Making Lives: Refugee Self-Reliance and Humanitarian Action in Cities

Over the last year, the Humanitarian Affairs Team (Save the Children), the Bartlett Development Planning Unit (University College London), and Jindal School of International Affairs (O. P. Jindal Global University) have been collaborating on research into refugee self-reliance and humanitarian action in cities.

As protracted displacement increasingly contributes to urban change and poses a challenge for city governance and infrastructures, this research project focuses on ‘urban-itarian’ settings – cities that are home to a growing number of ‘persons of concern’ (a category that includes refugees and returned refugees, asylum-seekers, IDPs and returned IDPs, stateless people, and others), and increased humanitarian activity. In these contexts, humanitarian organisations provide an additional layer of urban infrastructure, on top of the conventional provisions for protection, basic services, and livelihoods for persons of concern. They face growing pressure from governmental donors to provide more specialised responses to conflicts and disasters that cannot be isolated from wider urban dynamics.

The project focuses on refugee self-reliance in the city. It explores the socio-economic practices of refugees and host communities, the challenges faced by refugees in gaining access to labour markets, and the ways in which humanitarian actors, often in collaboration with city authorities, seek to promote refugee livelihoods. A broad notion of the market as a space of social practices (characterised by power relations, flows and exchanges, negotiation, and the pursuit of aspirations) informs an analysis of the way in which the activities of institutional actors become enmeshed with those of informal actors, which offer an alternative support network for refugees unable to engage in formal labour. While humanitarian organisations have placed particular emphasis on the economic dimensions of refugee self-reliance, this project explores other aspects of refugee well-being too. Understanding the barriers and limits to refugee self-reliance, as well as the potential shortcomings of self-reliance as a conceptual and programmatic framework, is key to improving the support that is available to refugees in urban settings.

In short, the project sought to:

  • identify and contextualise socio-economic practices adopted by refugees in urban settings, as well as the opportunities and challenges that refugees encounter;
  • analyse the practice of self-reliance programming by humanitarian organisations in urban settings, including its contribution to refugee well-being;
  • increase humanitarian actors’ understanding of how their self-reliance programmes affect, and are affected by, political and economic systems, and processes of urban change;
  • contribute to humanitarian strategies aimed at promoting refugee well-being in changing urban environments.


Project publications

Learning and Earning in Constrained Labour Markets: The Politics of Livelihoods in Lebanon’s Halba

Solidarity in the City: Platforms for Refugee Self-Support in Thessaloniki

Refugee Self-Reliance in Delhi: The Limits of a Market-Based Approach

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