‘Refugee-led organisation’ (RLO) has been a buzzword for some time now. Perhaps the humanitarian–development nexus has woken up with regard to systemic inequalities, or maybe the participation of RLOs in decision-making is veering instead towards tokenism.
Whatever the case, RLOs continue to play a vital role in meeting the needs of refugees in their urban communities, camps and even settlements. In East Africa, RLOs have been seen to treat their communities (beneficiaries) with more dignity; they understand their communities and adapt to their needs. They are more accessible and less bureaucratic, hence more open to serving refugees, whether registered or unregistered. Meanwhile, international institutions (namely non-governmental organisations (NGOs), international NGOs and United Nations agencies) often do not have and rarely seek to gain embeddedness within the communities they work with, nor do they foster significant leadership among forcibly displaced people.
Despite this importance and impact of RLOs, refugee-led organisations have faced various barriers. In East Africa and particularly Kenya where I have worked and interacted with RLOs, challenges to these organisations often revolve around lack of access to funding and unsuitable regulatory frameworks that make it difficult for RLOs to register and operate. This exacerbates the inability to access international partnerships and flexible funding due to systemic inequities manifesting as access barriers in the humanitarian sector. Therefore, RLOs find it difficult to scale up activities and to maintain a provision of quality services.
If asked what needs to change to enhance inclusion and participation, meaningful participation is often the first solution I think of. This is because RLOs have generally paved their own way and are working with their communities despite the various challenges they have faced. It is not capacity-building they require – as often portrayed by international institutions – because RLOs are already doing the work in their communities, but equal partnership in service delivery. This means RLOs require support to enhance their ability to fundraise, to spot advocacy opportunities, and to build rapport and partnerships with like-minded organisations around the globe.
For refugee-led organisations to be effective contributors and scale up their work within their communities, and contribute to solutions to refugee problems, there is a need to continuously involve RLOs in decision-making through equal partnerships and creating flexible funding opportunities.