The Refugee Engagement Forum (REF) Good Practice Study is a joint collaboration between ULearn (The Uganda Learning, Evidence, Accountability and Research Network) and the REF Taskforce (REF TF).
The REF Taskforce is co-chaired by the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). It was established in early 2019 with a mandate to facilitate meaningful participation of the affected population to Uganda’s Comprehensive Refugee Response, particularly to the CRRF Steering Group. The REF TF comprises of representatives of the OPM, such as the CRRF Secretariat, UNHCR and INGOs.
U-Learn is a UKaid-funded consortium which collaborates with the Government of Uganda and a wide range of implementers and stakeholders to facilitate learning, conduct assessments and amplify refugee voice and choice in the protracted refugee crisis. U-Learn has been working closely with the REF and REF TF since 2020.
The Refugee Engagement Forum (REF) has proven to be a successful model for sustained refugee participation in national decision-making. Whilst it is not yet very well known, its unique structure and demonstrated value have the potential to inspire other countries to adopt a similar approach.
As a result, the REF Good Practice Study was instigated to identify key lessons and successes from the REF, and to document the Ugandan experience for the benefit of those in and outside of Uganda.
How does the REF work?
The REF is a unique, participatory mechanism designed to systematically ensure refugee voices are taken into account. Through a representative system, elected REF members are able to directly advocate on behalf of their communities at the highest level of Uganda’s refugee response coordination structure. It is the first of its kind.
The REF empowers refugees throughout Uganda. Its 37 REF members are refugee leaders elected from existing leadership structures across refugee settlements and from Kampala; they meet quarterly to discuss their communities’ concerns and provide feedback on the functioning of the refugee response. They feed their key messages up to the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework Steering Group (CRRF SG), the overarching national refugee response coordination body in Uganda.
The Good Practice Study first outlines the inception, composition and functioning of the REF. It then details the successes and key lessons from the REF’s implementation, and considers its way forward.
Key Successes Identified
The REF’s key success is its ability to influence policy-making & programme design through the two-way feedback flow between refugee communities and the most senior level refugee response coordination body. In addition, in the relatively short time it has existed, the REF has been able to feed into other global and regional discussions and forums, and has inspired others to adopt similar accountability mechanisms.
Key Lessons Learned from the Ugandan Experience
The following six lessons were identified as the key points to be considered for those looking to replicate the REF in another context:
Lesson 1. Building upon existing structures: the REF draws its legitimacy from preexisting democratic structures.
Lesson 2. A diverse and inclusive REF: intentionally inclusive structures and reserving leadership positions for specific minority groups allow the REF to represent a heterogeneous population.
Lesson 3. Fostering interpersonal relationships: close working relationships keep people motivated, and ease consensus building and decision making.
Lesson 4. Operationally flexible structures: adaptable structures and systems are essential in a changing context.
Lesson 5. Ongoing learning and adaptation: an ongoing learning and adaptation process allows for continuous improvement and innovation.
Lesson 6. Support across stakeholder groups: wide-ranging cross-stakeholder support from the outset - including staff time and financial support – is key for sustained the growth and development of the mechanism.
Way forward for the REF
While the Good Practice Study did not set out to provide a comprehensive list of recommendations, it does lay out a number of areas that will help continued improvement and strengthening of the REF. Some of these, such as strengthening the REFs communication and consultation with an increased number of refugees, are already under way. For others, such as increasing the engagement between the REF and the wider refugee response, the publication of the Good Practice Study may play an enabling role. Nonetheless, most important will be that the REF retains and increasingly gains the active support (financial and otherwise) from the wider refugee response for its goal of systematic refugee participation in refugee response coordination and decision making, thus truly “representing the refugee voice in Uganda”.