OPINION: Why refugees can, and should, lead solutions to displacement

by Chris Larsen and Mark Malloch-Brown
Sunday, 25 July 2021 07:30 GMT

A Palestinian boy carries a bag of flour at an aid distribution center run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), amid the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at Beach refugee camp in Gaza City January 14, 2021. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

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Spurred on by COVID-19, private donors are shifting power to refugee-led organisations. It is time for others to do the same

By Chris Larsen, Co-Sponsor of the Larsen Lam ICONIQ Impact Award for Refugees and Mark Malloch Brown, president, Open Society Foundations

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, the first international agreement granting fundamental rights to refugees.

With over 80 million people displaced around the world, efforts to address refugee protection are ripe for innovation.

It is clear that business as usual will not suffice.

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed a truth hiding in plain sight: refugees are and have always been frontline responders.

This global health crisis, which forced many traditional humanitarian actors to limit their operations, has sparked an increased interest in refugee-led organisations.

Refugees from Uganda to Italy to Indonesia have been critical to curbing the spread of COVID-19 in refugee camps and urban settings worldwide. They have saved lives.

For many refugee-led organisations, like Young African Refugees for Integral Development (YARID), in Kampala, the work is far from over. YARID continues to deliver information, masks, food, and cash to the most vulnerable amidst a new COVID-19 crisis and lockdown in Uganda.

And so, as we mark this anniversary, we ask the international community: what if we decided to directly fund the refugees leading solutions for their own communities?

During the pandemic, refugee leaders have, often for the first time, been seen as equal partners by international aid organizations. Yet, of the nearly $30 billion that cycles through the humanitarian system annually, it’s estimated that 0.05% goes to the world’s refugee leaders to fund their critical work.

Most refugee-led solutions are funded by refugee communities themselves.

We are also witnessing an important rhetorical shift in how we talk about refugees. In 2018, the Global Compact on Refugees, a framework developed by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Member States, included “meaningful participation of refugees” as a core principle in the refugee response. This has contributed to increased recognition for refugee leaders and modest donor funding.

Still, it is only a small step towards shifting an outdated system: less than 2% of international humanitarian funding goes to local organisations.

The situation in the refugee sector mirrors the reality faced by affected communities across the foreign-aid landscape, where international non-government organisations absorb the bulk of funding. The Black Lives Matter movement has prompted calls to remove the international aid hierarchies, and prioritize leadership by grassroots groups.

Recent philanthropic efforts are helping to accelerate a shift in power by betting on proven people-centered solutions and funding them. They draw on learnings from refugees themselves, who attribute success to trust-based partnerships and flexible, multi-year support. 

For example, the Larsen Lam ICONIQ Impact Award—a global competition launched by ICONIQ Impact and Lever for Change to support the potential of refugees—recently announced a $10 million grant to the Resourcing  Refugee Leadership Initiative, a coalition of refugee-led organisations focused on empowering similar organisations across the globe.

The coalition aims to leverage the initial grant to build a $40 million fund for capacity strengthening, expected to support 45 refugee-led organisations, reaching over one million refugees globally.

One of the award’s sponsors, Lyna Lam, herself a refugee to the United States following the Vietnam War and Cambodian genocide, knows that a refugee-driven approach works. This pioneering award puts displaced people with the knowledge necessary to develop sustainable solutions at the heart of decision-making.

Funders for Refugee Leadership in Lebanon—a funding network which includes Open Society Foundations, the Robert Bosch Stiftung, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Global Whole Being Fund, and Choose Love—recently announced an $800,000 fund for refugee-led initiatives.

The effort will elevate creative solutions and model flexibility in funding practice to shape the approach and decisions of other donors.

Last year, a community of refugee-led organisations, international NGOs, academia, philanthropy, and social entrepreneurs came together for the Refugees Lead Campaign, which put refugee leaders at the center of a cross-sectoral effort to drive funding directly to refugee-led organisations.

The campaign reached some 85,000 people in 10 countries—supporting medical services in Indonesia, food and PPE in South Africa, and efforts to house homeless asylum seekers in Italy. Notably, it created a shared sense of purpose among the partners. 

The initiatives outlined above are just the beginning. We need additional philanthropic allies, strong public sector partners, and swifter action by UN agencies to shift power to refugee leaders who drive community solutions forward.