Global Refugee Forum – a Localisation perspective

Today and tomorrow (17-18th December), the UN, governments, civil society and other stakeholders gather in Geneva for the Global Refugee Forum to take stock of efforts to implement the Global Compact on Refugees. In the same year that the New York Declaration launched the process to agree the Compact, donors, UN agencies and INGOs also adopted the Grand Bargain commitments to empower local organisations in humanitarian action. To what extent has localisation been factored into roll-out of the Global Refugee Compact, and what might be ways forward at the Global Refugee Forum and beyond?

Over recent months, I’ve talked with several partners of CAFOD and other national NGOs engaged with Charter For Change to explore challenges and opportunities for local NGOs in refugee response. From this, three key challenges emerge:

  • Ensuring that Humanitarian/Development ‘Nexus’ funding linked to the Compact recognises and supports the role of local civil society
  • Incentivising meaningful participation by local civil society in decision-making on refugee and host community support
  • Creating an enabling legal and policy environment for refugees to organise themselves and establish civil society groups

Ensuring that Humanitarian/Development Nexus funding linked to the Compact recognises and supports the role of local civil society

To deliver on the Compact, donors are increasingly shifting towards government-centred development funding to countries hosting large numbers of refugees. New approaches by donors in these contexts is partly shaped by wider momentum on what is termed the ‘Humanitarian, Development and Peace Nexus’ – an approach to funding and planning attempting to bridge siloes between national government and international crisis response efforts. For example, in Jordan, donors are shifting towards funding through a ‘Multi-Donor Account’ (MDA) to channel resources to the Government of Jordan. There are positive examples, such as on livelihoods, where national NGOs have partnered with relevant line ministries to support them in designing and implementing programmes resourced via the MDA. From my conversations with national NGO partners, two key questions emerged on this. Firstly, what deliberate steps can donors take to assess the potential contribution of civil society to these programmes in partnership with government, and support that? Secondly, what are the implications for channelling funds through the host government in relation to protection? In Jordan, for example, government policy on case management in relation to gender-based violence emphasises mandatory reporting of any cases to the police. International humanitarian standards and local women rights activists, in contrast, emphasise a survivor-centred approach. Refugees that are GBV survivors often do not want their case referred to the police. So how to navigate these kinds of tensions between national policy and guaranteeing protection of refugees? The answers to both these questions have to involve engagement, dialogue, cooperation and partnership, and local civil society has roles to play.

Donors also increasingly recognise that, in protracted refugee crises, short-term humanitarian funding can only go so far. However, from discussion with partners, it became apparent that so far multi-year, flexible funding is mostly going to UN agencies. Very few of the benefits are passed onto local organisations. UN agencies have started to develop new approaches to partnership and some, like WHO, have undertaken a global baseline to assess how they can best contribute to localisation. However, as one national NGO staffer in Lebanon put it to me: “UN agencies’ Call For Proposals spell everything out for you as an NNGO – essentially UN agencies procure your services to deliver on their UN objectives.” So beyond the overall level of funding channelled by UN agencies to local NGOs, partners emphasised the importance of strengthening the quality of partnerships so they are not just treated as sub-contractors.

Incentivising meaningful participation by local civil society in decision-making on refugee and host community support

The Compact emphasises the importance of a multi-stakeholder and partnership-based approach; recognising the contribution of civil society to “assessing community strengths and needs, inclusive and accessible planning and programme implementation, and capacity development.” Talking with national NGOs in Lebanon, the picture is mixed on their participation in planning and other aspects of the refugee response. Several national NGOs shared positive examples of how they are better engaged in humanitarian coordination efforts. For example, OCHA has provided funding to a Lebanese national NGO platform to bring local actors into UN/NGO capacity-strengthening, coordination and funding efforts. The Charter For Change was cited as a helpful reference point in the dialogue about localisation priorities at national level. At the local level, the adoption of area-based, multi-sectoral approaches to coordination has also catalysed more engagement between civil society and municipal authorities. However another partner shared a more sobering assessment: “Localisation in the Lebanon refugee response has involved removing the ex-pats and putting some nationals or national organisations into their positions, but the system is just as top-down, and not really centred on recognising or supporting local initiatives.”

Creating an enabling legal and policy environment for refugees to organise themselves and establish civil society groups

Back in 2016, I worked with an INGO in partnership with the UN Secretary General’s office to organise a unique dialogue session at the Heads of State Refugee and Migrant Summit in which refugee and migrant activists shared their priorities with ambassadors, senior government and UN representatives, including Ban Ki-Moon. Since then, the Compact has catalysed an impressive array of global initiatives advocating for refugee participation in decisions that affect them. For example, the Network on Refugee Voice organised a conference in Geneva sharing recommendations. The Global Refugee-Led Network has issued a call for pledges to support the meaningful participation of refugees and host communities in decisions that affect their lives. Likewise, UNHCR has supported refugee women academics and activists to participate at several global UN events on the Compact to monitor the process from a gender perspective.

Unfortunately on the ground, progress has often been much slower. The legal and policy space for refugees to create their own civil society organisations is often constrained. This reflects wider forms of discrimination and exclusion faced by refugees and the constraints of their legal status, which vary from context to context. Despite these challenges, refugees frequently find informal ways to organise, share information and create safe spaces to reflect on how to cope with the experience of forced displacement. To support those efforts, solidarity between civil society from the local host community with refugees is often essential. For example, national NGOs frequently engage refugees as volunteers to support on outreach to the wider refugee community. Local actors that have a high level of trust and influence in the local community, like faith leaders, can also help to open up the space for refugee voice. One great example of this is the work by the CLAMOR network of church-linked agencies across Latin America mobilising to support lobbying and coordination on refugee and migrant rights.

Across the globe, where populist and repressive governments take hold, the space for genuinely independent civil society – in particular groups highlighting human rights and protection concerns – is being squeezed. As part of this, in several contexts, local organisations that raise the voices of refugees themselves have faced harassment and intimidation from governments. The international community could use political and financial leverage associated with funding under the Compact to help address these issues. But for this to happen, civil society space and refugee participation must get prioritised, not left as an after-thought.  

Ways forward

Whilst the global picture on refugee protection looks pretty bleak, the creativity and determination of civil society – including refugee-led groups themselves – is impressive. From my conversations with local partners, three priorities for follow-up on the localisation of refugee response emerge. Firstly, donors should prioritise attention to civil society roles, civil society space and funding into any shifts towards government-centred ‘Nexus’ funding. Secondly, UN agencies should measure the quality of their partnerships with local civil society, including refugee-led groups, in refugee response. Thirdly, priority should be attached to involving refugees themselves in monitoring strategies and programmes linked to the Compact. Refugee participation should be a condition, not an after-thought, for funding and wider cooperation under the Compact. Representatives from the Global Refugee-Led Network at the Forum advocate for ‘nothing about us, without us.’ Those of us committed to localisation, including in the Charter For Change coalition, must hear and act on this.

Blog by Howard Mollett, Head of Humanitarian Policy at CAFOD

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