In the blazing heat of Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, Zena wistfully reminisces about the ice-cold sodas she used to pull out of her fridge back home in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). With a job as a non-profit counselor for women survivors of trauma, Zena and her family could afford such comforts. She was self-reliant. Now, in the camp, eking out a livelihood is not easy. In Kenya, government policies mandate that refugees stay within the camp borders and restrict their access to formal employment.
Refugees like Zena, fleeing war and persecution, are uprooted from their homes and communities. Globally, 82.5 million people—one out of every 95 people—are forcibly displaced. With limited durable solutions for resettlement or repatriation home, the average length of displacement is now more than 20 years. As refugee crises persist and resources are stretched thin, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and NGOs have shifted from a social welfare model to embrace neoliberalism, and have called for increased self-reliance and resilience among refugee populations, as outlined in the 2018 Global Compact on Refugees.
On the one hand, these policies seek to recognize and build upon the skills and knowledge of refugees to empower themselves and their communities. In Kakuma, for example, Zena was able to build upon her work experience in the DRC to get a position as a livelihoods officer for an NGO, helping other households save and start businesses. Because formal employment is blocked, she receives $60 USD a month as an incentive, rather than a salary. She invested some of her income into basket-weaving supplies, and started her own informal business for an additional $30 profit a month. Zena’s income helped support her family of five. She bought a mattress. Occasionally, they bought meat. Employed and entrepreneurial, in many ways, Zena embodied the aid organizations’ ideal of self-reliance.
Zena’s gains became the community’s gains. Although Zena’s finances were tight, she helped others, explaining that “if the Lord has blessed me, and I have food at home—however little it may be—I always help those in need.” When she was able to help, she did. She loaned $20 to Irene, her refugee colleague, to buy medicine for her daughter. She offered her neighbor a cup of sorghum at the end of the month when their food rations were depleted. Indeed, scholars have highlighted the importance of refugee social networks for survival and economic investments.
On the other hand, objectives of self-reliance have also been criticized as individualistic neoliberal rhetoric, deployed as a justification as aid is slashed. During my ethnographic research in Kakuma, the UNHCR and implementing NGOs faced significant budget cuts. As a result, they halved food rations for five months, implemented secondary school fees (or as the aid workers called them, “community contributions”), and laid off refugee workers at the aid organizations.
Although Zena’s NGO job made it through those budget cuts, Zena and her family were hit by hard times. First, Zena’s granddaughter fell sick with malaria. The next week, Zena herself came down with a serious case of malaria. Over the next three months, a family member was sick and visited the hospital every week. Zena depleted the family’s savings to cover the medicine and expenses—although the camp had a public hospital run by aid organizations, services and medication were limited. While sick, she was also unable to make more baskets to sell, which was an additional hit to the family’s income. Zena lamented, “Everything has come to a standstill.” On top of that, getting by with reduced food rations was a challenge. With exasperation in her voice, Zena recounted,
“We did not eat. We were sick, so we had to buy medication. When we completely ran out of food, we couldn’t buy any from the shop, because we didn’t have the money. We are really starving.”
Despite her relatively secure income among refugees in the camp and her careful management of the household’s resources, hardships destabilized her family. As Zena put it, “We were back to zero.” Zena’s reality questions those idealized images of refugee self-reliance. With aid slashed, Zena had no safety net to absorb the economic shocks that came her way.
Zena’s hardships reverberated across her social network, as her ability to help her friends and neighbors shifted. During this time, Kashindi, an orphaned teen who attended Zena’s church, fell ill with a serious bout of malaria. In the earlier weeks, during better times, Zena had reported helping Kashindi with a little food and notebooks for school. But she explained that at that time in her household, “All of us were sick! We used all the money. So, I didn’t know how to help him.” She could not afford to take him to the private hospital, and she was devastated by her inability to help: “Seeing that boy and not being able to help him, I thought a lot about life. I decided: it is better to die than to live like this.”
Like others in Kakuma, Zena strived to achieve a better life for her family and her community. And she made modest gains. However, reductions in aid—such as the recurrent cuts in food rations—and unplanned illnesses destabilized the “self-reliance” that Zena embodied. Despite hard work, planning and saving, and personal resilience, self-reliance ultimately depends on resources and restrictions from institutions, including aid agencies and governments. With government policies restricting freedom of movement and work, aid agencies’ emphasis on refugee self-reliance paired with cuts to crucial assistance left no margin for misfortune. Rather than shirking responsibility in the name of self-reliance and “community contributions,” aid organizations like the United Nations would do better to help resource and strengthen pre-existing community resources and structures, like churches, community groups, and informal social ties, that already promote survival, along with policies to equitably strengthen community safety nets.
Blair Sackett is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. Her dissertation examines forced displacement, and how refugees make ends meet within the structural constraints of Kakuma refugee camp. She is also author of the forthcoming book, Seeking Refuge, Finding Inequality: Refugees Navigating Institutional Barriers (University of California Press) with Annette Lareau, on the institutional barriers refugees face upon resettlement to the U.S