Event details and recordings available here.

The Local Engagement Refugee Research Network (LERRN) and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) hosted their third joint webinar on 15 December 2020. Focused on refugee leadership, the webinar discussed the importance of refugee participation and refugee-led organizations as service-delivery providers in humanitarian settings during and beyond COVID-19. The webinar attracted over 104 participants from 14 countries, viewing from the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, Europe, South and North America.

Anchored on an article recently published in Forced Migration Review, entitled “By Refugees, for Refugees: Refugee Leadership during COVID-19 and beyond”, the webinar drew on the perspectives of refugee leaders, Pascal Zigashane from Action pour le Progrès and Diala Ayman from the Molham team, and Stella Ogunlade from UNHCR and Gillian Gillen from Global Affairs Canada with opening and closing comments from Kathryn Toure from the IDRC. The webinar was co-moderated by Mustafa Alio and James Milner.

The discussion highlighted the critical role refugee-led organizations play as first responders during emergencies like COVID-19. When international actors have faced mobility constraints due to the pandemic, Refugee-led Organizations (RLOs) have been on the frontlines serving their communities. These accomplishments are exemplified by Action pour le Progrès and the Molham Team. Action pour le Progrès provided food, face masks, and sanitizer to refugees in Kakuma Camp and facilitated capacity building training for community residents on healthcare and physiotherapy. Similarly, the Molham Team delivered food assistance to over 39,000 forcibly displaced persons during Ramadan and repairing the homes of 130 Syrian refugee families following the Beirut blast. In 2020, Diala Ayman said, “the Molham team managed to collect 9 million dollars,” providing “life-saving services to thousands of refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan.” Beyond these two examples, the seven RLO recipients of the 2020 UNHCR NGO Innovation Award also demonstrate the valuable contributions of RLOs.

Yet, despite the capacity and contributions that RLOs offer in protection and assistance before and during the pandemic, they face significant recognition and funding challenges. Access to funding remains a considerable challenge as RLOs, James Milner acknowledges, are caught in a “catch-22” where they need to demonstrate experience to qualify for funding, but they need funding to gain experience. Even when RLOs demonstrate significant capacity and expertise, Pascal Zigashane asserts, they remain excluded from many funding mechanisms and have limited access to decision-making processes. Notwithstanding the valuable work of Refugee-led Organizations, they are also not always recognized or known outside of their communities.

Panelists agreed that refugee participation and refugee-led organizations are essential and beneficial for refugee protection and assistance. Stella Ogunlade affirmed that UNHCR’s “work would improve with the active participation of RLOs.” Similarly, Kathryn Toure, acknowledging IDRC’s commitment to the LERRN partnership and recognizing the imbalance between the dominance of forced migration research in the Global North while “most of the world’s forcibly displaced populations, including refugees, are hosted in the countries of the Global South,” lamented that “local knowledge is often overlooked and underused.” She stressed that “international compacts and agreements on displaced populations need to reflect better the interests, priorities, concerns and perspectives of refugee communities and host countries in the global south.” Gillian Gillen also stressed the Government of Canada’s commitment to refugee participation through Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy, integrating meaningful refugee participation in policy work. Canada also demonstrated its commitment by making history in December 2019 as the first country with a refugee advocate and former refugee, Mustafa Alio, in its delegation to the UNHCR Global Refugee Forum.

The panelists also acknowledged that there is an opportunity to leverage and build on existing measures for greater refugee inclusion and support to RLOs. Stella Ogunlade highlighted UNHCR’s work with refugee organizations since 2015 and during COVID-19. One example is the UNHCR NGO Innovation Award that celebrates NGOs who developed innovative approaches to protect and deliver services to refugees and other persons of concern to UNHCR. Among the seven RLOs that won the award for 2020 was the Refugee Youth Education Hub, whose founder – Abdullahi Mire – was a speaker at the LERRN-IDRC webinar on refugee education in November 2020. Asserting that the UN agency has a long history of engaging with refugees through camp management committees, peaceful coexistence committees, tools for participatory assessment, and multi-stakeholder and community-based approaches, Ms. Ogunlade acknowledges that there is a need for strengthening systematic engagement with refugees and refugee-led organizations. Gillian Gillen said that the Government of Canada has increased funding to country-based pooled funds, which provide financing directly to NGOs. Other Canadian funding opportunities that may benefit RLOs include the Canadian Fund for Local Initiatives for small-scale and high-impact projects, the Women’s Voice and Leadership Program for women’s rights organizations, and the Equality Fund.

