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Excluding refugee-led organisations (RLOs) from the formal refugee response is a lose-lose: Three reasons why RLOs need to be front and centre at this Global Refugee Forum

Written by Caitlin Sturridge, Fran Girling-Morris, Maysa Ismael, Amy Croome

Hero image description: Illustration of RLOs waving at donors, who are ignoring them

Organisations led by refugees play a critical role in the lives of displaced communities. But they have been underfunded and overlooked by the international community for years.

The upcoming Global Refugee Forum (GRF) is an opportunity to re-centre refugee leadership and agency. Here are three reasons why we think refugee-led organisations (RLOs) need to be front and centre at this GRF:

1. RLOs play a critical role in their communities and within the humanitarian ecosystem

RLOs are as diverse as the communities they represent. Embedded in, and directly accountable to, their communities, RLOs are best placed to design sustainable refugee responses that leave no one behind. Displaced communities, including marginalised and undocumented groups, are also more likely to trust RLOs who treat them with more dignity, respect and fairness based on shared kinship.

Yet despite this, outdated assumptions about RLOs persist - including that refugees are passive recipients of aid and that RLOs are a homogeneous group of small, informal organisations. International actors should recognise RLOs as strategic actors – not just in their communities, but also in the wider ecosystem of refugee protection and assistance.

We know that the humanitarian system reproduces colonial history and power imbalances. We need a fundamental change. We must challenge the assumption that refugees are a population to whom, rather than by whom, assistance is provided – that they are passive respondents instead of proactive convenors and leaders.

To do this, the system must be more collaborative and inclusive than it has been to date, and more accountable to those it aims to support. There must be a deliberate effort to promote RLOs as a specific priority within the wider localisation policy landscape – from which they have been largely excluded so far.

2. RLOs urgently need more funding and support

RLOs are underfunded and side-lined in refugee responses. Research conducted by ODI and Development Initiatives shows that just $26.4 million reached RLOs in 2022 – in comparison with the $6.4 billion that was made available for UN-coordinated Refugee Response Plans in the same year. The average grant sizes to RLOs are also 10 times smaller than those reported to local and national non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

On top of these funding constraints, refugee status means that many RLOs face a ‘double discrimination’ of additional regulatory, bureaucratic and discriminatory barriers. RLOs have to fight hard for a seat at the table and, without proper resourcing, ingrained power dynamics and unequal partnerships will remain unchanged.

While progress on funding and empowering RLOs has been slow, there are small signs of positive change and a growing momentum around resourcing refugee leadership and participation, partly driven by private foundations. Traditional donors should take note of the philanthropies and RLO networks already pioneering positive change.

Peer-to-peer funds, such as the Resourcing Refugee Leadership Initiative, and pooled donors funds, such as the Collective for Refugee Leadership in MENA, are working to address the administrative barriers faced by RLOs (such as reporting and registration), as well as the underlying power dynamics in traditional funding arrangements. RLO networks such as Reframe and Taking the Lead are supporting RLOs to raise their profiles and build connections with new funders.

Some traditional actors, such as the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the Netherlands, are also starting to develop RLO-specific funding modalities. Likewise, Oxfam’s Emergency Support Fund allows flexible funding to be provided to local actors in small-scale and forgotten emergencies.

3. Excluding RLOs from the formal refugee response is a lose-lose

The failure to recognise RLOs is (when taken at face value) puzzling. RLOs are an important cog in the refugee-response machine. They are also best placed to articulate the needs of their communities and influence policy from above.

We know that when humanitarian response is locally led, it is more effective and efficient. Local solutions to local crises and needs lead to more sustainable, inclusive and timely responses. RLO networks and coalitions are already pushing the international refugee coordination and response to innovate and adapt.

Viewed from this perspective, the failure to fund and empower RLOs not only compounds gaps in refugee service provision, but it is also a missed opportunity for strengthening the international refugee movement from the inside – and for making refugee responses more effective, accountable and legitimate.

Ultimately, the failure to fund and empower RLOs undermines the reputation of the international community, as well as the integrity and effectiveness of the refugee response.

Momentum for change is growing, but more progress is needed

Most of the major refugee-response funders are yet to take the steps needed to drive forwards meaningful change when it comes to resourcing RLOs. This GRF must be a key moment of (re)commitment and action to put refugees at the heart and centre of refugee response.

The multi-stakeholder pledges on meaningful refugee participation (coordinated by the Global Refugee-led Network (GRN)) and advancing localisation in displacement contexts are welcome steps forward.

But they must be accompanied by practical action and a willingness from those at the top of the system to transform it from the inside.