The Alchemy Project began in 2001 as a pilot program to explore whether income generating interventions do support the livelihoods of forcibly displaced people. Our long-term goals were to work with humanitarian agencies and donors to develop programs and policies that support the livelihoods of displaced people during and after their displacement. In the short term, we set about establishing evidence about the impact of different kinds of ‘income support’ programs, using an approach in which we worked directly with field agencies. Our two-pronged approach was to fund and support field agencies implementing a variety of income generating programs, then work with them to conduct impact research of mutual interest. We were particularly interested in understanding the possibilities for using microfinance services in displacement contexts. We also supported displaced people with scholarships and funds for training.
We focused on Africa and worked with both local and international organizations including African research organizations. Our modus operandi was as follows. Using the Feinstein International Famine Center’s humanitarian network in Africa, we identified field partners who were well established in the region, familiar with the local context, and already implementing some kind of income support program—income generation, microcredit, in-kind or livestock loans, agricultural support or training. We contacted the organization and developed a mutually agreeable understanding about our work and how it would fit with their program. We then provided them with a program grant and technical assistance, and worked together to conduct impact research. We used a combination of monitoring and evaluation methods, much of it with the help of graduate student interns from Tufts University, who were placed with our partners in the field over three northern summers (June – August).
The AP is based on the following philosophical and practical premises:
- We select areas where there are great and unmet needs for livelihood resources, as well as real capacity for a positive and lasting impact. We work in three different types of protracted displacement sites throughout Africa:
- Camps (both for refugees and IDPs)
- Urban settings
- Rural settings
- We work in protracted situations, not emergencies i.e. initial mass influxes of refugees where there are acute health and nutrition needs that are best met by experienced humanitarian assistance agencies. Most income support programs are set up after emergencies, and we seek to become involved at that time.
- We do not deliberately exclude men, but most of the people we support are women. Many group loan schemes are composed of women, partly because women are more reliable clients, and partly because men often self-select out of the programs (loan amounts are often too small for their purposes).
- We recognize that it is a mistake to target displaced people while excluding the host communities in which they live and which often supports them. In many cases, the host community is as badly off as the displaced people living among them. Providing only the displaced with aid or livelihood resources is unfair, unethical, unsustainable and ineffective. However, in many host countries, refugees are physically separated from local communities by government policy that requires them to live in camps. Therefore, the Alchemy Project uses a dual approach: where displaced people live amongst their hosts, program resources are provided to both populations; where displaced people are separated and at significant disadvantages to their hosts, as in camp situations, resources are generally provided only to refugees.
The process of developing an effective strategy that combined research and direct support was slow and uneven. Working mainly displacement and conflict contexts meant there were operational hurdles and the need for constant adjustments and re-thinking. In 2001, the use of microfinance and other income support programs in humanitarian situations was a relatively new and under-examined field. Following the model of the Sphere Project, we built evaluation into both our field programs and the Alchemy Project itself and we were externally evaluated in March 2004, to assess the progress of our research.
The accomplishments of our three-year project are reported here. First we review our direct support for income programs and the displaced, then we describe our field research and the summary findings of this research. A more detailed discussion of the research is to be found in an accompanying paper, “Supporting Displaced Livelihoods with Microcredit and Other Income Generating Programs: Findings from the Alchemy Project, 2001-2004.”