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What’s Unsaid | Let refugees lead

‘You only know how a shoe pinches you if you're wearing it.’

What's Unsaid podcast teaser picture with a portrait photo in black and white of Jean Marie Ishimwe, East African Regional Lead, Refugees Seeking Equal Access to the Table [R-SEAT], over a radial gradient background. The colour at the centre is a purplish blue and the colour outside is green. On the top we see the title of the podcast: What’s Unsaid.

Humanitarian organisations often push an image of refugees as passive victims in need of help. Refugee advocate Jean Marie Ishimwe says that’s not only insulting, it’s just plain wrong.

Refugees “want to be solutions enablers”, he tells What’s Unsaid host Obi Anyadike. “We need to make sure we challenge these mentalities that are not allowing refugees to have the agency to lead, and that means shifting power.”

Ishimwe, who has lived 20 years as a refugee in Kenya, is now the East African regional lead for Refugees Seeking Equal Access to the Table (R-SEAT), an organisation focused on refugee participation and inclusion.

Rather than “passive beneficiaries” of programmes designed by others, he wants governments and aid agencies to “see refugees as an equal stakeholder [in finding] solutions” to refugee needs. “You only know how a shoe pinches you if you're wearing it,” he says.

Refugee-led organisations (RLOs) made their mark during the COVID-19 pandemic, when aid agencies stopped working in camps, and refugees themselves stepped forward and assumed those responsibilities.

Although poorly funded, RLOs have time and again demonstrated their impact and accountability. Yet they face hostility from the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) and other “big brothers” resistant to change, says Ishimwe.

In the latest What’s Unsaid podcast, Ishimwe makes his case for a “revolution” in the aid system: One where refugees will have a seat at the table – and “not just one seat… enough seats”. 

What’s Unsaid is the new bi-weekly podcast exploring the open secrets and uncomfortable conversations that surround the world’s conflicts and disasters, hosted by The New Humanitarian’s Ali Latifi and Obi Anyadike.

Guest: Jean Marie Ishimwe, East African regional lead, Refugees Seeking Equal Access to the Table (R-SEAT)

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Transcript | Let refugees lead

Obi Anyadike: 

Today on What's Unsaid, Let refugees lead. 

Humanitarian organisations often push an image of refugees as passive victims in need of help.

Cate Blanchett: 

Biting, bitter cold temperatures are putting refugees in danger. How will they endure the harsh winter months? Many fled their homes with little more than the clothes on their backs. Will you join me and support UNHCR’s winter relief efforts?


But refugees themselves say they have a voice and need to be listened to - not ignored or patronised. My guest today says it's time refugee led organisations, or RLOs, were in the driving seat.

Jean Marie Ishimwe: 

The next revolution, or the next way to make sure that responses are most effective is when the ‘big brothers’: the UNHCR, governments, and INGOs, see refugees as an equal stakeholder within finding the solutions for refugees, and for a matter of fact with refugees.



This is What's Unsaid, a biweekly podcast by The New Humanitarian, where we explore open secrets and uncomfortable conversations around the world's conflicts and disasters. My name is Obi Anyadike, staff editor at The New Humanitarian. 


On today's episode: Let refugees lead. 


With us today is Jean Marie Ishimwe. He's the East African regional lead for R-SEAT, or Refugees Seeking Equal Access to the Table, a refugee-led organisation focused on refugee participation and inclusion. Ishimwe, thanks for joining us.


Thank you Obi, for having me.


Okay, so let's get to it. You’ve lived as a refugee in Kenya for two decades. What does it mean to you now to work with organisations that are led by refugees? 


Yes, I have been a refugee here for the last 20 years. Unfortunately, I wasn't recognized as a refugee - or my family for that matter - wasn't recognized as a refugee. And so, for over 20 years, you live in a life where hope is away. But also, you're not assured of what the future holds, apart from what you're able to do as yourself. And so for me, working with RLOs is not something about work, it's about the passion. It's about the needs that I have, both seen as important for refugees, as compared to how other organisations look at those needs for refugees. In fact, they say that you only know how a shoe pinches you, if you're wearing it. This has been the inspiration for me, just the fact that I've lived this life. The challenges that I've faced, and the fact that now we are at the level where we are saying that ‘nothing for us, without us,’ means really refugees being at the seat at the table, and being able to lead a life just like any other human. So for me, working with refugee-led organisations has been very inspirational to see that refugees, not only want to survive, but want to thrive as well. They want to be solutions enablers. They want to create solutions, and they don't want to be seen as usual to be recipients of aid, or passive beneficiaries of programs. 


