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How Refugee-Led Organizations Effectively Reach Community Members

Updated: Mar 2



When the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in March 2020, many staff of international organizations returned to their homes due to travel restrictions, and as a result, critical programs and services were either paused or limited. While international organizations neglected the needs of forcibly displaced communities during a critical period, it was refuge-led organizations (RLOs) who provided accessible services to community members as they have always done.


This was one of the main findings in Understanding RLO Impact: A Metasynthesis of Five Impact Evaluations Covering Programs Run by Refugee-Led Organizations, a study which identified common trends across the external impact evaluations of our coalition members. According to the study, services undertaken by RLOs are highly accessible to community members, including for individuals who typically face significant barriers in obtaining services provided by large international organizations. Across the five evaluations, accessibility was identified as a key element of RLO programming and was presented as a comparative advantage of RLOs over multilateral organizations and international non-governmental organizations.


Accessibility through neighborhood-level service delivery


One of the main ways RLOs ensure accessibility is through neighborhood-level service delivery models, such as the COVID Quick Impact project by Saint Andrew’s Refugee Services (StARS). This project aimed to provide access to food and cash support, as well as referrals to other services across the Greater Cairo Area. By distributing services through five neighborhood-level RLOs (rather than solely through their own service locations in downtown Cairo), StARS was able to ensure a diverse set of community members were able to access their essential services. Operating through other community-based RLOs ensured that forcibly displaced communities of a diverse set of nationalities were reached, especially Syrian and Yemeni communities, who were not previously able to access StARS’ services in large numbers.


Importantly, the neighborhood-level service delivery model ensured that individuals and communities who tend to be neglected in humanitarian and development projects and programs were able to access essential services.

As noted in the evaluation, among the program users, 41% had a chronic disease, 38% were single mothers, 14% had a disability, 30% were survivors of torture, 23% were survivors of gender-based violence, and 2% were victims of trafficking. Through this model, StARS ensured community members avoided costly travel to central Cairo, especially for individuals with significant accessibility challenges. Proximate services offered by community-based RLOs ensured safety in delivering essential services as 89% of program users reported “feeling safe” when traveling to obtain services, presumably due to risks of travelling without proper documentation and/or risks of contracting COVID-19.


Our other RRLI coalition members also use a form of neighborhood-level mode of service delivery: YARID’s schools are either attached to formal primary schools or are operating in other community centers; Basmeh & Zeitooneh delivers many of its programs through community centers; and Refugiados Unidos uses other established community facilities to deliver their services to community members.


Leaving no one behind: how refugee-led organizations go above and beyond


Not only do RLOs use neighborhood-level service delivery models, but they also intentionally target individuals who face difficulties in accessing essential services. Some examples include:

  • StARS uses a flexible, needs-based criteria for their COVID-19 Quick Impact Project rather than criteria based on formal refugee status to determine who could access support. This is rare in Cairo as other service providers often require UNHCR-issued legal status to receive support.

  • Refugiados Unidos emphasizes on locating and supporting women refugees with intersectional access challenges, such as children and senior populations, those who identify as LGBTQ+, and women with disabilities, health conditions or from marginalized ethnic or racial groups.

  • RAIC, through its highly impactful private sponsorship program, targets those who are unlikely to ever secure resettlement through other channels, such as single men and people of nationalities rejected within the UNHCR Refugee Status Determination process.

  • YARID intentionally finds and supports children who have never been in or are entirely out of school by going into the camp “zones” for their Bridge to Formal School program.

  • Basmeh & Zeitooneh, through its economic recovery project, Shabake, supports low-income women heads-of-household who were not previously receiving support from any other organization.

By being integrated in the community, working with other community-based refugee-led partners, and intentionally targeting individuals who are typically neglected by international organizations, RLOs ensure their services are accessible and no one is left behind. To learn more about the impact of RLOs, be sure to read the full Understanding RLO Impact report.


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