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Flipping the Narrative: We need to talk about international aid and refugee self-reliance

‘International organisations and NGOs often treat refugees as burdens that need to be taken care of rather than as human beings capable of taking care of ourselves.’

A graphic image. The background is black and in the foreground we see a maze. On top of the edges of the maze are several human-looking drawings holding fishing hooks and attempting to fish from the maze. Ramiro Zardoya/Cartoon Movement

I’ve seen advertisements from UN agencies on social media asking, “What would you take with you if you had to flee your home?”. The question is supposed to generate empathy for refugees, but I think it’s the wrong question to ask. A better one would be: “How would you like to be treated if you had to flee your home and become a refugee?” 

In my experience, international organisations and NGOs often treat refugees as burdens that need to be taken care of rather than as human beings capable of taking care of ourselves. Is that what you would want if you were in our shoes?

Becoming a refugee means losing almost everything. But refugees do not lose our brains, life experiences, or accomplishments. If someone was a doctor before they became a refugee, for example, they are still a doctor after becoming a refugee. 

One of the most challenging parts of being a refugee, however, is realising that your past experiences and potential don’t matter to the international NGOs (INGOs) and UN agencies you have to turn to for help. Instead, you find yourself depending on their services while your sense of dignity and value are reduced.


‘I did not believe I would get the support I needed’

When I first arrived in Kampala, Uganda in 2011, I was 20 years old and deeply traumatised by the events I faced back home in the South Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) – not only by what forced me to escape but also by what I experienced when trying to reach a safe place. I needed help, but the process of getting it was deeply dehumanising.


“The lesson I took away was that I couldn’t rely on INGOs for support and care when in need of urgent intervention or help.” 


I had to wake up very early in the morning to stand in line outside an aid organisation’s office in Kampala, hoping to get in. If I left the line to get food or rest, I’d lose my spot. At the end of the day, an employee would emerge to tell us they were closing and to come back the next day to stand in line again. When I finally managed to enter, I was given an appointment to see a counsellor a month later. 

I did not end up going back for the appointment because, after going through that experience, I did not believe I would get the support I needed. The lesson I took away was that I couldn’t rely on INGOs for support and care when in need of urgent intervention or help. 

Fortunately, I had some skills with computers and quickly learned English. With the help of Congolese community members, I was able to stay in Kampala and find work to support myself.

My relatives, who came to Uganda a couple of years later, were sent to a refugee camp where they were given a small plot of land, blankets, some basic household items, and a tent to build themselves a shelter. The food rations they were given would not sustain a normal human being for anywhere close to a month. But this is what they were expected to survive on.


‘Many INGOs are okay with keeping refugees dependent on their aid’

Many refugees are grateful for being welcomed and given something to start with. In that sense, humanitarian organisations play a positive role in supporting refugees. But, at the same time, the way UN agencies and many INGOs work has forced refugees to live as beggars. 

Organisations give refugees just enough to survive, and refugees always find themselves having to ask for more. The help they are provided with is not aimed at transforming their lives or helping them become self-sufficient. Organisations don’t provide enough scholarships or educational opportunities, and they often don’t know the real needs refugees have because there’s a disconnect between them and the communities they are meant to be supporting. 

There are INGOs that take a different, more human approach, but it’s often difficult for refugees to find out that they exist and get connected with them. And, unfortunately, many INGOs are okay with keeping refugees dependent on their aid: Projects for refugees need to keep running because organisations rely on them to spend their budgets, get more donations, and keep their jobs. 

This cycle prevents refugees from living full lives or having much hope for the future. Instead of continuing with the status quo, we need to talk seriously about how refugees can become self-reliant.


‘Let us sit at the same table and co-design policies and projects together’

For many years, despite facing a lot of barriers, refugees have been starting businesses, community groups, and organisations that play a major role in taking care of their basic needs and transforming their lives. These initiatives have been on the ground empowering fellow refugees by building skills such as financial literacy, language ability, and the ability to perform handicrafts that people can use to earn a living. 

During the COVID-19 lockdown in Kampala in 2020, these refugee led-organisations (RLOs) proved how essential they are. Meanwhile, the lockdown was hard on refugees, many of whom earn money to live off day-to-day by working in restaurants, construction sites, shops, or by selling goods on the streets – all activities that were no longer possible.


“INGOs will not hire refugees for more senior positions where they would have decision-making power, regardless of their qualifications.”


Refugees soon found themselves lacking food and other basic necessities. Many INGOs had paused their operations or began working remotely. And public transportation was also shut down, so many refugees couldn’t move around the city, even to access medical care. People for Peace and Defence of Rights (PPDR), the organisation I’m the executive director of, and other RLOs stepped up to do all they could to fill the gap. We launched fundraising campaigns, used our own cars to distribute supplies, transported people to the hospital, and paid for medical bills and back rent. 

The response showed how effective refugee-led initiatives are, how much better they understand refugees’ needs, and how much more capable and nimble they are at responding to those needs.

But there are limits to how much RLOs can do because we do not have access to the funding INGOs have. There is a lot of talk in the international aid community about localisation and supporting refugee-led initiatives. But donors from the Global North continue to fund INGOs from the Global North. 

There is also a glass ceiling for refugees when it comes to working at INGOs. Many INGOs will hire refugees as interpreters, community mobilisers, or data collectors, but only as ‘incentive workers’ who are given a monthly stipend that is substantially lower than an INGO salary, not as full-time employees. The jobs provide very little long-term stability and no opportunity for advancement. And INGOs will not hire refugees for more senior positions where they would have decision-making power, regardless of their qualifications. 

There is also a lot of talk by INGOs of partnering with refugee-led organisations, but how does that help if all decisions are made without refugees’ opinion or consent? How can INGOs design programmes for people they don’t listen to and therefore don’t understand? 

If INGOs want to partner with RLOs, let it be an equal partnership that adds value to the people they serve. Since refugees have shown that we are capable of so much more than being looked at as vulnerable people, let us sit at the same table and co-design policies and projects together. The treatment of humanitarian aid workers and refugees should be equal. This will give refugees a better chance to live a dignified life. Nothing about refugees should be discussed without refugees. 

When it comes to localisation and the support INGOs provide to refugees, it seems like people in the aid community are claiming they want me to be independent and empowered even while continuing to make me depend on them for my daily meal.

Edited by Eric Reidy.

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