New issues in Refugee Research - Research Paper No. 277 - Refugees asked to fish for themselves: The Role of Livelihoods Trainings for Kampala’s Urban Refugees

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By Evan Easton-Calabria

Introduction As refugees’ average length in exile becomes longer and the world’s number of displaced people rises – currently estimated at 60 million – there is a dire need to focus on assistance that extends beyond the emergency phase. Long-term aid for refugees is commonly known as ‘development assistance’. This aims to enable refugees to ‘secure the basic necessities of life, such as food, water, shelter and clothing’ while also ‘contributing to poverty eradication in refugee hosting areas’. UNHCR has highlighted livelihoods as a main tool for fostering refugee self-reliance in impoverished countries, and has dedicated substantially more funds to livelihoods programmes since the 2008 creation of its Livelihoods Unit. The importance of livelihoods is emphasised in the 2014-2018 Global Strategy for Livelihoods, which introduced thirteen priority countries for livelihoods initiatives. Uganda is one of these countries, and serves as the basis for this study.

One reason for the heightened emphasis on livelihoods lies in refugees’ involvement in the global trend of urbanisation. Currently, approximately half of the global refugee population now live and pursue their livelihoods in non-camp settings, a number set to increase. However, the lack of material assistance, such as food and shelter, offered in urban areas requires refugees to be self-reliant, either through finding work or becoming entrepreneurs. To promote refugee employment, UNHCR’s implementing and operational partners offer livelihoods training in lieu of material assistance in cities around the world. However, little critical analysis of the role and outcomes of these trainings currently exists.

This study focuses on the livelihoods assistance offered to urban refugees since 2009, when the UNHCR policy on refugee protection and solutions in urban areas granted refugees the right to reside in urban areas and advocated for their protection in these spaces. As a result of this policy, many organisations began livelihoods operations in urban settings, offering business training as well as specific skills training such as tailoring or arts and crafts. Notably, organisations offering trainings include not just INGOs or national organisations serving refugees but organisations created and led by refugees (hereafter refugee-run organisations).

Through a review of UNHCR policies and documents relating to livelihoods and urban refugees since 2009, and through three months of fieldwork on urban refugee livelihoods in Kampala, Uganda, I investigated the role of livelihoods trainings – a main method of introducing refugees into the market – offered to refugees. Here, I present the current stage of refugee livelihood programming and policies, and the state and results of livelihoods trainings on the ground in Kampala. I overview the content and main details of these trainings, as well as highlight their contradictions: the results they offer as opposed to what they are promised to provide. I then examine the challenges surrounding these trainings, which stem both from the local context as well as the institutional structure of livelihoods assistance. I conclude with recommendations for practitioners and policymakers.