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Refugee aid should be about achieving self-reliance: how we’re measuring it

The Conversation
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Authors Lindsay Stark Associate Professor of Social Work and Public Health, Washington University in St Louis

Ilana Seff Research Assistant Professor, Washington University in St Louis

Each year, millions of people are forced to flee their homes because of conflict. They often seek initial sanctuary in a neighbouring country or a second resettlement country.

Many such countries are found in sub-Saharan Africa. Due to proximity and agreements made between governments, the region is home to more than a quarter of the world's refugee population. Uganda, for instance, ranks fifth globally among countries with the highest refugee populations, housing 1.5 million refugees.

It takes significant -- and, at times, challenging -- collaboration between governments, NGOs and resettlement agencies to provide for people's basic necessities -- like food, shelter, hygiene products, and medical services -- when they first arrive.

The problem is that many humanitarian aid interventions, no matter how well intended, are band-aid solutions: they focus on people's basic short-term needs rather than taking a longer view. This approach can leave refugees in an endless cycle of dependency. It also means they're particularly vulnerable in situations where aid money dries up or is obstructed, as is all too often the case.

In the past decade many actors in the humanitarian sector have recognised these shortcomings. They've started to rethink how aid can best help refugees set up for long-term stability and success rather than only catering to short-term needs. The result is a centre around a new objective for refugee assistance: self-reliance.

The UN Refugee Agency defines self-reliance as the

social and economic ability of an individual, a household or a community to meet its essential needs in a sustainable manner and with dignity.

A self-reliance approach goes beyond providing immediate basic needs -- like food assistance and makeshift housing -- for refugee clients. It helps refugees to build a new life in a new community with dignity, rather than waiting in limbo for aid that may or may not arrive.

A shift towards self-reliance approaches requires a shift in programming. But how can organisations and governments gauge whether their programmes are helping refugee households become self-reliant?

That's where the "Self-Reliance Index" comes in. We supported the development of this tool, the first of its kind, to help guide governments and organisations in prioritising self-reliance among refugees.

What works

It is relatively easy to measure the number of food packets distributed or cash dollars disbursed through cash transfers. But it is much more difficult to develop tools to measure the concept of self-reliance.

This is what drove us to support colleagues at the Self-Reliance Research Initiative -- a multi-stakeholder collaboration dedicated to improving the lives of refugees around the world -- to create the Self-Reliance Index. It was developed through a process that included a review of the literature and existing tools, as well as input from refugees and experts in the field.

It takes into account the kinds of initiatives that programmes can use to promote self-reliance. These include helping refugees with cash assistance, access to savings, job training, and intensive mentorship. Such approaches empower households to generate their own livelihoods.

The tool was created to:

  • support organisations in screening and targeting clients for assistance,
  • inform holistic programming and referral protocols and,
  • guide organisations in responsibly "graduating" clients from assistance when it is no longer needed.

Interested organisations have received training on the index from RefugePoint (one of the co-leading agencies) along with Women's Refugee Commission. The tool is available for free download on the Self-Reliance Index website.

The tool is administered by NGO staff with their refugee clients. It has already been programmed into a few widely used data collection platforms in the humanitarian space, such as Kobo and CommCare. The tool can be administered in person or over the phone.

The index measures 12 comprehensive factors: housing, food, education, healthcare, health status, safety, employment, financial resources, assistance, debt, savings, and social capital.

There are four parts to the process:

  • Part 1: the interviewer collects biographic information on household members
  • Part 2: the interviewer guides the responding household member(s) through a semi-structured discussion to collect information on 12 domains of self-reliance,
  • Part 3: the interviewer invites the respondent to answer open-ended questions
  • Part 4: the interviewer provides her own assessment of the household's self-reliance.

Organisations receive domain-specific scores as well as a composite score of self-relience. These measures can be tracked over time with repeated administrations of the tool, which can in turn help organisations better understand the impact of their programmess. For example, HIAS, a global refugee resettlement agency, initially used the index score in Colombia to identify households eligible for participation in their livelihoods programming. They are now following households over time to assess changes in self-reliance for programme participants.

To date, the index has been used with thousands of refugee clients in over 12 countries. These include Kenya, Zambia, Somalia, and South Sudan. It has been translated into Arabic, English, French, Spanish, and Swahili.

The self-reliance index is especially useful because it allows organisations to obtain a more complete picture of their clients' lives and prompts referrals for other necessary programming.

Potential gaps

There are some shortcomings. The index was initially designed to be used in urban settings with refugees. This means its utility has not yet been assessed for other populations facing adversity or in high-income settings, like the United States. It will be important to establish that the tool works well across different populations and settings and accurately captures the concept of self-reliance.

Before implementing programmes targeting self-reliance, it is also important for interested organisations to ensure clients have first achieved some initial level of stability. That is, that clients are in a place where they would have the capacity to make use of assistance that is intended to support long-term well-being. One could imagine a scenario, for example, where a family has no housing, eats one meal a day, and lacks access to healthcare. Such a household would likely first require external assistance in meeting their basic needs before they would be able to optimally engage in programming focused on sustainable livelihoods.

NGOs must also be willing and have the donor support to invest in longer term programming and measurement.

Further, organisations must recognise that the external policy environment -- such as refugees' right to work and freedom of movement -- may limit efforts aimed at improving self-reliance. In such instances, the index may be helpfully used for policy or advocacy purposes.

Despite these shortcomings, this tool and similar initiatives are crucial. With current global refugee crisis numbers unlike anything ever seen before, we need now, more than ever, to interrogate systems and to build and measure more sustainable solutions for refugee well-being.

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