Simar Singh, Vilas Dhar and Sasha Chanoff

Afghanistan. Syria. Ethiopia. Myanmar. Venezuela. And more. In every corner of the globe, violence, political persecution, war, natural disasters and human rights violations are compelling families to flee their homes in search of safety. Today, more than 82.5 million people are forcibly displaced, the highest number ever recorded.

With all eyes on the crisis in Afghanistan, we must also recognize that displacement is a widening global challenge that requires more than just direct relief. It’s time for a broader vision of the solution that includes long-term pathways to build resilience and enable individuals and communities to define their own futures. To accomplish this, we will need new ways of working together. The partnership between RefugePoint and the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation - two Boston-based agencies - demonstrates how collaboration between civil society and philanthropy can conceptualize and develop innovative models to shift from short-term aid to long-term resilience.

Refugee youth in Nairobi, Kenya, work on a group project to identify hindrances to accessing secondary school and ways to tackle them.

Refugee youth in Nairobi, Kenya, work on a group project to identify hindrances to accessing secondary school and ways to tackle them. Photo credit: RefugePoint

RefugePoint is a global refugee response agency that advances lasting solutions for at-risk refugees and supports the humanitarian community to do the same. The Patrick J. McGovern Foundation is a global philanthropy committed to bridging the frontiers of artificial intelligence (AI), data science, and social impact. With its grant partners, the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation supports closing the opportunity gap in education and skills development, offering alternative pathways to dignified work in an increasingly digital world, including upskilling and training programs for at-risk and underrepresented communities. We’ve come together around a vision for refugees to rebuild their lives, reach their full potential, and contribute to their communities.

At the highest level, we aim to transform refugee response to create more opportunities for refugees to become self-reliant, an aspiration that many refugees share. In our work in supporting refugee communities, we have repeatedly heard that their experiences have led them to be weary of dependence on unreliable and short-term aid. Instead, they look for chances to work, provide for themselves and their families, and rebuild their lives in their new contexts. Especially today, in the middle of a global pandemic, the need to strengthen the resilience of refugee communities who remain extremely vulnerable to shocks is all the more clear and urgent.

These conversations have inspired us to collaborate with refugee communities to better understand pathways to resilience, to enable a reality where refugees themselves can identify the changes necessary to improve their well-being and ability to support themselves in architecting their futures. One example of this is the Self-Reliance Index (SRI), the first global tool to measure the progress of refugee families on their paths to self-reliance, a tool that is fundamentally designed to elevate the voices of refugees themselves. Growing out of RefugePoint’s work with urban refugees in Kenya, the tool was collaboratively developed by the Refugee Self-Reliance Initiative (RSRI), which is a multi-stakeholder collaboration co-created and co-led by RefugePoint and the Women’s Refugee Commission. The Patrick J. McGovern Foundation and several other funders supported the development and global roll-out of the Self-Reliance Index.  

The SRI is made up of 12 domains that cover both the economic and social experience of a refugee household, including housing, education, nutrition, health, financial resources, employment, social networks, and safety. Based on responses from a refugee family to questions on these domains, the tool generates data that reveals areas of strength as well as those of need.

The insights provided by the SRI are forging a new understanding through a holistic view into the many interdependent factors that go into improving self-reliance for refugee families. Most importantly, the tool centers refugee voices, allowing them to identify where they see opportunities to develop greater self-reliance.

During an SRI assessment, Patrick, one of RefugePoint’s clients in Nairobi, shared his experience driving a boda boda (motorcycle) and his dream of running his own boda boda taxi one day. He worked with his case manager at RefugePoint to develop a plan to save up to buy a boda boda and participated in a business skills training to prepare to set up a taxi service. Today, Patrick is successfully operating his own motorcycle taxi business and has been able to move his family from the single room they shared to a one-bedroom apartment.

Patrick’s story is one of many that shows us what is possible when we reorient support from focusing solely on needs and vulnerabilities to also emphasizing strengths and skills within refugee families, something that the SRI is helping bring into focus.

The data generated by the SRI is being used by agencies around the world to monitor impact, to guide and inform decisions about program design, and is strengthening opportunities for the co-creation of long-term solutions. As more agencies use the SRI, we aim to create a global database of information that can be used to reveal trends, signal context changes, and inform policy and response to open opportunities for refugees to lead better lives, and strengthen their resilience for the future.

Addressing the issue of forced displacement of millions of people requires long-term solutions, not just short-term aid. Cross-sector collaboration, such as this collaboration between civil society and tech-enabled philanthropy, can lead to innovative approaches that address humanity’s greatest challenges from the ground up, in ways that center the perspectives of refugees themselves, emphasizing their strength and enabling skill-building that empowers self-sufficiency and resilience.

About the Authors

Simar Singh is the Senior Programs Manager at RefugePoint, where she leads the implementation of global initiatives on refugee self-reliance. She also serves as the agency lead for the Refugee Self Reliance Initiative, a multi-stakeholder collaboration that promotes opportunities for refugees around the world to become self-reliant and achieve a better quality of life. She has fifteen years of experience in creating strategic partnerships and developing policy and standards of practice to improve the lives of people affected by war and other crises. You can follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Sasha Chanoff is the founder and executive director of RefugePoint, a humanitarian organization that finds lasting solutions for the world’s most at-risk refugees and supports the humanitarian community to do the same. He is the co-author of From Crisis to Calling: Finding Your Moral Center in the Toughest Decisions. He is a recipient of the Schwab Foundation / World Economic Forum Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award, the Harvard Center for Public Leadership Gleitsman International Activist Award, the Charles Bronfman Humanitarian Prize, and is an Obama White House Champion of Change. You can follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Vilas Dhar is President and Trustee of the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, a 21st century $1.5B philanthropy advancing artificial intelligence and data solutions to create a thriving, equitable, and sustainable future for all. Under his leadership, the Foundation bridges technological innovation and social impact with a commitment to justice and equity. A technologist, lawyer and human rights advocate, Vilas champions a new social compact for the digital age that prioritizes individuals and communities in the development of new products, inspires economic and social opportunity, and empowers the most vulnerable. You can follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.