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Global Governed book cover image

The localisation of humanitarian assistance as a response to COVID-19

Alexander Betts, Evan Easton-Calabria and Kate Pincock

21 April 2020

It is becoming clear that many of the most devastating consequences of COVID-19 will be in developing countries. In areas with densely populated slums, weak public health systems, and poor sanitation, the type of preventive measures adopted by wealthier countries will be extremely challenging to implement. Among those likely to be seriously affected are refugees, 85% of whom live in low- and middle-income countries. In refugee camps, refugee camps, in particular, self-isolation and social distancing will be nearly impossible to implement. In camps across Africa and the Middle East, suspected COVID-19 cases are already growing. The challenge is being compounded by misinformation about the virus and how communities should respond. This situation may be further complicated by a reduced international humanitarian presence. In most refugee camps, access by international organisations and NGOs is now restricted, and some senior UN officials have left the camps and returned to their home countries.

The challenge is how to respond to humanitarian needs, whether pre-existing or exacerbated by COVID-19, when international capacity is stretched to its limits. A growing proportion of assistance is likely to become remote and participatory, and one of the humanitarian community’s greatest assets is likely to be the affected communities themselves. In refugee settings – whether urban or camp-based – refugees have long mobilised to provide various forms of protection and assistance to other refugees, and even sometimes to the local host community.

Whether through informal networks or registered community-based organisations, refugee-led protection activities are a key part of the social security apparatus of refugee camps, providing crucial services, from informal education to savings mechanisms, and even health services. In some contexts, UN agencies and NGOs already use them as a ‘bridge’ to work with communities. However, refugee-led organisations generally find themselves locked out of the international humanitarian system. Despite providing meaningful and important services, they lack funding and recognition, almost never being given ‘implementing partner’ or ‘operational partner’ status by UN organisations.

In the current context, this needs to change. Once COVID-19 takes hold, humanitarian organisations may not even be able to function effectively in refugee camps unless there is greater collaboration with, and participation by, refugees themselves. Some refugee-led organisations are already beginning to mobilise.

The rhetoric and reality of localisation

The World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 placed a strong emphasis on ‘localisation’, recognising and supporting ‘crisis affected people’ as important first responders. Localisation was recognised as a means to increase the legitimacy and effectiveness of humanitarian aid. The resulting Grand Bargain committed states to channel 25% of humanitarian funding to ‘national and local actors’, albeit without adequately defining such actors. In the refugee context, there has been a corresponding recognition at the global level that refugees themselves should be active participants in refugee governance. UNHCR’s Global Compact on Refugees highlights the importance of a ‘multi-stakeholder and partnership approach’ and mentions ‘local actors’. Meanwhile, the inaugural UN Global Refugee Forum in 2019 invited participation by range of community-based organisations, including refugee-led organisations such as the Global Refugee-Led Network.

However, there remains a gap between the rhetoric and reality of localisation. Although several international NGOs, such as Oxfam, HIAS, and the Finnish Refugee Council work closely with refugee-led organisations on the ground, they tend to be the exception rather than the rule. More conventionally, refugee assistance is provided by international donor governments funding UNHCR, which in turn delegates assistance to international NGO ‘implementing partners’ in specialist areas, from shelter to water and sanitation. The dominant humanitarian model remains premised upon provider–beneficiary relationships, even though refugees consistently say that they rely on community-level support as much, if not more so, than international aid. For instance, when we surveyed refugees in Uganda and Kenya on their primary source of social protection, over 90% said that in an emergency, they would first turn to community-level support rather than larger NGOs or international organisations.

One of the criticisms of refugee-led organisations is that they often lack the capacity or expertise to deliver key humanitarian services. In many cases, this is a fair criticism. For the most part, they face a chicken-and-egg problem, unable to secure the resources to enable them to build capacity. But many international organisations do recognise that refugees have a particularly crucial role to play in building community relations, especially in contexts in which there are major information gaps or in which trust-building matters for humanitarian effectiveness. For example, in 2018, UNHCR offered a series of small grants to refugee-led organisations in the Kakuma refugee camps in Kenya to work on information-related activities, including services related to health.

Refugee-led organisations as an opportunity

In a new book, entitled The Global Governed? Refugees as Providers of Protection and Assistance, we explore the role played by refugee-led organisations in offering key social protection services to other refugees in cities and camps in Kenya and Uganda. Across our four research sites, we mapped over 80 registered refugee community organisations (RCOs) providing social protection services to tens of thousands of refugees. Such community organisations vary in scale, scope, and specialisation. Most are small and struggle to access funding or recognition. Despite this, a few outliers flourish, mainly because of their founders’ exceptional leadership and the creation of transnational networks that offer funding opportunities.

To take an example, Hope for Children and Women Victims of Violence (HOCW) is a Kampala-based organisation started in 2008 by Congolese refugee Bolingo Ntahira. Initially an informal community self-help group, it expanded when international volunteers helped connect Bolingo to potential donors. HOCW provides vocational training, psychosocial support, and English-language tuition for refugees and local Ugandans, who make up 40% of its beneficiaries. It operates at scale, supporting 1300 refugees and Ugandans per year, but efficiently – on a budget equivalent to less than $80 USD per beneficiary.

