The Rise and Rise of RLOs in East Africa

Beyond service delivery, refugee-led organizations are increasingly involved in advocacy. Yet the current set-up within the field of humanitarian governance continues to relegate them to the role of mere beneficiaries.


Diverse people seated around tables with laptops
Teaser Image Caption
RLO Actors attend a hbs migration workshop in Nairobi

A seat at the table

“Nothing about us, without us”. Ever since its adoption at the Global Refugee Summit convened in Geneva in 2018, the mantra of RLOs (Refugee-Led Organizations) has reverberated in camps, settlements and cities where refugees dwell, spurring their demands for ‘a seat at the table’. A bold challenge to the paternalism of a world humanitarian system dominated by large donors and agencies, the rise of RLOs is a striking manifestation of ‘localization’ - the transfer of resources and decision-making power to stakeholding communities of the Global South.

At the international level, the rise of RLOs is a story based on the forging of solidarities between refugee leaders from across the world. The experience of RLOs in East Africa is a microcosm of this wider struggle for rights and recognition. Its genesis can be traced to Uganda, which hosts more refugees than any other African country, and which accords them greater freedom of mobility and association than many others.

Studies have identified between 20 and 30 such groups operating in Kampala, home to some 80,000 refugees. The precise number is difficult to ascertain given that RLOs vary in size and visibility.

Defined loosely as organizations established and led by refugees, RLOs include well-established NGOs with transnational networks, funding partnerships and global profiles such as YARID (Young African Refugees for Integral Development) and HOCW (Hope of Children and Women Victims of Violence). They also encompass small, informal, community-based ‘self-help’ groups that operate without donor funding or formal membership. Between these two poles are medium size operations that lack substantial funding, but are registered and possess formal membership structures.

A recent report conducted by refugee researchers, which identified 63 RLOs in Uganda and 138 in Kenya, found most beneficiaries report positive experiences with RLOs because they treat them with greater dignity and understanding of their needs than larger humanitarian providers. Service delivery is adapted to local conditions and as a result, targeted towards the needs of groups and individuals. It also tends to be less bound by bureaucratic rules, reaching the newly arrived who lack documentation - often the most vulnerable.

More than mere service delivery, however, RLOs are increasingly engaged in advocacy. YARID and HOCW were established by Congolese refugees Robert Hakiza and John Bolingo Ntahira in 2007 and 2010 respectively. Each contributed to the inaugural Global Refugee Summit in 2018, and remain on the Global Refugee Network’s steering committee, underlining East African RLOs’ pivotal role in the international movement for refugee representation that has received so much traction in recent times.

At the same time, together with a handful of other RLOs leaders, these pioneers set up RELON (Refugee-Led Organization’s Network) in 2017, which has branched out into several other African countries. Expanding through international gatherings and leveraging connections in the African Union are high priorities for RELON, which is keen to develop a continental voice through its various offices. It has campaigned successfully in host countries on issues such as refugees’ access to vaccines, travel documents, and the registration of SIM cards. This penchant for building solidarities across borders and working at multiple scales of governance holds the key to the innovative potential of RLOs, whose Pan-African approach to refugee rights builds coalitions and joins dots that otherwise remain unconnected. 

Legacy of mistrust

In view of these developments, the UNHCR has taken various strides toward enabling meaningful RLO participation, such as issuing innovation awards to RLOs for their work during the pandemic and piloting small grants. More generally, the working relationship between RLOs and big players within the international humanitarian order expands daily with new initiatives documented on social media amidst smiles and handshakes. The former wish to project themselves as legitimate actors on the world stage, in close proximity to the latter, who in turn find it increasingly incumbent upon them to demonstrate awareness of the importance of RLOs.

Yet, beneath the surface of these exchanges lies a simmering tension. Some refugee leaders I interviewed made allegations of bad faith against powerbrokers in the humanitarian field, accusing them of condescension and placing obstacles in their path. Others’ expressed negative feelings through gesture: brows furrowed, jaws clenched at the mere mention of behmothic agencies, donors and organizations that comprise the humanitarian establishment.