Let’s talk about that issue about perceptions, how refugees themselves are seen. How do you think that mainstream refugee organisations view refugees?


I remember when we were starting our advocacy in Kenya, it was very difficult to be in spaces where the so-called ‘big brothers’ were - UNHCR, and other big organisations - because you are seen as a refugee, and so you can only access services, but you cannot decide on how services will come to you. This is the problem that we are having, that the organisations that are mandated to work for refugees, have not themselves put refugees at the centre of their programming and the work that they do for refugees. And so, my perception, the way I see myself is different from how I see some organisations see me, or see other refugee led organisations, because they see themselves as big brothers, they see themselves as the owners of the systems, whereas the refugees themselves are the ones who are actually the right holders. So the unfortunate [fact] is that supporting refugees consciously have been neglecting the voices of refugees to drive their solutions, to drive programming to them that is more effective. 


Just on the nuts and bolts of it, how is an RLO typically formed? I mean, who in the community decides or thinks we have an issue, let's try and solve it? How does it work? How do you mobilise people within the community around an idea, and who normally leads that process within the community?


It's people in the community. It's refugees who are very passionate about certain challenges. So, it could be that it is me, Jean Marie from a certain nationality as a refugee in our community, sees a challenge, for example, on the difficulty of refugees to access jobs, or employment because of documentation. So, first thing is that you need to know how do you register. And the simplest way for many refugees, they are only able to register as community based organisations - CBOs. And so they are refugee led, because they are led by those refugees who have seen a problem and they want to respond to that, but they’re only sometimes, unfortunately, limited to community based organisations, because of the many other requirements that they will need to provide.


Let's talk about the impact of Covid on the perception of RLOs by other organisations, because that seems to have been something of a game changer?


Yeah. So, during Covid, many organisations that support refugees were forced to close down. But refugee led initiatives, then got a bigger profile at this time, because organisations that ordinarily were supporting refugees closed down. Their policy says that they cannot operate in situations like that. But then who are left in the community? It is the refugee-led organisations. It’s the local organisations. During Covid, it raised the profile of RLOs. Not to say that they're starting now, but it's actually brought to light that they were invisible, and then now they're becoming visible to the actual work that they're doing in the community.


Ishimwe, give us an example of your two favourite projects that RLOs are running, just so we can kind of visualise the range of work that gets done by RLOs?


Yeah, so Yarid in Uganda started quite early before 2020. They have an interesting program called the job placement program. They support refugees on job readiness, interviewing skills, and then they're able to place refugees into jobs. Because for a long time, refugees had challenges to be able to actually competitively go into job interviews. You go to Kenya, for example, in Dadaab, there is an organisation that’s known as Desert Freelancing that's led by a Somali refugee. Initially, getting jobs on programs like Upwork for refugees as online freelancing was very difficult. But this group of refugees built within Upwork, and then now are able to access jobs as a collective, and offer to refugees. So, there are many works that RLO's are doing. The reason why some of their works are not visible as much is because for many RLOs, they unfortunately have to do this work with either zero budget, and they have to fundraise this from their own members, or they have little budgets to actually even cater for their salaries, for other overheads. And so, they're only able to directly support their communities with the little they have. 


UNHCR only defined RLOs in 2023. So, as you said that, RLOs have been in existence for many, many years before that. Is the relationship beginning to change though, now that UNHCR seems to accept the importance of RLOs? 


Well, they've come to the table quite late. Because for a long time, the definition or the perception of ‘refugee’ was not the way the refugees redefined themselves. I think for me, looking at the fact that UNHCR defined a refugee led organisation in 2023 speaks so much about what a supposed organisation supporting refugees should have been able to look at way before when refugees wanted a seat at the table. And because this is the actual work we're doing at R-SEAT, trying to get enough seats at the table. It is quite unfortunate that we have, as refugees, have to prove why it's important to be in discussions about our lives. This is our lives. You know, this is the refugee life. They live this life every day. Why is it important for us to always prove, or always have to make a case of why we need to be involved in that case? I think we have to question why the system has been unfair to the people it's supposed to be serving. But I think there's now been a change - a little bit - about self-awareness and self-evaluation of how the system is working. For the truth, unfortunately, they've been forced - UNHCR and the bigger organisations that support refugees - have kind of had to align themselves into this new reality. So, the fact that they have to always come to this reality check of: we've not been doing right, we need to start doing right, is a good call for now. But it's another bigger discussion of, actually, who propels the interest of refugees within the refugee ecosystem.


