The need to rethink our refugee response system
The number of people who are forced to flee their homes is significantly rising on a daily basis. However, what is frequently described as ‘refugee crisis’ is more a crisis in response. The current frameworks and mechanisms are outdated and not equipped to manage the complexities of the mass movements around the globe at this scale. The support system is further often ignoring the broad range of needs of people who are forcibly displaced as well as the needs of their receiving communities.
Asset and deficit-based framing
There are two frameworks towards funding, asset-based and deficit-based, though they are often not labeled as such. Each framework differs in their understanding of the problem and the approach to apply towards addressing an identified need. Our research revealed that deficit-based framing and funding is much more common. The mainstream understanding of deficit-based framing is an outlook that is upholding the missing elements, the lack or shortcomings. Deficit-based funding emphasizes what impacted communities do not possess and looks at ways to apply resources, specifically monetary resources, to address those gaps.
We further identified that the predominant approach to addressing the needs of ‘people on the move’ is a deficit-based one. People who are forced to flee are often perceived as people who have nothing and are a burden on the communities in which they are seeking refuge. Organizations which support ‘people on the move’ as well as grantmakers in this space do primarily focus on the needs of ‘people on the move’ they are trying to help. The notion of crisis drives the narrative. The predominant perspective is to fix an issue as opposed to engaging with the issue and recognizing it’s multi-dimensionality. While acknowledging that ‘people on the move’ are in need of a broad range of support from legal assistance to psycho-social support, it is equally critical to see the full picture. That picture of their time of need is not the whole picture of whom they are as people. The missing piece of the story is that these are people who have life experience, talents, and skills they can bring to bear to address multi-fold challenges. Most importantly, a deficit-based framing prevents us from seeing and acknowledging the resiliency and capacities of ‘people on the move.’ Acknowledging that global forced displacement will remain a pressing issue, we have to rethink how we respond to the needs of ‘people on the move’ as well as the receiving communities.
Applying an asset-based framework would allow us to recognize and build on the resources each stakeholder brings to the table. It would further enable us to acknowledge the benefits each will attain from working together to solve the issues they are facing. Therefore it sees the range of capabilities people embody while they indeed need different kinds of support. Framing ‘people on the move’ upholding their assets would imply seeing them as new residents of a community and a potential source of value by, e.g., being part of creating a solution rather than a burden.
This piece builds on our personal and professional experience working in grant-making towards supporting ‘people on the move’ on a global scale. The following paragraphs stem from our research, experience, and multiple conversations with thought leaders in this field. We decided to write this piece to showcase ways to shift from a deficit-based framework, namely in grant-making, to one that emphasizes the assets and acknowledges the full picture. While the examples we are highlighting are from the humanitarian sector, we firmly believe that
it is possible to apply an asset-based funding framework in almost every philanthropic context. The communities we are serving have more than just needs. Once one starts exploring assets the impact can be broader and more profound within communities we are addressing. Hopefully, these examples can demonstrate applicability in other contexts.
Ways to shift towards an asset-based framework in grantmaking
Language and pictures
To shift the perception from being deficit-driven to asset-focused, one needs to start with the narratives and pictures. Both need to reflect the full view, beyond the needs and gaps, for those who are forcibly displaced. The terms used to describe ‘people on the move’ are often legal ones that fail to reflect the experiences, knowledge, and skills each brings to their receiving communities. The words that are used to describe refugees often conjure up concerns of burden and need, rather than of opportunity and resources. Regardless of their legal status, ‘people on the move’ are human beings with both critical needs and assets to share. As mentioned above, their resiliency and resourcefulness is an asset to the solutions brought forward.
This view is rooted in the traditional outlook in philanthropy: those who are being helped by grants are considered beneficiaries. In an asset-based approach, every stakeholder is a beneficiary and hence a partneras opposed to a recipient. There is no linear approach of a donor helping the recipient. Both are partners who are co-creating and engaged in a process in which both get shaped; gathering insights and experiences and ideally filling a gap of mutual concern. Through a joint engagement, their expertise and resources are being catalyzed to address a challenge that the community is facing collectively.
The majority of the forcibly displaced do not live in camps and never cross a body of water in a boat, yet the topic of refugeesconjures images of people living in tents or squished into boats. To truly reflect the experiences of those forced to flee, graphic descriptions should reflect the entirety of their global experience. ‘People on the move’ take planes, trains, travel by foot, and by boat to get to safety, and once they have found refuge their daily existence isn’t always dire. They do indeed laugh. And they can hold jobs beyond cook or handicraft maker.
An asset-based approach to grantmaking requires organizations to have a stakeholder-driven model to how they address challenges. Potential grant partners should be able to demonstrate that they are engaging the people who they are aiming to support. Talking about ‘them’falls short on acknowledging the full picture. As funders, we need to ensure that the communities we are striving to serve are involved in imagining and implementing the support system we collectively envision. A representative and inclusive approach is rooted in collaboration and hence requires involving peer organizations, and the local community members, as well as the public sector. Programming should elicit perspectives, resources, and requirements from each partner. The actual grant is a catalyst for the partner to engage each of the stakeholders to drive the desired change within the community. The success of the programming thus moves beyond merely the number of people served, to achieving objectives of a multitude of stakeholders.
Another focus in deciding which organizations to support is understanding how they approach the people they are serving. In supporting ‘people on the move,’ some of their circumstances can be dire, yet support organizations and their front-facing team members can encourage interactions that reframe the experiences as positive assets. They can look to members of the community, both local and displaced, to build relationships and share experiences.
