In countries that protect refugee rights and restrict them, with strong and weak economies, in and out of conflict zones, during emergencies like COVID-19 and in periods of relative normalcy, refugee-led organizations (RLOs) always find a way to support their communities and change lives. Through the metasynthesis that RRLI commissioned of external impact evaluations of RLOs, the author found that refugee-led organizations improve community lives no matter their size, structure, traditional “capacities,” or external considerations such as social, political, and economic factors. Such a finding challenges narratives on the importance of “capacity-building” for refugee-led organizations and assumptions that RLOs are only or most useful in specific situations (such as in times of conflict or emergency, or in “hard-to-reach” communities).
Challenging narratives of capacity-building
Capacity-building has become a common way that different institutions with power in the refugee response sector try to contribute to refugee leadership. Donors, multilateral agencies, and international organizations may express that refugee leadership is important, but that refugee-led organizations need capacity-building in order to receive funding or to participate in decision-making processes. This dynamic is inherently problematic as it reinforces the idea that those outside of the community (often white, Western “experts”) hold the expertise needed to help refugee communities and suggests that the way that these institutions carry out programming, advocacy, and other activities is the “right” way to do things that must be taught to others.
Not only is this dynamic problematic, but traditional capacity-building has not necessarily been proven to increase the impact or effectiveness of refugee-led organizations. The metasynthesis found that the organizations evaluated were all highly impactful regardless of distinctions such as size (i.e. number of staff), budget, structure, reach, and number of years in operation. In practice, these distinctions mean that the organizations have different “capacities” as defined by international institutions: for example, the smaller, newer organizations have less defined policies and procedures. Still, all organizations were found by external evaluators to be “making a significant difference in the lives of those community members they work with.”
Overall, there is a lack of evidence that suggests that organizations require external capacity-building training in order to carry out impactful programming and change the lives of community members. The author of the metasynthesis also highlights how previous research by the Humanitarian Policy Group and Humanitarian Practice Network has pointed out that often international actors do not have the ability to understand and adapt to the capacity of local organizations.
Instead of offering capacity-building training, international actors should consider providing financial resourcing to local organizations – the main obstacle to scaling impact that refugee-led organizations have – as well as connecting local organizations with donors, advocacy targets, and decision-making processes, and working to understand different types of capacities of RLOs.
RLO Impact across distinct socio-political environments
RLOs have been lauded in recent years for reaching communities when international organizations could not, for example, during times of conflict or in crises such as COVID-19. However, such statements can imply that RLOs’ strength comes from their ability to act in complementarity with international organizations as opposed to being impactful in and of themselves. These assumptions can lead to harmful practices such as only funding refugee-led organizations and refugee leaders (or in many cases, not funding them but enlisting them to do so) to carry out projects that international organizations cannot do themselves (for example by bringing aid to difficult-to-reach communities or sending refugee leaders as unpaid ‘outreach volunteers’ into areas considered dangerous to international staff to improve community engagement).
On the other hand, institutions of power may believe that refugee-led organizations cannot run effectively in restrictive environments because of restrictions on refugees’ rights such as the right to work, open a bank account, get an education, move freely, and more. Across the RLOs evaluated, however, there are legal frameworks that provide refugees the right to work, and frameworks where refugees are explicitly prohibited from working.
The findings of the metasynthesis contradict these common assumptions around RLOs. Refugee-led organizations were found to be impactful across a variety of environments – permissive legal frameworks and restrictive; in strong economic conditions and weak ones; with differing strengths in the rule of law; and within and out of conflict zones and states of emergency. The findings also noted the resilience of RLOs in the face of difficult operating situations: for example, Basmeh and Zeitooneh’s ability in Lebanon to carry out a livelihoods project during an economic crisis, or various RLOs’ ability to find ways to employ community members in difficult legal contexts.
These findings around capacity-building and RLO impact in distinct environments only reinforce the need to shift power and resources to refugee-led organizations. International actors should reconsider the need for capacity-building trainings and instead consider other contributions to the movement such as financial resourcing, connecting RLOs to funding, advocacy, and network-building opportunities, and centering RLOs, refugee leaders, and communities in decision-making processes that affect their lives. RLOs’ resilience and ability to make an impact in a variety of environments also remind us that communities always find a way to help one another regardless of difficulties. RLOs should not just be instrumentalized for projects in hard-to-reach areas, but should be resourced with flexible funding that can be used to scale impactful programs and create sustainable community-led institutions.
Do you want to learn more about the current challenges and opportunities facing RLOs? Read the full metasynthesis report and RRLI's latest impact report. You can also join us in building financial sustainability for impactful refugee-led solutions through a donation to RRLI.