Changing How We Define Success: In Pursuit of #BetterLivesNow for Refugees

By Kellie Leeson

A young woman living in a desolate refugee camp, spending hours waiting on line for rations of food and medicine. Flimsy plastic tents stretching as far as the eye can see.

These are some of the more recognizable images that come to mind when one thinks of refugees. These images are real, and are an important part of the humanitarian challenge and response. Yet with more refugees than ever living in cities rather than camp settings, often for as long as a decade or two, today’s refugee experience can look quite different.

As such, our response must also be different. Refugees want to be self-reliant — it is time to move from seeing them as hapless victims to seeing them as brave men and women who are capable and eager to rebuild their lives. It is time to invest in their resilience.

It is time to invest in women like Esther.*

Esther arrived in Nairobi, Kenya from her home in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2013 with her children, following the abduction of her activist husband and an attack on the family. Upon arriving in Kenya, Esther and her children struggled to survive, sharing a one-room home with a friend and barely able to afford one meal a day. As she grew more familiar with her new city, and determined to care for her family, Esther started earning a small income selling vegetables. But the situation was tenuous and insecure.

The experience of Esther and of millions like her tell us an important story — that of their desire to stand on their own and rebuild their lives. This stands in stark contrast to the current humanitarian response to refugees, which remains unevenly focused on need and vulnerability, rather than on capacity and resilience.

Thankfully, this is starting to change. There is growing recognition that empowering refugees to achieve self-reliance is, not just possible, but also desirable for both refugees and hosting communities alike. A commensurate policy shift is reflected in two seminal documents: the 2016 New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, which was adopted by all 193 UN member states, and the Global Compact on Refugees, which likely will be adopted by UN member states later this year.

RefugePoint and the Women’s Refugee Commission believe it will take bold, decisive action to bring about a corresponding change in practice. That is why these two organizations, along with 16 others, have launched the Refugee Self-Reliance Initiative and #BetterLivesNow campaign during the UN General Assembly this week.

The cornerstone of these efforts is the belief that refugees should not have to wait to lead the lives they want to live — namely, being able to support themselves and their families and embrace the dignity that is inherent in all of us.

The Refugee Self-Reliance Initiative has set out to reach 5 million refugees within 5 years with programs to foster self-reliance and create enabling environments.

Working hand-in-hand with stakeholders, this initiative will change how we define success — helping us pivot from monitoring project outputs to measuring refugee outcomes. Through a newly designed measurement tool, we will be better able to assess progress toward self-reliance.

Let us now reimagine Esther’s life two years from now. Having received support connecting her to information, services, and economic opportunities in her community, Esther buys and sells prepared vegetables by traveling between her clients and farms. She periodically goes to the government office in charge of refugee issues to maintain her legal status. She spends the bulk of her income on rent, school supplies, food, transportation, and phone credit in order to stay in touch with relatives living around the world. Her business is thriving, her children are healthy and in school, and she has friends in her neighborhood. Most importantly, her family is safe.

Esther’s example offers a glimmer of what is possible. We should not despair when thinking about refugees — in fact, it is incumbent upon us to do the opposite.

Refugees do not need to languish for years in abject poverty, surviving on a knife’s edge. They can have #BetterLivesNow. The question lies with us: are we willing to re-orient how we work — and what we fund — to help them achieve this?

*Name has been changed for confidentiality reasons.

Kellie Leeson is an independent consultant leading the Self-Reliance Initiative, co-housed within RefugePoint and the Women’s Refugee Commission.