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Research in Brief: Refugees as Providers of Protection and Assistance (November 2018)


Key Points

  • Refugees are important and neglected providers of protection and assistance.
  • The ways in which international organisations and NGOs work with refugee-led initiatives varies across contexts. Generally, however, despite commitments, international organisations are failing to recognise or fund refugee-led community organisations (RCOs).
  • RCOs generally struggle to access recognition and funding.
  • A small number of ‘outlier’ RCOs thrive largely because of individual leadership and the creation of transnational networks that bypass the formal humanitarian system.
  • By engaging with refugee RCOs, international organisations can meet their commitment to the localisation agenda.


  • UNHCR should adopt a global policy framework on refugee-led community organisations (RCOs).
  • Refugee agencies and policy-makers should undertake systemic mapping of RCOs in order to better engage RCOs.
  • International organisations and NGOs should develop training and capacity-building schemes for community leaders as an innovative funding modality.
  • Donors governments should pilot direct funding for RCOs.
  • The international community should include RCOs within formal partnership structures.


Across low- and middle-income countries, protection and assistance is provided to refugees by United Nations organisations in collaboration with a network of NGO implementing partners (IPs). Whether in camps or urban areas, the dominant humanitarian model remains premised upon a provider/beneficiary relationship: international organisations are the protectors and refugees are the protected.

In parallel to this model, however, is a largely neglected story: refugees themselves frequently mobilise to create community-based organisations or informal networks as alternative providers of social protection. They mobilise to provide sources of assistance to other refugees in areas as diverse as education, health, livelihoods, finance, and housing. Sometimes they create registered organisations, other times they mobilise through networks. They usually do so despite a lack of access to external funding or recognition. Sometimes, these informal sources of social protection may even be regarded by refugee recipients as more important than formal sources of assistance.

To take an example, in Kampala, home to nearly 100,000 refugees, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has delegated its urban services programme to a single national NGO called Interaid since 1995. Despite the existence of over 30 refugeeled organisations (RCOs) in the city, these organisations are generally not funded through UNHCR or considered seriously as potential implementing partners. Many UNHCR staff in the city are unaware of their existence. Yet when asked to whom they would turn for social protection in an emergency, nearly 90% of refugees in the city said they would turn to their own communities (Figure 1). In other words, refugees are a significant provider of the very global public goods supposedly provided by international organisations.

Using a mixed methods approach based on ethnographic research and survey methods, we have examined four contrasting cases of refugee-led social protection in Kenya (Nairobi and Kakuma) and Uganda (Kampala and Nakivale). In our research, we explore what constrains and enables affected communities to be active providers of social protection. In this brief, we outline some of our findings and their implications for policy and practice.