners say their objective is twofold: to unlock further funding from other donors, both institutional and philanthropic, and boost the capacity of other organizations by supporting at least 45 other refugee-led organizations.

Hakiza struggled to find the words to express how he felt about the award. It took him a while to believe it. After he heard the good news, he thought: “Is it a joke, or is it reality?”

Betts pointed out the award is still small given the billions of dollars spent annually on humanitarian assistance but noted it has the potential to be transformative. Changing the funding landscape “relies upon a set of first movers,” he said. “Entrepreneurial funders [are] prepared to take risks.”

Alio, the Syrian refugee, is cautiously optimistic that things will eventually change with larger donors too. He knows from his advocacy with governments what is holding them back: “They freak out when they know that they are the first to do something,” he said.


Until now, refugee-led organizations have been caught in a vicious cycle: They need to show they are effective to receive money, but they can’t prove they are effective without money.

With new research and evidence from scholars and evaluations of refugee-run initiatives beginning to demonstrate they can deliver services and other support efficiently, the larger donors who bankroll the international humanitarian system may follow philanthropists’ lead.

But to work with refugee-led organizations, institutional funders will also need to shift their approach. Basmeh & Zeitooneh, which was set up in 2012, now delivers services to Syrians in Lebanon at an impressive scale: Its annual budget this year was more than $10 million. Even so, co-founder Yasmin Kayali said it’s still a challenge to access funding from Western aid agencies that have heavy reporting requirements and are often less willing to cover core operating costs, such as salaries for staff writing grant proposals and submitting financial reports. She feels the message is: “You can apply if you want, but you will never ever be able to qualify.”

The Canadian government has been less reticent than others in supporting refugee-run initiatives.

The Canadian government has been less reticent than others in supporting refugee-run initiatives. Its current ambassador to the United Nations, Bob Rae, in his former capacity as humanitarian special envoy, championed refugee leadership. In a report submitted to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last year, Rae called for the government to devote more resources to supporting refugees directly.

Canada recently committed to spending $40 million on education for refugees and displaced children in sub-Saharan Africa, which will provide grants and build capacity of refugee-led initiatives over the next five years. But only organizations registered in Canada could apply.

It will take far more money and political will to support refugee-run organizations directly and on the scale they deserve.

People like Prieto know these changes will take a very long time. “I don’t think it’s very visible what we do,” Prieto said. “I don’t think the system acknowledges what we do.” One day, she hopes refugees like herself will be seen as “people with capabilities, with qualities, with skills, and with a lot of potential.”

It’s taken a pandemic for the humanitarian system to recognize what has been happening all along: Refugees rely on one another, and their grassroots efforts deserve more credit for the services and support they provide. And there’s no reason they shouldn’t receive funding, whether from philanthropists, donors, or the UNHCR, to do this work and expand it further.

Bryony Lau is a freelance researcher and writer covering refugees, migration and conflict, with a focus on Southeast Asia.
 Twitter: @btxlau