So, on this issue, there's a lot of talk about decolonisation, localisation of aid: Are refugee-led organisations being left out of these conversations? 


Yeah, completely. I think they are left out completely. But I'll say completely in half way to say that, at least the discussions are happening with them, somehow now. But just look at the, for example, the discussion on localisation, who is leading this discussion? Who is driving the localisation agenda? Who is being involved? And who is not being involved? So, in terms of driving this particular work, for me, I think it is unfair, for local organisations, and at this point, defining local organisations in respect to refugee led organisations, who have been, and who have always been, working within the communities, and at the local level, not leading these discussions. First, in terms of understanding, what is the strategy? How do you implement the strategy? And how do we reach this realisation? The localisation agenda goes beyond the 25 percent of funding that's supposed to come to local actors. It was supposed to be achieved by 2020. But right now, we're still down to 1 percent of that funding coming to RLOs, and even much more lesser - if you look at the ODI report - going to RLOs. So, I think when we want to talk about who is being left out, who is being involved, we then need to question about who is leading, and refugees are not leading that localisation agenda from a high-level discussion. They are just being invited ad hoc-ly. They are invited for consultations, which I think it's not the best way to meaningfully engage refugees. We need to evaluate what is the space within those sixty donors that are part of the Grand Bargain? How can we have a refugee voice that is legitimate, that is institutionalised to be part of those discussions, to drive the agenda of refugees, not from an outsider position, but from the insider position? 


I mean the donor position normally is that RLOs, they lack the ability to demonstrate impact. As you said, only 1.2 percent of humanitarian funding is going to local actors, and only a small fraction of that is going to RLOs. But I think maybe there's that element of demonstrating impact, but also trust. That seems to be the unspoken issue here. How do you respond to that, that somehow RLOs can't really be trusted with money?


Well, this is not supported with evidence. The idea of trusting RLOs, or the idea that RLOs don't have the capacity to demonstrate greater impact, it's not what would help to advance the discussion about refugees leading.


It's also pretty insulting as well.  


Yeah, very insulting for me. I think that's the word I'm actually trying to look for the word. But really, what have the donors been supporting RLOs over time? They've not been covering overheads. They've not been covering system building. But at the same time, if you look at the comparison of the funding that goes to big organisations within the humanitarian sector, that covers a lot, bigger funding allocation to administration, to overheads, that help to sustain and have a greater impact. And I mean, debatable if it is impactful even at that level. But I think for me, donors need to realise that RLOs have been, in their own way, finding some resources and contributing to supporting their communities. The communities have trust with them, how is it possible that another person who wants to support them to continue their work, cannot trust? So, for us to be able to see refugees leading, then donors need to come to the realisation that RLOs need to be properly supported and funded. For example, at R-SEAT, we have had the luck to get supportive donors who believe in the work we're doing, and somehow slowly, we are creating a blueprint of how engagement at the highest level could look like more meaningfully, as compared to these kinds of proof tick of are you able to do this or not. So, I think for me first, as we've said, it's an insult, complete one that RLOs are not not able to demonstrate that, whereas they are able to demonstrate to their communities. So, we have to challenge the donors. Don't decide on such perceptions, such narratives, based on hearsays or even documents. Come to the ground and see the impact that RLOs are doing, then you can make the decision whether to fund or not. So, I think this for me is the new phase, is the fact that the impact of RLOs is felt in the community. You cannot say you're not feeling that impact if you're not in the community.


Right. So, I mean donors seem to be fixated with documentation and data, but you're saying that there's other ways of showing impacts around community trust, community accountability, community building even. Is that the kind of work that you're doing? This is not the normal refugee supporting agency approach, you're looking at a wider footprint?


Yeah, Obi, let me tell you, for example, if I get some experts within my organisation, and ask them to help me get some better reporting to a donor, to show that I have done this, whether that is true or not. And as a donor you accept that…so someone can lie to you that they've actually done so much, because they have better systems, and you never know. But, so for me, accountability is not about papers, it's not about having the perfect designed report, or having the best figures, or being fixated on numbers. For me, it is the impact that comes out of those responses and communities. I think greater accountability comes to the community than to this kind of bureaucracy, or requirements, or accountability on papers or something. So, I'm not saying those are not important. But I'm saying donors need to see the impact of communities. That means being part of the communities, learning about the work they do. You know, so many good reports have been done, so [much] research has been done. But it is when you see a change in the community that you will say that something has been done. And this is what RLOs are able to best show. 


