Recognition and funding for refugee-led social protection during COVID-19

  • Economy
  • Environment
  • Society

University of Oxford 


Professor Alexander Betts FAcSS, Dr Evan Easton-Calabria, and Dr Kate Pincock at University of Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre, undertook research into the role of refugee-led organisations (RLOs) in providing essential services to displaced communities. The research revealed how, despite a lack of funding and recognition, RLOs frequently provide essential support in areas like food, public health, and education. During COVID-19, as UN agencies withdrew from camps and cities, their research offered policy-relevant insights into how to recognise, support, and finance effective refugee-led social protection.

Research focus


Perceptions of humanitarians assisting refugees are usually associated with the United Nations or large international organisations, rather than refugees themselves. In crisis situations around the world, though, refugee-led organisations frequently provide important basic services such as food, public health, and education. And yet they do so in the absence of any form of systematic funding or recognition by international donors or UN agencies.

Funding and recognition for RLOs 

Evidence was needed to highlight the important contribution of refugee-led social protection and to identify the conditions under which RLOs can most effectively meet the needs of displaced  communities. During COVID-19, as UN agencies and international organisations withdrew from camps and cities, refugee-led social protection became even more essential. And so research undertaken prior to COVID-19 was utilised to try to increase funding and recognition for refugee-led organisations.

The research focused on refugee camps and cities in Kenya and Uganda. Anthropological research on the work of refugee-led social protection was integrated with international relations research on how international institutions shape funding and recognition for refugee-led organisations (RLOs). The main research question was: what explains variation in the scale and scope of refugee-led social protection? The research was published as a book, The Global Governed? Refugees as Providers of Protection and Assistance (Cambridge University Press 2020).

Collaborators and partners

The research project was implemented collaboratively with refugee-led organisations, NGOs, and UN agencies. These included:

  • Global Refugee-Led Network (GRN) to convene an online public seminar series called ‘By Refugees: the role of refugee-led organisations during COVID-19’, including perspectives from RLOs and key strategic partners (including the UN Refugee Agency and philanthropic donors) for which over 2000 people registered.
  • Uganda-based RLO, YARID to launch a policy brief based on the Oxford team’s research at their offices in Kampala, which was attended by over 100 people including staff from RLOs and NGOs.
  • A series of online knowledge exchange meetings were organised with key stakeholders such as UNHCR, OSF the Bosch Foundation, the Local Engagement Refugee Research Network (LERRN) and the Government of Canada.

Impact and outcomes

  • The research has helped to increase recognition and funding for refugee-led social protection during COVID-19.
  • It contributed to new financing mechanisms, such as the Government of Canada’s commitment to a new dedicated fund for RLOs, with available funding going from close to zero to over $50m.
  • On the ground, this has led to more than 50 refugee-led organisations being able to deliver vital assistance such as health information, food, soap, and face-masks to more than 100,000 of the most vulnerable in their communities during the pandemic.
  • It has shaped debates within the United Nations, informing the UN Refugee Agency’s creation of a definition of RLOs, new partnership status for refugee-led organisations, and progress towards multilateral funding.
  • It provided evidence that refugee-led organizations have been able to use within their own funding applications (for example, for a $10m award to RLOs by Larsen Lam ICONIQ award).
  • This shift towards refugee-led response is potentially transformative for the international humanitarian system, creating momentum towards more participatory global governance.

“This ESRC-funded research reinforced my own approach to the critical importance of refugee-led organizations.”

Bob Rae Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations.

“The evidence generated by this work contributed to the recognition of the assistance RLOs are providing and the support they are receiving.”

Robert Hakiza Executive Director, YARID  

Find out more

Photo credit: CECI Uganda - COVID-19 awareness posters
Photo Credit: CECI Uganda - Health information services, West Nile
Photo credit: CECI Uganda - Health information services , West Nile
Photo credit: Alexander Betts - Children playing football, Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya
Photo credit: Refugee Studies Centre - Market in Nakivale settlement, Uganda
Photo credit: Alexander Betts - Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya
Photo credit: Alexander Betts - UNHCR compound, Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya
Photo credit: YARID/Robert Hakiza - YARID food delivery and other items to refugees in Kampala, Uganda.