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Funders Must Recognize Refugees Have Assets, Not Just Needs

Most grantmakers approach refugees and their local communities as a problem to be solved. Philanthropy experts Christine Mendonça and Negar Tayyar call for a shift to an asset-based approach, where refugees’ experiences and skills are part of the solution.

Written by Christine Mendonca, Negar Tayyar Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Job seekers at the annual jobs fair for refugees and migrants at the Estrel Hotel on February 20, 2018, in Berlin, Germany.Sean Gallup/Getty Images

What is frequently described as a “refugee crisis” is more a crisis in response. Current response frameworks and mechanisms are outdated and are not equipped to manage the complexities of global forced displacement at this scale. These systems often ignore the broad range of needs of people who are forcibly displaced, as well as the needs of local communities where they live.

Take grantmaking, for example. There are two frameworks for funding: asset-based and deficit-based. Deficit-based funding emphasizes what impacted communities lack and looks at ways to apply resources, including monetary resources, to address those gaps. By contrast, an asset-based framework recognizes and builds on the resources each stakeholder brings to the table.

Our research revealed that deficit-based framing is the predominant approach to addressing the needs of “people on the move.” They are often perceived as a burden on the communities in which they are seeking refuge. The notion of crisis drives the narrative. The predominant perspective is to fix an issue as opposed to engaging with the issue and recognizing its multidimensionality.

While acknowledging that people on the move are in need of a broad range of support, that picture of their time of need is not the whole picture of who they are as people. Deficit-based framing prevents us from seeing and acknowledging the resiliency and capacities of people on the move. These are people who have life experience, talents and skills they can bring to bear to address the complex challenges of forced displacement. An asset-based framework approaches them as a potential source of value, part of creating a solution, rather than a burden.

Based on our personal and professional experience of grantmaking in support of “people on the move,” our research and multiple conversations with thought leaders in this field, we suggest the following ways to shift from a deficit-based framework, to asset-based funding.

Language and Pictures

We need to start with the narratives and pictures. Both need to reflect the full view, beyond the needs and gaps, for those who are forcibly displaced. The terms used to describe people on the move are often legal ones that fail to reflect the experiences, knowledge and skills they bring to their communities.

This view is rooted in the traditional outlook in philanthropy: Those who are being helped by grants are considered beneficiaries. In an asset-based approach, every stakeholder is a beneficiary and hence a partner as opposed to a recipient. There is no linear approach of a donor helping the recipient. Both are partners who are co-creating and engaged in a process in which both get shaped; gathering insights and experiences and ideally filling a gap of mutual concern.

The majority of the forcibly displaced do not live in camps and never cross a body of water, yet the topic of refugees conjures images of people living in tents or crammed into boats. To truly reflect the experiences of those forced to flee, graphic descriptions should reflect the entirety of their global experience. People on the move take planes or trains or travel by foot and by boat to get to safety, and once they have found refuge their daily existence isn’t always dire. They do indeed laugh. And they can hold jobs beyond cook or handicraft maker.

Grantmaking Practice

An asset-based approach to grantmaking requires organizations to have a stakeholder-driven model of how they address challenges. Potential grant partners should be able to demonstrate that they are engaging the people they aim to support. As funders, we need to ensure that the communities we are striving to serve are involved in imagining and implementing the support system we collectively envision.

This requires collaboration involving peer organizations, local community members and the public sector. Programming should elicit perspectives, resources and requirements from each partner. The actual grant is a catalyst for the partner to engage each of the stakeholders to drive the desired change within the community. The success of the programming thus moves beyond the number of people served to achieving objectives of a multitude of stakeholders.

While the examples we are highlighting are from the humanitarian sector, we firmly believe that it is possible to apply an asset-based funding framework in almost every philanthropic context. The communities we are serving have more than just needs. Deficit-based framing strips the people we want to serve of their dignity. In using an asset-based framework, funders have the opportunity to have a broader and more sustainable impact on communities affected by global forced displacement.

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

This is an edited excerpt from “Asset-based Grant-Making in Response to Forced Displacement” published by Christine Mendonca and Negar Tayyar on Medium. You can read the full article here.

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