Improving Humanitarian Aid: One Former Refugee’s Perspective

The needs of refugees and displaced people are outstripping the resources and capacities of the existing humanitarian system. The World Humanitarian Summit is an initiative of the UN Secretary-General to seek solutions to improve the humanitarian system, thereby reducing human suffering. It will be held on May 26-27, 2016 in Istanbul, Turkey.

The summit represents an opportunity to make humanitarian action fit for the great challenges people face now and in the future. It will focus on four themes: humanitarian effectiveness, reducing vulnerability and managing risk, transformation through innovation, and serving the needs of people in conflict.

This is an ambitious agenda, but in particular, the international community should insist on improving how aid organizations engage directly with beneficiaries and include them as active participants in the development of programs. I experienced this first-hand as refugee myself.

When war broke out in the Republic of Congo in June of 1997, I walked with my three sisters and one brother for four months in the rainforest from Congo’s capital, Brazzaville, to the borders of neighboring Gabon where we crossed into the province of Haute Ogooue as refugees.

During my experience as a refugee in Gabon, the involvement of refugee leaders in programs led to positive results.

While staying in a refugee camp in Boumango, in southern Gabon, I connected with other refugees to write appeal letters for applications to achieve refugee status and began to develop a relationship with United Nations officials. We helped to distribute food donated to the United Nations. We looked to help refugees redevelop businesses that had been their strength in the Congo.

After two years, I used resources from small jobs as an aid worker in construction sites to move to Libreville, the capital of Gabon. There, I continued and strengthened my connections with fellow refugees. After reaching out to UNHCR and the US Embassy, I applied for and was accepted as an official UN social service assistant.

The UNHCR program, implemented by the NGO ALISEI, prioritized community mobilization. The strategy was to assist local groups to better identify their needs and achieve their goals. This approach focused on the participation of people themselves to satisfy their own needs. In this way, they were able to develop support systems and build resilience strategies that contributed to their autonomy, as well as the sustainability and success of the UNHCR’s program activities in the Gabonese Republic.

Platforms for refugee voices included radio and TV presentations, speeches before the National Assembly and the Senate of Gabon, and advocacy letters directed to governments, UNHCR, non-profit organizations, and embassies of western countries.

It is very important for the UN and its international partners to engage directly with beneficiaries including local NGOs and institutions to ensure positive results.

Unfortunately, there are also examples of UNHCR programming that did not involve refugee consultation – such as the initial launch of a microcredit program. UNHCR gave a small amount of money to refugees to carry-out small income-generating activities. But because many refugees didn’t have a good understanding about the program, the money received was mostly diverted to more immediate support needs. For example, the money was commonly used to pay for rent, medical services, and to repay debts the refugees had already incurred. Another problem was that there was a very short delay for the first re-imbursement – only one month after receiving the loan.

Fortunately, after consultations with refugees and collaboration between refugees and local institutions, UNHCR launched a revised version of the microcredit program. The revised program was a success because it took account of refugees who suggested having more time between receiving the credit and first reimbursement, increased the amount of money per project, raised awareness among all refugee communities and better explained the nature and purpose of micro-credit, provided management training for all recipients of funds, and sought guarantees for each project that if payments were not made, the president of the refugee committee or another designated person would then be held responsible. 

In other words, of the inclusion of beneficiaries input in all steps of the program was critical to the effectiveness of the program. 

In conclusion, as my personal experience demonstrates, it is very important for the UN and its international partners to engage directly with beneficiaries including local NGOs and institutions to ensure positive results. As humanitarians prepare for the World Humanitarian Summit, they should keep this mind. 

Bertin Mboko is a former intern of Refugees International.