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By Alexi Taylor-Grosman
Program Director

This is the first in a two-part series by Alexi Taylor-Grosman on our work with refugees and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Approximately $25 billion is spent annually to provide humanitarian assistance to the more than 65 million people who are displaced worldwide. This is twelve times as much as was spent per year in 2001. Nonetheless, estimates suggest there is still not enough funding to provide for refugees’ basic needs, with a funding deficit currently at around $15 billion.[1]

Providing humanitarian assistance to a growing population of people who are displaced for longer and longer periods of time is not a sustainable solution. In response to this growing issue, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Refugee Councils, the international aid community, and governments providing asylum to large refugee populations have begun to look beyond traditional humanitarian aid for innovative methods that do not require ongoing financial support.

They have begun to increase funding for programs focusing on helping refugees establish their own livelihoods and means of income. They are also identifying innovative solutions that balance immediate humanitarian aid with more medium- and long-term development interventions that enable refugees to become self-reliant.

Aida, a 32-year-old single mother of two, is a recipient of such refugee aid. When she came to Ecuador from Colombia, she had little assets or social support, but she still had to provide food and shelter for her daughters.

UNHCR helped her cover these immediate needs, giving her food, blankets, a place to stay, and more. Aida also wanted to ensure that her daughters, including one who has an intellectual disability, would be able to attend school in their new home. But she wasn’t sure how to begin looking for schools serving people with disabilities. She wanted to start her own business, but she didn’t know where to begin in this new environment nor how to sustain it. Shortly after reaching out to UNHCR Ecuador, Aida was enrolled in the Graduation program there.[2]

The Graduation Approach, which provides sequenced services to cover immediate needs like food security with longer term goals of sustainable livelihoods, financial inclusion, and social and political participation, is a proven strategy to bring women and families out of extreme poverty. Since 2013, UNHCR and Trickle Up have been exploring how to apply the Graduation Approach in a refugee context for the first time. We have quickly learned that there isn’t one solution that meets the distinct needs of the diverse refugee contexts where UNHCR works. Instead, each country context requires a delicate mix of innovation and standardization.

UNHCR and Trickle Up are utilizing the Graduation Approach to sustainably improve the lives of people displaced from their homes by helping them find and sustain economic opportunities.

Since 2013, UNHCR has initiated six Graduation projects with local partners in Burkina Faso, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Egypt, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. In 2014, UNHCR incorporated the Graduation Approach into its 2014-2018 Global Strategy for livelihoods. To date over 4,135 households, or 16,540 individuals, have been impacted.

Trickle Up has been able to leverage our expertise adapting the Graduation Approach with a variety of vulnerable populations including persons with disabilities and indigenous populations across three continents. For our work with refugees, we anticipate that the Graduation Approach will help augment, and potentially relieve, humanitarian aid that supports short-term income generation and helps refugees sustain self-sufficiency by applying a series of overlapping steps:

  • Initial support for basic needs and access to savings will reduce the incentive of people recently displaced to sell off their remaining assets to help meet those needs.
  • Access to coaching, networks such as community organizations, and local safety nets including social services available to host communities will help build social capital and integrate refugees into the local community.
  • Access to opportunities to work and start businesses can foster resilience and self-sufficiency among refugee populations in cities, rural areas, and refugee camps, and enable them to lead dignified, independent lives.
  • Furthermore, new technical and financial literacy skills can prepare refugees to successfully rebuild their lives in a new country, or even after returning to their home country.

Through UNHCR’s Graduation program, Aida received cash for immediate needs, regular coaching, business skills training, and seed funding for her business.

Seven months after arriving in Ecuador, Aida is pleased to report that she has started a beauty salon and both of her children are enrolled in school. Aida tells us: “I did not know where to send [my] youngest [child] to school. Thanks to the [Graduation coach’s] help, we found where she could go and we got her a spot. She is happy, she’s being treated well, and I am focusing on my business running well… My beauty parlor is just beside the house. That’s how I combine my business and taking care of my daughters.”

Trickle Up and UNHCR look forward to expanding our partnership and helping thousands more displaced families in the coming years. In 2017, with support from the US Department of Stat’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (BPRM), UNHCR and Trickle Up anticipate designing and launching nine more Graduation projects, reaching at least 22 countries by 2019. This will help nearly 14,000 households, and almost 54,000 persons of concern graduate from extreme poverty into resiliency and self-reliance.


[1] Solutions Alliance 2016 Roundtable Report

[2] UNHCR Ecuador November 2016 Newsletter