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The Many Selves in Self-Reliance: Why Words and Definitions Matter

The global focus on building refugees’ self-reliance often fails to understand how refugees define the concept, say researchers Evan Easton-Calabria and Yamini Mookherjee. They explain why some refugees see self-reliance as more complicated than individual and economic.

Written by Yamini Mookherjee, Evan Easton-Calabria Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A Rohingya refugee living in Malaysia sells chickens at a roadside market in Selayang, near Kuala Lumpur on December 14, 2017. MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images

A Rohingya mother in India sends her child to school in the sprawling city of Delhi. A Central African chief negotiates with another across a border and relocates his entire village to new land. Syrians revitalize a longstanding tradition of car-sharing with their Lebanese hosts in remote, infrastructure-poor areas of North Lebanon. Each of these examples demonstrates adaptation and perseverance, but could they also show refugee self-reliance?

The answer is complicated.

Today, self-reliance is a key focus in humanitarian and development assistance to refugees. The rising number of displaced people means that humanitarian organizations are often overwhelmed. People are remaining displaced for longer, making it imperative that they can rebuild their lives and livelihoods. Building the self-reliance of refugees is one of the four key pillars of the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, a global vision and action plan for equitable responsibility-sharing that benefits both refugees and hosts. But what does self-reliance actually mean?

The U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) defines self-reliance for refugees as “the social and economic ability of an individual, a household or a community to meet essential needs in a sustainable manner.” However, our research has found that self-reliance for refugees has multiple definitions, depending on different contexts as well as who defines it. This has important implications for the outcomes of livelihoods and self-reliance programs for refugees.

While every individual may describe self-reliance in unique terms, UNHCR and other assistance organizations tend to focus on its economic rather than social definition. In Uganda, for example, a UNHCR Protection Officer described UNHCR’s work as “helping refugees compete fairly on the market” through offering livelihoods trainings in areas such as hairdressing or carpentry.

In this view, self-reliance occurs when refugees gain skills to become self- or otherwise employed, and in so doing earn enough money to cover their basic necessities. While refugees desperately need economic livelihoods, this focus tends to ignore other areas that refugees may see as integral to self-reliance, such as having strong social networks or being mentally healthy enough to work.

It also runs the risk of neglecting those who may need the most assistance, such as people unable to become self-reliant through employment in the formal or informal sector due to age, gender, disability or other vulnerabilities.

A recent briefing paper from Oxford University’s Refugee Studies Centre we co-authored with colleagues from around the world highlights research into important noneconomic aspects of refugee self-reliance. Refugees’ livelihoods often operate on familial and community levels rather than at individual levels. Self-reliance programs for refugees may be “failures” economically but have important, under-acknowledged social and psychosocial effects. This research stands at odds with much of the current economic emphasis on refugee self-reliance.

UNHCR’s focus on livelihoods trainings for individuals and the more recent promotion of fostering refugee self-reliance through entrepreneurism demonstrates an individualistic mindset, while many refugees are part of cultures that are better defined as collectivist. Recent research on urban refugees in India, for example, found that some Rohingya women perceive self-reliance as coming not only from themselves but their community, such as the ability of their children to receive education.

The very concept of self-reliance changes from culture to culture. There are many “selves” in self-reliance – and they should all be taken into account. At the end of the day, self-reliance is just a word and – significantly – an English word. But refugees span the world.

India, for example, has multiple local languages as well as the languages that refugees from countries such as Afghanistan and Myanmar bring themselves. Self-reliance must be translated into many languages as well as multiple cultural, social and political contexts.

This is not easy to do. For example, although there is a term for self-reliance in Hindi, it is a formal phrase not commonly used and therefore was generally unknown to Rohingya refugees in our research, for whom Hindi is a second or third language. The refugees who were interviewed often used a myriad of different languages to conceptualize self-reliance.

This research offers a few lessons for how a broader concept of self-reliance might be put into practice.

First, discovering pre-existing terms and cultural understandings of self-reliance will make for more effective policies and programs. Organizations should undertake surveys or interviews with refugees to learn about how they define the term for themselves, which can enable tailored programs for different refugee groups.

In our experience, such conversations create a better understanding of factors that could improve refugees’ quality of life. While discussing self-reliance, some Rohingya women told us they were not opposed to employment opportunities, but simply found the idea of traveling outside of their immediate surroundings daunting. Such information sheds light on potentially gendered aspects of self-reliance, and can help organizations tailor programs according to the needs of particular groups.

Second, a better understanding of collectivistic-individualistic cultural differences can lead to more nuanced insights into relationships, hierarchies and identities within refugee communities. How refugees understand the self, community and livelihoods are integral for shaping effective policies.

Our research with urban refugees in India found that self-reliance and community well-being are seen as intertwined. One Afghan refugee described the lack of education for their children as a “skills loss” for their entire community. In this view, sending a child to school may be perceived as a means for a parent or family to become self-reliant.

It is difficult to implement a multi-country program on refugee self-reliance without using a single concept in a uniform way. But words matter. When we aim to foster refugee self-reliance, employing definitions that disregard refugees’ own conceptualizations runs the risk of negating the effectiveness of the word – and the outcome – altogether.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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