The 'refugee aid and development' approach in Uganda: empowerment and self-reliance of refugees in practice

The 'refugee aid and development' approach in Uganda: empowerment and self-reliance of refugees in practice

Is the self-reliance strategy empowering for refugees?

This paper takes a critical look at the United Nations High Commission for Refugee’s (UNHCR) 'refugee, aid and development' (RAD) approach in Uganda. The paper examines the disconnect between refugees’ experiences and perceptions of this programme and the 'official' discourse surrounding the self-reliance strategy (SRS). The paper argues that the refugee aid and RAD approach from which the SRS emerged can serve a range of agendas. In appealing to these agendas, however, refugee self-reliance can in fact be in tension with refugee empowerment, rather than inextricably linked to it.

The paper covers the following:

  • a critical review of RAD literature which highlights the shift in thinking from seeing refugee presence can as a 'burden' to a 'benefit'. A brief description and analysis of the different actors and agendas intersecting in the RAD approach brings to light the complexities and contradictions evident when this approach is translated into policy
  • an examination of the concept of self-reliance embedded in the SRS in contrast to differing notions of refugee empowerment. This discussion highlights the tensions between the concepts of self-reliance and empowerment, and suggests a notion of refugee empowerment that entails shifts in power relations, recognition of structural constraints and focus on access to spaces of decision-making for refugees
  • presentation of fieldwork findings in Uganda which reveal that the 'empowerment' approach in the SRS was embedded in an outlook that ignored structural constraints to refugee empowerment, and the specific contextual obstacles to self-reliance

The paper concludes that attempting to 'empower' without addressing the dominant power relations that shape self-reliance in this context – the relationship between refugees and the aid agency umbrella of UNHCR and the national policy framework – is an approach that should be challenged.

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