• Opinion
  • September 18, 2018
  • 9 minutes
  • 1

To make aid for refugees more efficient, let them decide where it goes

Opinion: Empowering refugee leaders will ensure a better return on humanitarian investment

This opinion piece was written by Bayan Khatib, co-founder and executive director of the Syrian Canadian Foundation, and Mustafa Alio, co-founder of the Refugee Career Jumpstart Project in Toronto. Both are advocates and former refugees. 


On September 19, 2016, the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, a landmark political move directed at improving how the international community responds to large movements of refugees and migrants.

Since then, two years of formal and informal consultations have led to the creation of this year’s unprecedented Global Compact for Refugees (GCR). The GCR makes a critical new call: for meaningful participation of refugee and affected populations in high level decision-making and planning of refugee programming.

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However, the pathways to the implementation of this call to action remain a mystery to most actors in the field. So, why is meaningful refugee participation so important? And, how in practice can it can be done?

Empowered not recruited

The number of refugees worldwide is the highest it has ever been. With the UNHCR claiming 50% shortfall in funding, and an ever-growing gap between funds and needs, there has never been a better time to take a closer look at opportunities for improved efficiencies and ideas for new approaches.

Those close to the ground can tell you that oftentimes decisions on how funds get spent made by huge public and private sector organisations do not reflect the true needs of refugees — and are not necessarily driven by what will be most effective.

“Huge funder organisations have complex, top-down bureaucratic structures and painfully long waiting and processing periods”

The reasons for this are complicated and can involve politics, greedy motivations, or sometimes just lack of refugee-centred insight. Huge funder organisations have complicated, top-down bureaucratic structures and are known to create painfully long waiting and processing periods for funding. They’re associated with excessive administrative costs, nonsensical restrictions and overly tedious reporting.

On the other hand, as part of the affected population, local and refugee-led organisations on the ground truly understand the needs and priorities of refugees and can react rapidly to crises. They are often freer of pre-prescribed ways of doing things or strict procedures for decision-making, which inhibit the efficiency of huge entities. They are also better able to mobilise local resources and already have the trust of the community; their project implementation is fast and effective.

Empowering the work of local and refugee-led organisations by allocating more funding and including their leaders in high-level decision-making situations would therefore generate efficiencies and more effective programming. And, it would also achieve another very important goal outlined in the GCR: enhancing refugee self-reliance.

So the GCR is right to insist on the importance of incorporating local and refugee-led organisations — doing so will lead to huge efficiencies and effectiveness.

“Refugee-led organisations are freer of pre-prescribed ways of doing things”

But, the language it uses, with a suggestion to “recruit” these organisations, is problematic. To recruit is to bring an entity under your mandate; instead, refugee-led organisations should be empowered to lead and made into partners with decision-making responsibility.

Where it’s working

There are already many successful examples of international organisations, governments and multinational companies making meaningful partnerships with refugee-led organisations.

The multi-stakeholder approach is not new in the corporate sector, but its widespread application to spending on social good certainly is. Historically, corporate contributions through various humanitarian routes have arrived in the form of money, but a new, cheering trend is arising.

Instead of simple cash handouts, corporations are starting to offer their hands in true partnerships that build the capacity and resources of grassroots organisations. Corporations can do much greater good when they empower through providing access to resources, lending out manpower and mentoring.

In 2017, LinkedIn partnered with a refugee led non-profit in Canada, JumpStart (RCJP), to create the Welcome Talent Canada program. LinkedIn didn’t pick a huge name from the NGO sector and hand them piles of cash, and didn’t start with pre-determined, pre-packaged programs. It interviewed multiple players in the non-profit sector, including smaller grassroots organisations, and listened to their ideas — and in the end it was the smallest, youngest organisation that won their confidence.

Welcome Talent Canada is a mentorship and education program for refugees, aiming to provide ambitious newcomers with tools and resources to jumpstart their professional careers. Over 50% of the clients of this program have found meaningful employment, and Welcome Talent Canada has now been approved for bigger funding by Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada. It will be the first national project led by a refugee-led organisation to help over 1,200 people secure meaningful employment.

Another prime example comes from The European Program for Integration and Migration (EPIM), an initiative of 25 private foundations that aim to strengthen the role played by civil society in advocating for constructive approaches to migration in Europe.

EPIM provides millions of euros of funding a year, and is committed to bringing refugee leader voices to the table. The organisation listens to refugee recommendations at meetings, and has even created pools of expert refugee leaders to become decision-makers on which projects get funded.

“Empowering these leaders will ensure a better return on humanitarian investment”

Sophie Ngo-Diep, program manager at EPIM, said: “We believe that it is essential that our work capitalises on the expertise and experience of migrants, including refugees. With this ambition in mind, we are testing a participatory approach to project proposals assessment that involves, as evaluators, those who are the closest to the challenges we aim to address. Through this approach, we make sure migrants and refugees are not only considered as beneficiaries of our funding interventions but also experts and decision makers.”

EPIM’s new methodology sets a great example of creating meaningful participation for refugees and the positive results will certainly also show up in program outcomes.

A smarter future

With less than 2% of funding allocated to humanitarian causes currently going to local and grassroots organisations, inefficiencies in spending continue to pose big problems.

However, even with just a tiny funding trickle, refugee-led initiatives and local actors have already made their voices heard and proved their strength and effectiveness in serving their communities.

Empowering these leaders is not just the humanitarian thing to do, it is the smart thing to do, the thing that will ensure a better return on humanitarian investment.
— Bayan Khatib & Mustafa Alio 

(Picture credit: Flickr/US Mission Geneva)

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