Lives and Livelihoods: Supporting Resilience with Data
By Dale Buscher, Women's Refugee Commission, and Amy Slaughter, RefugePoint
With 71 million people forcibly displaced around the world and aid budgets woefully underfunded, how do humanitarian agencies decide whom to help and for how long? How do we know when it's responsible to phase out assistance and redirect funds to those in greater need? And perhaps most importantly, how do we know whether our programs are working to help refugees not merely survive but reclaim control over their finances and futures?
These were some of the questions we set out to answer when our organizations, RefugePoint and Women's Refugee Commission (WRC), began a process four years ago that is culminating in the May 20 launch of the landmark Self-Reliance Index --- the first global tool for measuring the progress of refugee households toward self-reliance.
"Self-reliance" is the term used in the humanitarian field to refer to the social and economic ability of an individual, a household, or a community to meet its essential needs in a sustainable manner. "Enhancing self-reliance" is a primary objective of the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR), affirmed by UN member states in 2018. Practically, for us and our partners, it means creating opportunities and conditions for refugees to earn a living, use their talents, and take care of themselves and their families if they are able, thereby increasing their physical and financial security.
SEPARATE PATHS LEAD TO A COMMON END
Recognizing that the siloed, sector-based interventions that typify refugee response are not achieving what either we or our refugee clients desire, each of our organizations had separately developed measurement tools to support a more holistic approach. Used over time, these tools would chart changes in household circumstances, ideally seeing clients decrease in their vulnerability and increase their level of self-reliance. Of course, a decline in household status, which might prove predictive of population-level trends, is even more important to chart and respond to. The use of a holistic measurement tool also highlights areas of greatest need among families and consequently leads to program adjustments or referrals to other agencies for needed services. In this way, such a tool can change the way we work and collaborate.
Our organizations took very different paths to a similar end. RefugePoint had been developing its Self-Reliance Measurement Tool in its Nairobi office through an organic, iterative process to support its own casework with urban refugees. WRC had taken a more systematic approach --- a literature review, a mapping of existing tools, the input of academic partners --- to develop its Well-Being and Adjustment Index. When RefugePoint and WRC came together to compare tools in 2015, we felt encouraged to have arrived at similar products through different routes and knew we were onto something.
In February 2016, we co-presented our work at a roundtable convening in Brussels of the Solutions Alliance --- a precursor to the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework and the GCR. Encouraged by the level of interest received and seeking to widen the circle of learning, we began convening conference calls with interested partners. The Self-Reliance Community of Practice grew from an initial 15 participants to more than 27 today (including NGOs, UNHCR, research entities, foundations, and government agencies), and launched the Refugee Self-Reliance Initiative (RSRI) during the UN General Assembly sessions in 2018.
The Self-Reliance Community of Practice collectively mapped related tools for prioritizing at-risk refugees for assistance or charting their integration in countries where they enjoyed permanent residency. But no further tools were found that supported the vast majority of refugees to better their lives during their indefinite stays in countries of asylum. This was recognized as a critical gap and the group resolved to co-create a universally applicable tool that would allow not just for location-specific improvements, but comparisons across regions and detection of global trends.
The release of the Self-Reliance Index Version 2.0 for broad use marks the culmination of a rigorous three-year development and testing process that kicked off with a workshop in Nairobi in March 2017. With support in validity and reliability analysis from Columbia and Washington Universities, the Index has been field-tested by partners in Ecuador, Jordan, Kenya, and Mexico. More than 45 practitioners and other stakeholders provided input on multiple drafts throughout the process. It also benefited from substantial input from UNHCR's livelihoods team and the Poverty Alleviation Coalition, and from the financial support of the IKEA Foundation, G. Barrie Landry, the Landry Family Foundation, The ELMA Relief Foundation, the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, the Imago Dei Fund, the Alchemy Foundation, and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.
COVID-19 CRISIS HIGHLIGHTS THE NEED TO BUILD RESILIENCE
With the world's attention now focused on the impact of COVID-19 and its devastating effects on both health and economic systems, it is all the more urgent to recognize the interconnectedness of lives and livelihoods. We've seen the compounding effects of fragility in this crisis. When livelihoods are lost, and when those livelihoods did not prepare people for future shocks, suddenly households are struggling just to eat. This crisis highlights the need to build resilience that includes dignified livelihoods that allow families to save for the future, and to have the social and economic resources to cope with crises such as these.
Our organizations have long advocated that livelihood programs should start earlier in the displacement cycle, even during emergencies, to help households get back on their feet as quickly as possible. The COVID-19 pandemic is one of those emergencies. Now is not the time to say, "wait until this is over." We have heard that argument for years and lost decades of progress as a result. In the contexts where we work, the crises are never really over; waiting is not an option.
The COVID-19 crisis also highlights the importance of inclusive societies that enable self-reliance. Resilience is built on policies that allow refugees the right to work and be part of host government social services and safety nets. As the pandemic has so starkly illuminated, societies are often only as healthy as their least healthy members. It would be to our peril to marginalize the refugees and immigrants in our midst.
We see the Self-Reliance Index as filling a critical gap in building an evidence base of "what works" in improving the health and welfare of refugee households. It will give us the data we need to improve our own programs, inform resource allocation, and scale effective approaches. As the global knowledge base increases through broad use of the Index, so too will our ability to protect both the lives and livelihoods of refugees and their host communities.
Dale Buscher is the founding co-chair of the RSRI for the Women's Refugee Commission;
Amy Slaughter is the founding co-chair of the RSRI for RefugePoint.