In the Kakuma refugee camps, Solidarity and Advocacy with Vulnerable Individuals in Crisis (SAVIC) was founded in 2010 by two Congolese refugees named Muzabel Wulongo and Vasco Amisi, who met in Tanzania’s Kigoma camp in 1996. Muzabel was resettled to the United States in 2014, and remains involved in directing and fundraising for SAVIC. He has successfully secured funding from various American foundations, as well as getting contracts to deliver training from Swiss Contacts and Xavier Project, two of UNHCR’s implementing partners in Kakuma. Since 2010, SAVIC has trained 6000 young people, with 2000 graduating from its programmes in English, tailoring, information technology, and financial literacy, and 2500 girls educated on sexual and reproductive health. In 2018, SAVIC held assets worth $165,000 USD and has an operating budget of $200,000 USD a year.

Such examples are not unique to East Africa. Refugee-led assistance and protection can be found in every contemporary displacement crisis, from Myanmar to Venezuela, encompassing activities as diverse as education, health, livelihoods, finance, and housing.

Localisation in the context of COVID-19

In ordinary circumstances, refugee-led organisations play an important role in meeting community needs. Today, in the context of a global pandemic, their services are arguably more crucial than ever – with international humanitarians unable to travel to camps, aid budgets likely to be threatened, and community-level misinformation rife.

Some refugee organisations are already mobilising. In the last few weeks, amid COVID-19 lockdown and related food shortages in Uganda, HOCW has been distributing food and soap to refugees and Ugandans in the Ndejje area of Kampala. South Sudanese refugees in the West Nile region have called upon refugee organisations to develop a coordinated COVID-19 response. In Nairobi, YUSOM are running information campaigns to raise COVID-19 awareness among refugees. And the Global Refugee-Led Network has been convening conversations about how best to build refugees’ own capacities to respond.

In a pandemic, localisation absolutely cannot be a substitute for the donor funding and international assistance. Furthermore, within the health sector, expert knowledge and technical interventions are a necessity. However, localisation, and the more systematic engagement of crisis-affected communities and refugees themselves, may have a crucial complementary role to play. In particular, there are five roles that refugee-led (and other community) organisations might play in support of the humanitarian response in the context of COVID-19.

First, public information. One of the biggest issues in refugee camps is countering misinformation. Myths about COVID-19 abound, and while knowledge should be based on scientific expertise, the effectiveness of mass communication campaigns is likely to be affected by how socio-culturally embedded they are. Working through community-level intermediaries will be crucial. Here, there are already established networks within many refugee camps and communities that can be deployed. However, where gaps exist, refugee-led organisations, especially those whose work intersects with health, might play a crucial ‘bridging’ role.

Second, community health workers (CHWs). In recent years, CHWs have been recognised as key actors in health delivery in developing countries. And they have been increasingly used in refugee settings, providing important local level support to public healthcare systems. CHWs can be rapidly trained, affordably equipped, and play a range of roles from public information to tracking, as well as providing basic preventive, promotional, and rehabilitative support.

Third, tracking and monitoring. In contexts in which social distancing is inhibited by dense and open housing, epidemiological tracking of the virus’ spread becomes even more important. Many humanitarian organisations have equipped displaced populations with mobile technology and apps capable of community-level reporting, on issues from the functioning of boreholes to school attendance and birth registration. Communities have a key role to play in supporting virus tracking.

Fourth, supplementing capacity gaps. With many senior humanitarian staff absent from refugee camps and aid budgets under threat, social services in camps may become stretched across a range of sectors (e.g. education, food distribution, and water and sanitation). Finding ways to deliver these essential services, while trying to observe social distancing, will require local staff and volunteers to play an important role.

Fifth, influencing social norms. In wealthier countries, governments are widely using behavioural economics to design interventions to shape social compliance with public health policies. They have access to big data and top social scientists to design responses adapted to the cultural context. This approach is not readily available in many humanitarian settings. In refugee camps, for instance, shaping social norms relies upon building community-level trust, and working proactively with refugee-led organisations may provide the best available option.

Final thoughts

The direct and indirect impact of COVID-19 on refugees and other displaced populations is likely to be devastating. As international organisations and NGOs plan their responses, they should not neglect the potential contribution of community-based organisations, including those led by affected populations. If localisation can be taken seriously in programmes, it may help improve the effectiveness and legitimacy of responses, and also contribute to the long-term creation of more participatory and inclusive forms of humanitarian governance. The challenge is for donors and UN organisations to find creative ways to identify, fund, and support the most effective local providers.


Book cover for 'The Global Governed?'Alexander Betts, Evan Easton-Calabria, and Kate Pincock recently co-authored The Global Governed? Refugees as Providers of Protection and Assistance, published by Cambridge University Press in March 2020.