Resilience and Community: Sustainable Solution for Refugees and IDPs Interview: Jane Best OBE, Executive Director of Refugee Empowerment International

Resilience and Community: Sustainable Solution for Refugees and IDPs Interview: Jane Best OBE, Executive Director of Refugee Empowerment International

By Yumeka Kawahara

Today, society faces highly complex and protracted refugee issues: in 2021, 89.3 million people were forcibly displaced as refugees, IDPs, asylum-seekers, etc. This represents the highest number in past decades. In the following piece, the executive director of Refugee Empowerment International (REI, formerly known as Refugees International Japan) talks about the effectiveness of bottom-up, community-based initiatives implemented to tackle these refugee issues, in contrast to more traditional top-down, state-centric initiatives. Focusing on the resilience of refugees and supporting their activities in host communities enables refugees to recover their dignity and take back sustainable and independent livelihoods.

REI’s Mission

Since its establishment in 1979, REI has funded projects that enable refugees and IDPs to get back on their feet and strengthen their communities. The projects that REI funds enable refugees and IDPs to become less dependent (or even independent) on humanitarian aid.

Building refugees’ dignity and skills are an essential part of REI’s work, but one of the most important features of REI is non-intervention. REI funds projects that are run by refugees, IDPs, and their communities, which is the key to sustainable solutions. These initiatives are often more impactful than projects that are owned and run only by non-refugee actors.

Traditional top-down initiatives to support refugees are important, but the bottom-up initiatives that REI supports ensure that such projects remain in the community and reach people through direct and ripple effects.

Current REI-funded Projects

REI currently funds 5 projects around the world.

The Maternal Health and Baby Kit Project addresses the very high mortality rates of mothers and children in five locations in Karen State in Myanmar, including an IDP camp. The initiative provides mothers with the necessary childcare training that these women often lack.  This project has an impactful ripple effect, as mothers tell other mothers about this initiative — they act as a sort of “telegraph” that keeps the program alive.

The Social Development Center project, located on the Myanmar-Thailand border, is a center for Karenni refugees forced to leave their education behind. The center educates refugees on human rights, leadership, environmental justice, laws, etc. beneficiaries then return to their communities, which their newly acquired skills help defend and strengthen. 

The Education and Training for Addiction program in the Thailand/Myanmar area addresses addiction by removing the stigma of addiction and recognizing its status as a disease, rather than a personal problem. The program has a high addiction recovery rate of 60%, in contrast to the 30% rate in other countries. Upon completion of treatment, program beneficiaries return to and work in their communities, where they become community workers who address social problems (eg, domestic abuse). Some individuals are also trained as addiction treatment specialists. 

The Kindergarten for Syrian Children project in Lebanon addresses the Syrian refugees’ lack of access to education.  Entering the Lebanese school system is difficult for refugees, especially Syrians. REI’s kindergarten not only provides quality early education for Syrian children but also prepares them for entry into the Lebanese school system. Furthermore, the kindergarten addresses children’s psychosocial issues stemming from their often unstable lives, and the kindergarten also hires Syrian teachers.

The Refugee Engagement and Empowerment project, based in Nairobi, trains refugees who live in the city without the support offered in camps. This project emphasizes job training and informs refugees of their legal rights to seek jobs and enter the workforce.  Young leaders of this project in several communities recruit young urban refugees, and the project’s beneficiaries gain skills to live stable and sustainable lives.

Resilience and Dignity of Refugees and IDPs

People who have been through hardships and trauma are, generally speaking, far more resilient than those who have not. They have hit bad times and are ready to do whatever they can to improve their livelihoods. They are not spoiled, nor materialistic, and they have got a basic, straightforward lifestyle. Refugees cannot rely on insurance, local authorities, handouts, etc., and, therefore, refugees must help themselves. With this independence, refugees can build a much stronger and more sustainable community. This is why REI focuses on community-based, refugee-run projects so that we can cultivate and support their resilience to achieve sustainable solutions for the issues they are facing. Seeing the resilience that refugees exhibit in such conditions is inspiring.

The impact of REI’s funding enables beneficiaries to have some control over their lives without full reliance upon others, thus preserving their dignity. Many of REI beneficiaries do not have to rely on others. This sense of independence dignifies refugees’ experiences, increases their self-worth, and provides greater opportunities for community integration.

Non-Intervention and Sustainable Solutions

REI focuses on sustainable projects that are developed for and by refugees/IDPs, which leave a fundamental impact on their communities. REI supports refugees’ resilience through funding. Many top-down conventional projects bring short-term change. However, few of these projects actually leave a sustainable impact on communities.

In this regard, non-intervention, which is REI’s strength, is key. Refugee-led initiatives where REI can listen to what communities need and learn what works for them are important for achieving sustainable solutions. 

Ten or twelve years ago, REI funded a project for returnees in Uganda. The project provided a kit to each beneficiary, which included household items, a pick, a shovel, mosquito nets, cooking utensils, and seeds. One young mother, a kit recipient, planted the seeds, sold the vegetables in the market, and was able to buy a goat with these funds. In the second year, she repeated this process: she planted the seeds, made more money, and she set up a community cooperative: a microloan system for 50 houses in the village. The initial kit that sparked this program was only $50. 

No One Should be Left Behind

Many crises involving refugees and IDPs are protracted; all too often, the emergence of new humanitarian crises shifts international focus away from long-term conflicts. Specifically, with regards to Karenni refugees, some people have been displaced for well over thirty years. We, as a global society, should not forget these individuals.


Fundraising has always been the biggest challenge for REI. The organization has always been overdependent on event fundraising. People who study and understand international aid recognize the value of our mission. However, because our activities differ from traditional interventions and development projects, few others recognize the importance of REI’s work. Hence, trying to build a general donor base is challenging for REI. Fundraising efforts were especially constrained during the COVID-19 pandemic. While REI hosted online fundraising events, these functions did not raise nearly as much money as in-person social events.

Advice for Those Who Wish to Work in the Human Field in the Future

Patience is key. If someone wants to work in the humanitarian field, they will probably apply to an international organization (or two). However, each organization should align with your own individual interests.  Carefully assess your own values: are you content to do hands‑on work, engage in top‑down activities, or do you want to look for something more impactful, more beneficial?

Once in the sphere, your colleagues can provide support and advice. While many former REI employees now work elsewhere, the skills they gained while at REI have proven immensely beneficial in the long term. REI sets up its interns and volunteers for success.

Don’t be beguiled by the salaries or the reputation of companies and organizations. Be patient and look for what you believe in and what you want to do. Don’t give up.

Jane Best OBE

Refugee Empowerment International from 2000 to present

Jane joined REI in 2000 as a volunteer working on project funding and research. She took on the role of Executive Director full-time in 2006.

Jane has visited REI-funded projects in over 18 countries since joining REI. In 2014 she received the OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) for services to refugees and displaced persons

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