For example, Humanity Crew works with people arriving on boats to Greece and helps each new arrival shift their experience from a harrowing one to one that they should look on as an example of their strength and resilience. The founder Essam Daod who is a Palestinian child psychiatrist and psychotherapist applies an asset-based approach in his work. Inspired by Roberto Benigni’s movie “Life is Beautiful”, Essam sees the potential in the people he supports as opposed to victimizing them and/or reducing them to their needs. Similar to Benigni, Essam told a five-year-old Syrian boy called Omar as soon as he left the rubber boat and arrived in Greece, that he is a hero. He shared with Omar how all the people around him have been waiting for his arrival. Essam further requested Omar’s parents to reframe their journey and share Omar’s heroic adventure with him every night before going to bed. You can watch a clip about Humanity Crew here.
Another example is a compelling organization called One Happy Family located in Lesbos, Greece, one of the islands that has seen large numbers of ‘people on the move’ arriving. In fact, One Happy Family’s short clip is a perfect example for the transformational potential for asset-based framing in the humanitarian sector. One Happy Family’s community center was developed by the ‘people on the move’ in collaboration with the volunteers. The center offers a sanctuary and sense of normality amidst the horrific living conditions in Moria, one of the worst camps globally.
The impact of applying an asset-based framework in grant-making
Grants catalyze broader impact
Organizations are catalyzed to pull together the resources and stakeholders in the community to address a challenge. In achieving a solution to a particular challenge with a collaborative approach, they can reach multiple objectives and create win-win opportunities for many constituencies. For example, housing and shelter are consistent challenges, especially early on during the crisis period of forced displacement. Organizations looking to shift people from sleeping in tents or the rough in parks or on the street can create win-win opportunities for the local community. While providing suitable long-term shelter, by renting out apartments that are empty and hence generate livelihood opportunities (as OMNES does in Greece) or by leveraging abandoned buildings and retrofit them for multi-family housing. The organizations can also empower their new residents to come together redesign and redecorate the building to transform it to an eyesore to a community asset, while at the same time conjuring a sense of pride for the residents to care for the building.
Benefits for grant partner relationships
Trust is the cornerstone of every transformative relationship. Working closely with grant partners to understand how they are bringing together their stakeholders to address the challenges they are meeting is the foundation for trust. In 2017, the Global Philanthropy Forum framed their entire conference around trust and its role within the grantmaking process beyond lip service. By focusing on these close relationships with grant partners, one can trust that they understand where a funders resources need to be leveraged to be a catalyst for impact. That relationship frees both the grantmaker and the grant partner to think outside the box on how they each can leverage the assets of the funder (e.g., financial, philanthropic network, public relations, etc.) when needed and appropriate. A relationship between a grantmaker and a grant partner built on mutual trust can amplify the positive impact that they are poised to make.
Benefits for the communities we are serving
Applying an asset-based grantmaking approach to addressing challenges caused by forced displacement engages ‘people on the move’ themselves. Approaching programs from an asset-based framework ensure that people’s capacities and skills are considered and utilized. For example, iACT trains ‘women on the move’ from the communities to provide early childhood education in South Sudan. iACT is building on existing relationships and expertise in the community, instead of bringing in experts from outside, who may have teaching expertise but lack the local context. ‘Women on the move’ from the community are affluent in cultural currency in their communities, know the needs, live under the same conditions and hence are familiar with the realities. iACT acknowledges their creativity and existing skills; some have been teachers before their displacement. In a nutshell, the benefit of the programming is that it leverages skills and is rooted in the community instead of added from a top-down standpoint.
Benefits for the receiving communities
Mass migrations of people to a community often exacerbate that community’s existing challenges. In some cases ‘people on the move’ seek shelter in communities that are already underserved. From housing to health care to access to education to interpersonal relations/xenophobia, an influx of new residents can force inequities and gaps in services into the spotlight. Taking an asset-based grantmaking approach permits grantmakers to foster relationships with grant partners that can address the challenge for both new and local residents. It opens up doors for relationships be built, to reinforce the idea that the community is in it together and having a broader spotlight on the challenges at hand can develop solutions for everyone as a stakeholder.
Deficit-based framing strips of the dignity of the people who we want to serve and assist. Some organizations in the humanitarian sector display people as victims only; yes they have been victims of torture or fled because of being persecuted for their religion, etc.. Nevertheless these are people that have skills and experience and not to mention high levels of resiliency. If our funding and the programs we are funding do not acknowledge and integrate these skills and resiliency into the work, we miss out opportunities. The dependency gridlock is now very visible in the humanitarian sector, e.g., camps that were supposed to be temporary but are de facto permanent given that ‘people on the move’ spend on average at least 17 years in those. Focusing only on the deficit of people who we are trying to support, in our belief perpetuates this need to fill gaps instead of building on what is available and leveraging those assets for stronger outcomes.
In using an asset-based framework to engage support systems of ‘people on the move,’ funders have the opportunity to have a broader more sustaining positive impact on the communities affected by global forced displacement. An asset-based approach shifts the narrative of an influx of new residents from a burden to an opportunity for collective impact. To move away from a deficit-based framework it is essential to building trust-based relationships with grant partners that are strong advocates for engaging stakeholders in the development of solutions. It is also important to recognize and acknowledge the assets, knowledge, ingenuity, and resources that ‘people on the move’ bring to the challenge at hand and that they have a vital role in their success.
Christine Mendonça is the CEO and Co-Founder of Humans on the Move, an advisory that connects the private, public, and humanitarian sectors to rethink the response to the global forced displacement crisis.
Negar Tayyar, Philanthropic Advisor and is managing The Global Whole Being Fund, a global grant-making body in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Fund is supporting work across different migration routes in 14 countries. The GWBF is assisting ‘people on the move’ to find meaning and belonging in transit and destination countries. The aim is to introduce an asset-based framework and expand the concept of ‘basic needs’ and include holistic support covering psychosocial and communal wellbeing as critical needs.