The donor dollar is important, but it is no substitute for good refugee policy

Published: 23 Jun 2017
By: Lucy Hovil

Uganda is currently holding a Solidarity Summit on Refugees. The summit is taking place as Uganda hosts over a million refugees, the majority of whom have fled the upsurge in fighting in South Sudan. Despite the extraordinary speed and scale of displacement (between July 2016 and January 2017, over half a million refugees arrived in Uganda), the country has shown incredible hospitality and should be applauded for doing so.

The Ugandan government hopes that during the summit donors will make commitments to increase their funding for Uganda’s efforts to cope with this large influx of refugees – to put their money where their mouths are. Despite the rhetoric of “burden sharing” currently only 18% of the estimated needs are currently funded.

However, it is also important to underscore that while funding is crucial to any humanitarian response, ultimately money is no substitute for good policy – or, at least, for money to have an impact it needs to be well spent. As they gather to consider support to Uganda, therefore, donors need to be cognisant of the short and long-term costs of policy. Bad policies – policies that undermine refugee coping mechanisms and leave refugees dependent on aid therefore costing more in the long-run – are hugely inefficient. This is something that neither Ugandans nor those fleeing into the country can afford.

When it comes to good policy, Uganda is certainly ahead of the game, not least compared to some of its neighbours, having made huge strides over the past few years. It has loosened its emphasis on putting refugees in “camps” (albeit somewhat misleadingly re-hatting them as “settlements” without fundamentally addressing the isolation of land and limited access to local markets) and allows refugees to access work (assuming that they can either find work in the settlements or can manage without assistance in urban areas as they look for work).

But is this enough?

Stepping back for a moment, it is worth asking what the hallmarks are of “good” refugee policy-making. Seven years of research across the Great Lakes region with displaced groups demonstrates that refugee policy needs to far better align with local realities in order not only to more effectively (and more efficiently) meet the needs of refugees, but to allow greater benefit to the host community.

Too often the implementation of refugee policies is the equivalent of trying to fit a round peg in a square hole, as policies shaped at an international level and implemented at a national level seem to be at odds with local realities. This is a scenario that refugees know too well and they have developed multiple coping strategies to deal with it. Where national policies do not work for them, they negotiate livelihoods, land, access to education and other resources despite the policy context. They vote with their feet against policies of encampment and other restrictions on their freedom of movement and develop alternative approaches to their lives in exile.

But it should never be this hard. While refugees show huge resourcefulness, ultimately the gap between policies and refugees’ preferences is inefficient and detrimental to all involved, whether refugees, host communities, humanitarian agencies or governments. Policy needs to be bottom up, rather than top-down, something that has long been recognised by practitioners and academics alike, but has yet to sufficiently translate into programming on the ground.

If we were to align refugee policy with the coping mechanisms of refugees (rather than the other way around), mobility and inclusion would become the hallmarks of refugee protection. Yet many countries in the world are moving in the opposite direction, as refugee protection is only becoming increasingly securitised, governments are becoming more restrictive, and nationalism is shaping politics.

High-level delegations are gathering to discuss providing additional support to Uganda’s highly-praised refugee policy, and if they really do believe in Uganda’s progressive policy and think that it is exemplary, they need to support it, otherwise the whole structure will come crumbling down around them. But this is not just about money: it is about making sure that responses to refugee crises are more than palliative and that they promote approaches that counter polarisation and exclusion – approaches that will allow refugees to become economically self-sufficient and contribute to the economy and that will draw on, rather than negate, the creativity that refugees themselves demonstrate.

Programmes: Rights in Exile
Regions: Great Lakes Region, Uganda
Type: IRRI Blog, Library