By Roula El-Rifai and James Milner

The theme for this year’s World Refugee Day is “together we heal, learn and shine.” But from whom should we learn? Some of the best ideas on how to support refugees across the globe come from refugees themselves and those who live and work – day in and day out – in the realities where the vast majority of refugees are to be found. In humanitarian and development circles, people use the buzzword “localization” to recognize and act on the need to draw on local knowledge. Localization involves shifting power, resources, and decision-making to local actors, not only in the planning and delivery of programs, but also in the research.

The rationale for localization is rooted in ideas and geography. More than 85% of the world’s forcibly displaced live in the Global South, but some 90% of the most influential research originates from researchers based in the Global North. Because of this disconnect and disparity, local knowledge generated by refugees or people in the communities where they live is underused, instead of being at the forefront to influence people with the power to make a difference.

Localization is meant to promote the well-being of refugees and that of the host communities where they live. It is about promoting a rights-based approach to the decision-making related to forced displacement, one that is inclusive and amplifies the voices of multiple and diverse local actors. These actors include refugees, local non-governmental organizations (NGOs), refugee-led initiatives, international NGOs, host-community governments, and many others.

Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the Local Engagement Refugee Research Network (LERRN) have been collaborating on a series of webinars to understand the concept of localizing knowledge production. LERRN is also contributing to IDRC-supported research to identify practical options to implement localization in the field of forced displacement. Working with researchers in the Middle East and East Africa, the goal is to move from anecdote to evidence and find out how the process of localizing knowledge on forced displacement works best and under which conditions. We’re also looking at how localization produces new forms of knowledge that have an impact on policy and practice, and how localized knowledge ecosystems produce, translate, and use knowledge to effect change.

As discussed in our most recent webinar on Localized Forced Displacement Research, we have learned the following lessons and noted some challenges:

  • Partnerships among equals: Donors and Global South actors need to form partnerships that put them on the same level and overcome power inequalities. LERNN conducted a literature review to examine the extent to which global research partnerships are or can be transformative in the field of forced displacement. That review found that a localization approach does contribute to a more inclusive and participatory global research community and helps to ensure that when researchers from the Global South enter into transnational research partnerships, they are able to do so from a position of greater equality. The localization of refugee research helps to ensure that literature on refugee and forced migration studies is more fully representative of the phenomenon itself and the diverse conditions in which it is experienced.
  • Engaging with many diverse actors: There is an incredibly complex multiplicity of actors at the community and local levels, whose voices need to be amplified. These actors include refugee representatives, local and international NGOs, refugee-led initiatives, host-community representatives, local officials, and many others. Initial findings from research in East Africa, in Kenya and Ethiopia, conducted by The African Migration and Development Policy Centre (AMADPOC) noted the complexity of the formal and informal networks and actors operating locally and engaged with forced displacement issues. The challenge for those working with forcibly displaced communities is to identify how best to engage with this multiplicity and diversity of local voices.
  • Staying true to local knowledge: Research in East Africa also explored the concept of how knowledge is filtered through various levels before it reaches policymakers, if it reaches them at all. These multiple filters of localized knowledge may not lead to a true reflection of local needs and concerns. Who are the knowledge brokers in this case? Maintaining the integrity and diversity of voices at that level, are additional challenges to address.
  • Impact evaluation and local priority-setting: In the Middle East, research led by the Issam Faris Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs (IFI) in Lebanon and Jordan noted the critical role donors play in knowledge production on forced displacement and agenda-setting. Most local NGOs conducting research tend to be funded by external donors. The team noted the importance of taking stock of this research through practical evaluations that assess potential impact as well as the importance of priority-setting by local actors who can lead and help define the agenda. The challenge in this case is to identify the best ways of effectively countering external research agendas and localizing knowledge production to influence external interventions.
  • Support for local knowledge production: Donor funding needs to actively support localized knowledge production in a way that does not dictate the agenda. For example, IDRC recently launched a call for proposals to establish research chairs on forced displacement in established universities in the Middle East and East Africa. The selection criteria emphasize that the thematic focus is not prescribed by IDRC but should be demand driven, based on locally identified and locally led research agendas that are relevant to the region. The research chairs will provide a platform to amplify local perspectives, especially the voices of refugee and host communities and promote localized solutions that influence local, national, and global discourses and policies.
  • Sustainability: We need more innovative ways to ensure such localized ecosystems of knowledge can operate without full dependency on external funding.
  • Pro-Northern bias: A main challenge of localization of knowledge production on forced displacement is cultural and normative in nature. There remains an instinctive preference, not only in the Global North but also in the Global South, especially among policymakers, to favor “Western knowledge products” which tend to be most cited in academic literature. This culture change requires sustained effort on part of all those involved.
  • Promoting South-South exchanges: While no two contexts are identical, much can be learned from one situation to another. Forced displacement is not only a challenge but an opportunity for both forcibly displaced populations and host communities to identify win-win approaches to this global development challenge.

We believe that discussions on policy and practice in response to forced displacement have sidelined localized knowledge. Current approaches are not working. New approaches are needed. From whom should we learn on this World Refugee Day, and every day? We should learn from local actors, from the displaced, and from those living and working in the daily context of displacement. But this will not happen without a conscious and sustained effort to localize knowledge production on forced displacement.

While localization seems to intuitively make sense, it will take a concerted and intentional effort on the part of all actors to make it a reality. IDRC and LERRN are committed to deepen our engagement on forced displacement across regions and sectors, in partnership with others in the donor community as well as in close collaboration with host and refugee communities in the Global South. Collaborating with others will only help us scale up our collective work and attain greater impact.