Beyond self-reliance: recognising the relationships that matter for urban refugees

Institutions such as religious and cultural associations are helping refugees meet their basic needs in urban settings. Humanitarian agencies should support, not ignore, the work of these groups, argues Will Monteith

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Insight by 
William Monteith
07 November 2017
Congolese refugees proudly display the cup they won in a football tournament for youths from refugee communities in Kampala (Photo: Stephen Luke, Creative Commons via Flickr)

Congolese refugees proudly display the cup they won in a football tournament for youths from refugee communities in Kampala (Photo: Stephen Luke, Creative Commons via Flickr)

Humanitarian programmes in urban areas are often framed around the notion of 'self-reliance' whereby individuals or communities are expected to exercise rights they do not have and achieve levels of economic independence not expected of host populations (PDF)

This approach absolves humanitarian agencies of the responsibility to invest in vital services in urban settings, and disregards the role played by other actors and institutions – such as religious and cultural associations – in supporting and integrating displaced populations.

Rather than idealising refugee self-enterprise, humanitarian agencies should look to support the relationships and associations through which urban refugees currently meet their basic needs.

The challenge of humanitarian response in urban areas

The world has higher numbers of forcibly displaced populations than ever before, and most are located in towns and cities. However, humanitarian actors have been slow to adapt to urban environments, accustomed to separating rather than integrating displaced and host populations, and replacing rather than reinforcing local systems.

As a result, humanitarian response remains 'fundamentally at odds with the way that urban life plays out'.

Turning to 'self-reliance'

Under pressure from national governments and restricted aid budgets, humanitarian agencies have promoted a policy of 'self-reliance' in urban areas to counter refugee dependency on subsistence allowances. However, this policy has been criticised for binding assistance to the geographical location of refugees; discouraging migrations from rural camps – where they are eligible for assistance – to urban centres, where they are expected to be immediately self-reliant. 

Recent IIED research in Uganda, as described in this paper in Environment & Urbanization, reveals that the policy has provoked widespread frustration among Congolese refugees in the capital of Kampala.

"It's so bad that UNHCR is like our father here but they don't support us… I wonder why they are even here [in Kampala]," - Robert, a Congolese refugee

Similarly, Field, Mookerjee and Tiwari find that urban humanitarian policies in India neglect the needs of Afghan and Rohingya refugees. They argue that humanitarian framings of self-reliance "take little account of… refugees' actual capabilities to transform humanitarian assistance and livelihood opportunities into something sustainable and meaningful for them". 

Recognising the role of cultural and religious associations 

In the absence of humanitarian assistance, refugees in Kampala rely on religious and cultural associations for a wide range of support. For example, Congolese refugees are met at city bus stations by representatives from Congolese churches, who provide food, accommodation and advice on how to navigate the asylum system.

Similarly, the Somali mosque is an important point of contact for Somali refugees in Kampala, connecting new arrivals to housing and employment opportunities, and providing discrete forms of assistance through the custom of zakat (a ritual form of alms-giving). Meanwhile, youth groups, including Young African Refugees for Integral Development (YARID), work to support young refugees in Kampala through computer literacy training, English classes, social events and sporting competitions.

In the Indian context, Field, Mookerjee and Tiwari emphasise the importance of Afghan churches and Sikh temples for providing both immediate support to newly arrived refugees, and longer-term forms of employment and community solidarity through music.

Furthermore, interfaith organisations such as the Khalsa Diwan Welfare Society provide education and skills training opportunities and conflict resolution services, funded entirely by community members.

Refugees from conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo leave the Nyakabande transit camp in Uganda for an eight-hour journey to a refugee settlement (Photo: Andy Wheatley/DFID, Creative Commons via Flickr)

Finally, in their paper on conflict recovery in the absence of humanitarian aid in Somaliland, Mackie et al. highlight the key role of cultural institutions in enabling community solidarity and trust in post-conflict settings, enshrined in the Somali concept of danwidag ('sharing the same interest'). Their findings underline the importance of shared-reliance or 'self-help' over individual self-reliance. 

Working with what is already there

Mackie et al. conclude that the role of aid agencies in urban humanitarian crises should be to provide an enabling environment for people's livelihood activities, avoiding "paternalistic responses that could hinder community action and do harm to community potential". 

Rather than promoting unhelpful notions of self-reliance, humanitarian agencies should look to align their funding and programming with the self-help initiatives that are already doing the hard work of supporting urban refugees on the ground.

Will Monteith ( is a lecturer in the School of Geography at Queen Mary University of London. This blog is based on the following research published in the October 2017 issue of Environment & Urbanization, which is available open access from 8 to 22 November.