Summer 2018

Hard Work If You Can Get It

Livelihoods programs promise refugees a path to self-reliance, but how much they can truly help remains an open question.

By Heather Stephenson

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Illustration: Alex Nabaum

Setting up tents and dispensing food, water, and medical care isn’t a sustainable way to address today’s refugee crisis. With more than 22 million refugees displaced around the globe—and many unable to return home for decades, if ever—such handouts require massive funding, which donor countries have proven unwilling to provide indefinitely. They also ignore the desire of many refugees to be self-reliant. Meanwhile, giving direct aid or cash assistance to refugees may encourage resentment in host countries, where locals can be worse off than the newcomers seeking asylum.

One increasingly popular alternative is to help refugees get jobs or start businesses in their host countries so they can pay their own way. These efforts, called livelihoods programs, often include job training and opportunities for citizens as well, to boost both social acceptance of refugees and economic development of host nations.

“Livelihoods programs sound so appealing—help refugees become self-sufficient, reduce aid costs, and help the host countries, too,” said Karen Jacobsen, the Henry J. Leir Professor in Global Migration at the Fletcher School and director of the Refugees and Forced Migration Program at the Friedman School’s Feinstein International Center. “But we don’t have enough evidence to prove they work.”

“Livelihoods programs sound so appealing—help refugees become self-sufficient, reduce aid costs, and help the host countries, too.”

The biggest challenge facing livelihoods programs is that many host countries do not allow refugees to work legally, despite international conventions protecting access to work. And even if refugees are allowed to hold jobs, they may find local opportunities are limited or employers are unwilling to hire them. Critics also argue that the jobs offered are often low-paying and that the governments of developed countries promote them in hopes that refugees will stay in their initial countries of asylum rather than migrate elsewhere, such as to Europe.

Still, efforts to get refugees working abound around the world. Starbucks has committed to hiring 10,000 refugees in 75 countries over the next five years. In late 2016, the furniture retailer IKEA pledged to open production centers in Amman, Jordan, that will eventually employ 400 people—half Syrian refugees and half local Jordanians—to make goods like rugs and blankets. IKEA has so far hired about 100 women, paying at least the Jordanian minimum wage of $310 a month. The start-up NaTakallam (“we speak” in Arabic) was launched in 2015 to provide work to Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, and other countries. The business allows Arabic language learners, including students from Tufts, to connect with refugees over Skype or WhatsApp to practice their conversation skills, for a fee of about $15 an hour. The start-up, while small, is having an effect—it says it has about 60 instructors, who collectively earned more than $110,000 between 2015 and May of this year.

Livelihoods are also a focus for international aid agencies, including the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which created a dedicated livelihoods unit in 2008. Since 2011, the UNHCR has partnered with a university in Ecuador on a business incubator to help refugees and asylum seekers from Colombia as well as local residents. The incubator has supported twenty-six businesses so far, with just 15 percent failing, compared to the 95 percent that organizers say is typical in the region.

While these efforts provide individual jobs or start-up capital for some refugees, it isn’t clear that they make a significant difference for them, or that these programs can expand to reach the huge numbers of refugees who need income. In a 2016 report Jacobsen co-wrote for the Migration Policy Institute, she argues that the success of livelihood initiatives is too often measured by how many beneficiaries they serve rather than by their actual impact on refugees’ lives. Jacobsen called for a much more rigorous assessment of how effective the programs are, how well suited they are to the market context, and what problems they create. She said we need to know the proportion of refugees they help in a particular context, and which refugees are unable to access these programs.

The report also argues that a focus on hard skills and qualifications can overlook other barriers refugees face in obtaining work, such as discrimination and mental health issues. In response to such concerns, the UNHCR and others have moved to pair economic development goals with broader social supports through what is known as the Graduation Approach, a step-by-step (or “graduated”) set of interventions. Starting with providing food or cash to address immediate needs, these programs then move to financial literacy training, mental health counseling if warranted, and other steps on the way to full independence.

One nonprofit that has pioneered a similar approach is RefugePoint, founded by Sasha Chanoff, F04, N04. The organization’s pilot program on refugee self-reliance, based in Nairobi, first helps stabilize people by ensuring they have shelter, medical care, food, and counseling. Then RefugePoint offers business training and grants of up to $200 to start or expand a business, with ongoing monitoring and support, including connections to larger loan opportunities. RefugePoint makes up to 220 grants to refugees in Nairobi each year—and tracks the impact on refugee lives. “In an average of two years, we have been able to responsibly disengage from providing support,” Chanoff said.

The nonprofit RefugePoint helps refugees start and scale up businesses in Nairobi. Henri, a refugee from Congo, and his wife chop and package vegetables to resell. Photo: Alonso Nichols

One graduate of RefugePoint’s business training program is Henri, a
thirty-nine-year-old who fled fighting in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that killed his mother and has lived in Kenya since 2010. (The names of refugees in this story have been changed for their protection.) A former clothing salesman, Henri started a business in Nairobi selling packages of chopped vegetables door-to-door in his poor neighborhood. At first, he and his wife, a fellow refugee from Congo, could only afford five packages’ worth of vegetables per day. In 2013, Henri connected with RefugePoint, which—along with food and medical care—provided him with training and cash to increase production. One month after graduation from the program, he was selling fifty packs of vegetables per day.

Six days a week, Henri visits a city market before dawn, then returns home, where he and his wife chop and package more than one hundred pounds of green beans, carrots, zucchini, eggplant, butternut squash, and cauliflower. They’ve added tea and coffee to their product line because of customer requests. “Now I can make big numbers,” he said, referring to his profit of about $40 a week. “Even getting food was hard before, and housing. Even taking care of our kids was very difficult, but for now life is easy because every day I can get money.”

Michael, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, sews custom shirts and dresses. Photo: Alonso Nichols

Another refugee from Congo, fifty-eight-year-old Michael, had to leave his sewing machinery behind when he fled more than a decade ago. For years, the tailor rented a machine from a Nairobi woman so he could make shirts and dresses, but it was never enough to provide well for his family of eight. With the aid of RefugePoint, which helped him pay school fees for his children as well as improve his business, he has been able to buy three sewing machines. “Before, I was living in a single room and not able to buy food,” he said through an interpreter. Two months after graduating from the RefugePoint program, he was renting several rooms for his family and was clearing a profit of about $25 a week, enough to cover food and rent.

With such promising results, RefugePoint founder Chanoff hopes the organization’s pilot program can scale up and influence humanitarian response more broadly, but acknowledges that will require more funding. And that’s one of the biggest challenges threatening livelihoods programming: insufficient or unpredictable funds. When money is limited, Jacobsen said, more pressing basic needs are—and should be—prioritized over long-term strategies to help refugees.

Even as the global refugee crisis stretches budgets thin, it’s important to shift humanitarian thinking—and international investment—from handing out aid to promoting self-reliance and boosting development in host countries, Jacobsen said. This might provide an opportunity for development agencies to work with humanitarian groups, particularly when refugees are likely to remain in a host country over the long term. “But the programs have to retain the commitment to protecting refugees,” she added. “And we need to evaluate them better to make them more successful.”

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