Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


COVID-19 and Refugee-Led Organisations

Evan Easton-Calabria, Kate Pincock

Refugees in lower- and middle-income countries are facing some of the most serious consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. In refugee camps, which have high population densities and thus present a particular challenge for social distancing and self-isolation strategies, international agencies face both funding and logistical challenges in continuing food distribution, whilst also meeting demand for hygiene products. Meanwhile, in urban areas, the pandemic has severely impacted the livelihoods of refugees, who are largely engaged in informal and daily-waged work which is now restricted due to lockdowns. However they often lack recourse to state assistance and formal social protection.

Yet below the radar, and in parallel to formal humanitarian assistance, many refugees are themselves working to fill these gaps. As we show in our new book, The Global Governed? Refugees as Providers of Protection and Assistance, refugee-led community organisations (RCOs) have long played an important but neglected role in providing protection and assistance to both other refugees and host communities, in camps and cities around the world. There are hundreds of such organisations, supporting social protection in areas such as skills training, education, health and social insurance. Many provide services that our research shows are highly valued by their communities, and some operate on an impressive scale.

These organisations have been at the front line of assistance in the current crisis. One of the RCOs we follow in our book, Wakati Foundation, operates in the Nakivale Settlement in south-west Uganda where it employs refugees to work on small-scale building projects. It has adapted its work in the face of the pandemic, employing refugees to produce colourful face masks while also raising awareness among the community about the virus.

Our book also shows that RCOs in urban areas work to address refugee vulnerability in cities such as Kampala; for example, Hope for Children and Women Victims of Violence ordinarily supports refugees through vocational training, psychosocial support and English lessons. In the current crisis, it has been distributing hygiene supplies to refugees and Ugandans alike.

The work of these refugee-led organisations is now more relevant than ever as the formal structures of humanitarian aid struggle to respond to the consequences of COVID-19. They are already doing life-saving work, and they need to be far better supported. However, RCOs are almost never recognised as key operational partners by the UN system or allocated funding for their important work. Those which do succeed in building their capacity and expanding their assistance are able to do so despite, rather than because of, the current system.

The Grand Bargain agreement of the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 placed a strong emphasis on the concept of “localisation”, both recognising and supporting people affected by crisis as important first responders. Yet as we show through research with both RCOs and international agencies, a significant gap exists between the rhetoric and reality surrounding this agenda.

A glaring power asymmetry lies at the heart of the international refugee system, which remains premised upon a strong separation between providers and beneficiaries, and excludes refugees and their organisations from partnership and participation. Now more than ever, faced with the current crisis, there is a pressing need to build more participatory and sustainable models of humanitarian governance that include RCOs as key actors.

The Global Governed? by Kate Pincock, Alexander Betts, Evan Easton-Calabria
The Global Governed? by Kate Pincock, Alexander Betts, Evan Easton-Calabria

About The Authors

Evan Easton-Calabria

Evan Easton-Calabria is a Research Officer at the Refugee Studies Centre, and Junior Research Fellow at Wadham College, University of Oxford. Her research focuses on refugee self-r...

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Kate Pincock

Kate Pincock is a Research Associate at the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford, and a Researcher for the Overseas Development Institute. She received her Ph.D. in Interna...

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