Concluding that there is a need to shift the conversation from “if” refugee participation and leadership is crucial to “how” to make it happen, the speakers emphasized that institutionalizing refugee participation at all policymaking and practice levels has vast potential for transformative change. They proposed the following:

  1. Strengthening creative solutions: RLOs have raised money independently through innovative solutions such as asking for refugee volunteers’ contributions, fundraising campaigns, and individual donations. These measures, integrated with capacity-building and flexible funding, can contribute towards equal partnerships. Supporting capacity-building can help these RLOs gain access to funding.
  2. Capacity building: Panelists agreed that strengthening the capacity of RLOs is critical to meaningful participation. These could include supporting efforts such as the Kakuma Refugee Network that link up with educational institutions and others to build partnerships that inspire positive changes, and the Molham Team focused on building local refugee-led businesses’ as a key for better allocation of resources, efficient project implementation, and building partnerships with INGOs.
  3. Flexible Funding: Access to funding remains a challenge for refugee-led organizations. Mustafa Alio pointed out that “In 2019, less than 1% funds to local and refugee-led organizations.” Addressing the gap between humanitarian needs and funding support during the global health crisis, Diala pointed out that “Refugees have been in an emergency mode for years and years facing many legal obstacles including anti-refugee rhetoric and economic problems.” Donors are also exploring new and existing mechanisms to fund RLOs. Stella Ogunlade mentioned that UNHCR is exploring Simplified Partnership Agreements for Refugee-led Organizations. The Innovation Awards are a promising example of a simplified process. Equal partnerships require refugees to have the ability to decide which projects to pursue and how to implement them, not just to be consulted within externally driven agendas.
  4. Meaningful participation and partnership: Refugee-led organizations’ many benefits include the representation of refugee voices, awareness of community needs, improved responses, accountability to displaced populations, relationships of trust with the community, and the ability to mobilize local resources, knowledge, and connections. As Stella Ogunlade stated, meaningful refugee engagement needs to move beyond “tokenistic appearances” to engage with refugee-led organizations, including enhancing access to refugee communities, supporting empowerment initiatives for refugees, and assisting with localization. Similarly, Mustafa Alio suggested that Refugee-led Organizations can be important and meaningful partners in refugee responses, but issues of trust and power need to be addressed to create genuinely equal partnerships, crucial in providing services and program implementation.

With limited time to address questions from the audience and social media during the webinar, the panelists reacted to the following questions in a correspondence following the webinar.

What role can RLOs play in changing public narratives around refugees, both in host countries and elsewhere?

The inaccurate perception of refugees as passive recipients of humanitarian assistance remains a persistent narrative. Through their work, RLOs demonstrate refugee self-reliance as they actively contribute to their fellow refugee and host communities. In fact, RLOs that have proven their leadership and impact on the ground can play a huge role in changing the negative connotation that comes with the word ‘refugee’, from a passive recipient of assistance to an active provider of assistance to fellow refugees, and an equal partner to international aid providers.

What are examples of changes we have seen in mechanisms for funding to RLOs, such as the UNHCR Simplified Partnership Agreement or Canada’s Fund for Local Initiatives (CFLI)? How can we build form these examples of progress?

The CFLI is designed to be a small-scale, flexible funding mechanism. This makes it highly accessible to local organizations who may not have previously received donor funding. Expanding the envelopes of funding available, as Canada is doing, and encouraging other donors to put in place similar funding mechanisms, are ways to increase available opportunities for RLOs. By program design, the CFLI is intended to respond to local needs and engage closely with recipients, many of whom are small organizations with modest resources. Regarding past changes to these funding mechanisms, in 2012, the CFLI transitioned into being a fully decentralised program managed by Canadian missions overseas. This decentralization allowed the program a greater degree of flexibility, and to build closer working relationships with implementing partners. A recent adaptation, for example, was through the CFLI program’s updated Terms and Conditions to allow more flexibility with the kinds of local organisations eligible for funding. This allows the CFLI to be able to partner with a wider range of stakeholders who often face restrictions.

What are some practical suggestions that can be shared in how RLOs can navigate the vetting process to receive external funding? / How can RLOs work to bridge the gap between the current capacity of RLOs and the necessary reporting and vetting requirements from donors?

As mentioned during the webinar, a frequently cited obstacle to funding is the lack of previous experience managing funds. Small, more manageable funding arrangements, such as those provided by the CFLI, can be valuable tools in this regard. Likewise, there have been examples of RLOs partnering with INGOs for both funding purposes, as well as other forms of capacity-building and training. Larger NGOs can also serve as “mentors” in this regard and provide advice on the development of the internal governance, policies and financial oversight required for many vetting processes.

Other forms of capacity-building can also be important resources to offer to RLOs to increase partnership opportunities over the long term. An example on how this may be pursued is Canada’s Women Voice and Leadership and Equality Fund, both of which are focused on providing support to local organizations, including women led and RLOs, and include a measure of capacity building for the implementing partner.

How can work on refugee-led organizations be mindful of the limits of the term “refugee”? How do we include those organizations not run by registered refugees, but by migrants or asylum seekers without status?

It is important to have flexibility in the use of the term ‘refugee’, since many people meet the UNHCR definition of a refugee but are not granted the formal status as refugees due to procedural complications and/or because they do not necessarily need the status in their host countries. For example, there are many Syrians who fled Syria due to the exact reasons that render a person a refugee per the legal definition, but they are not formally registered as refugees with the UNHCR because their host countries are not parties to the 1951 Convention. As such, not all organizations led by members of displaced communities are led by individuals who benefit from ‘refugee’ status.

Click here to watch a full recording of this webinar.

This report was prepared by Sohaila Khaliqyar, LERRN Project Communications and Social Media Coordinator, Rachel McNally, LERRN Project Officer, and Nadeea Rahim, LERRN Program Officer.

The LERRN-IDRC Webinar Series on Forced Displacement is coordinated by Jennifer Kandjii, LERRN Research Officer. For further information or ideas please contact us here.