Right. But there are some question marks over RLOs being not as diverse or inclusive enough. Some of these are quite conservative community based groups. Is that a fair, a fair question?


Yeah, I think it is. Diversity is a question within the ecosystem. And for RLOs, of course, we need to understand how they are built, or how they operate. You realise that there are some RLOs that are built within certain communities that are homogeneous in nature. So like, in Kenya, Kasarani in Nairobi, would have a lot of Congolese there. And so, you realise that sometimes, representation, participation, access to services will be seen as one only one side, but that's just one part of it. Because of the challenges that RLOs have, they unfortunately find themselves in a position where sometimes they are not able to even register, because of documentation challenges, but they’re also sometimes to the level where they cannot transition from the informal ways of how they operating, in this essence, maybe even to the smallest part of how they organise themselves as community based organisation to national organisations. This is a little bit different from what you see with NGOs, with INGOs. INGOs are not obstructed by how much they can advance their work. Because they don't have the limitation of how they can register or how they can operate. I will give an example. There is an organisation called RAI, Refugee Action International, in Kakuma. It initially started as a community based organisation, but has since transformed itself into an NGO. What this means is that they are now able to reach a much more diverse, a much bigger region nationally in Kenya, as compared to when you're only concealed into a certain region. And so the diversity question for me, should be approached in an understanding of how the RLOs actually operate. Because for RLOs, they are not restrictive, they're not about: Okay, you are this you cannot access outside. It's really about the communities. But, I think it's a challenge to us to see the power that comes with diversity. For me, I think, as a community, as a collective, as many of us in that system, and being aware of who is missing out. And this is why I even asked about the question of who is involved, who is not involved? These are the very questions that, as this RLO work continues to get more profile, that RLOs have to work more to make sure that they are as diverse as possible. And they're doing it. They are trying it, maybe not yet at the moment, but it's work in progress. 


Right? I mean, you’ve spoken on the why, the legitimization of RLOs, why they're important. And you've also alluded to the how, how do we scale up? What's next that needs to be done? If RLOs are really going to shake up the aid sector, what more is needed? What more support is needed? And how would that be structured?


Yeah, very difficult question. But I think, in terms of a radical position, for me, that would be the best position seeing that the ecosystem is led by refugees, so not the usual big brothers. But I think realistically at this point, because we all are aware that I think collaboration is the way to go in the next part. So, we have to challenge these kinds of, you know, for me, saviour mentalities, colonisation kind of mentalities, or there's only one way to do a certain thing, and this has been the way. So we need to promote, and we need to make sure that we challenge these mentalities that are not allowing refugees to have the agency to lead, and that means shifting power. Can we have at some point, maybe refugees leading the UNHCR? Maybe this is another discussion for another time, but I know I have been in certain meetings criticised for, you know, you're being too critical. But I think if you're not too critical, and we're not evaluating the ecosystem, then unfortunately, we will be doing the ingenuineness to the people at the community level. And so for me, I think the next revolution for this system is actually refugees leading, and not being consulted only, or being ticked that you've attended, only that. So, I think three parts here: direct funding to RLOs to improve system building in greater impact for their work. Two, a shift in mindset and a shift of power for them to lead the localisation agenda, and the decolonisation of aid with partners. And third, really making sure that refugees are at the seat at the table, not just one seat, but having enough seats to actually influence the refugee regime to be more responsive to refugees themselves.


Ishimwe, it has been good talking to you. Thank you very much.


Asante sana, Obi. Thank you very much.


Jean Marie Ishimwe is the East African Regional Lead for R-SEAT, or Refugees Seeking Equal Access to the Table.


Please visit TheNewHumanitarian.org for ongoing reporting on humanitarian issues in crisis zones across the world. 


And what are people afraid to talk about in today’s crises? What needs to be discussed openly? Let us know: send us an email: [email protected]. Or subscribe to The New Humanitarian on your podcast app for more episodes of What’s Unsaid – our new podcast about open secrets and uncomfortable truths hosted by Ali Latifi and me, Obi Anyadike


This episode is produced and edited by Freddie Boswell, sound engineering by Mark Nieto, with original music by Whitney Patterson. Thanks for listening!

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