A 2020 article by Oxford researchers lifts the lid on the history of this encounter with sordid allegations against at least one UNHCR IP [Implementing Partner], which stands accused of going to extreme lengths to avoid collaborating with RLOs, such as setting up fake CBOs run by their own staff to falsify evidence of ‘community’ engagement. Such episodes have left a legacy of grievance and mistrust, evident at a conference on localization I attended during NGO week in Nairobi last year: refugee leaders and their allies lamented the lack of structural transformation when it comes to funding flows and decision-making in the humanitarian field. Attendees included several signatories of the Charter 4 Change, which commits to channeling a quarter of humanitarian funding directly to national and/or local NGOs. One-after-the-other, speakers expressed frustration that growing RLO visibility has failed to alter mindsets and bottom lines when it comes to partnerships and budgets’.

RLOs, they complained, are instrumentalized or ignored altogether by most big donors and agencies. Too often, ‘inclusion’ takes the form of tokenism: invitations to participate in activities typically expect them to mobilize their communities for the realization of projects that have already been designed. Offers of ‘capacity-building’, meanwhile, rarely consider the pedagogical potential of RLOs, whose local knowledge and lived experience of displacement is often lacking among so many of their expat counterparts employed by international and national NGOs. They lamented the lack of multi-year funding for the development of their administrative capacity, a gap that leaves them unable to hire or retain qualified professionals that might boost their ability to attract funding independently, reinforcing their dependency on larger organizations.    

Localization and its Discontents

None of this will surprise observers of localization given the failure of big donors to implement the ‘Grand Bargain’ of 2016, which promised to funnel a quarter of humanitarian funds directly to national and local actors within the field of humanitarian governance.

And yet, the hesitancy of large donors to fund RLOs stems at least in part from genuine constraints. From their point of view, RLOs can be too small and unprofessional to manage and effectively spend large grants that require complex financial auditing. A related concern is the perception that RLOs are unstable given the changing personal trajectories of staff and/or founders, whose individual asylum and resettlement claims can mean suspending operations mid-way through funding cycles. 

Then there is the potentially distortive impacts of funding RLOs, whose ethnic, religious and/or national affiliations arguably make them unsuitable for serving broader, diverse refugee publics. RLOs that do manage to grow in size, scope and ambition are disproportionately led by highly educated men. Pumping funds into RLOs dominated by this small cohort of refugee leaders could lead to resentment - not just among other, smaller RLOs but the broader populace, particularly in low-income contexts where host communities are themselves strapped for cash and struggling for access to resources.  

Cohere, an INGO with offices in Kampala and Nairobi, has thrown its full weight behind putting refugee-led organizations ‘in the driving seat’. Among its prime objectives is reducing the gap between RLOs and donors, primarily by bolstering the formers’ ability to attain funding themselves. It does this through training and advice on how to attract funds, how to implement and document project work effectively, and how to plan strategically in the longer term. If in its advocacy Cohere counters prejudice among RLOs-skeptics, much of its daily work addresses donors’ concerns through corrective measures that seem to acknowledge the need for work on all sides.   

Group photo of colleagues behind a desk
Cohere staff at their Kampala office

Herein lies the difference between Cohere and reactionary big players dragging their feet on localizaton: Where the latter use RLOs’ weaknesses as justification to prolong a status quo in which the former can only ever be ‘beneficiaries’, tokens and symbols in projects they design themselves, the former view them as challenges that can and must be overcome to create a more level playing field.

A glimpse at Cohere’s network provides strong evidence of RLOs’ ability to grow and develop in ways critics seem reluctant to acknowledge. In Kampala, Bondeko Refugee Livelihoods Center, founded by a Congolese Priest now resettled in Canada, betrays no obvious signs of an irredeemably toxic male-dominated work environment, nor of instability owing to the founder’s departure. Despite its Congolese origins, Bondeko is far from parochial: many of those it supports are from Burundi and Rwanda. And like many refugee businesses in Kampala, an increasing number of RLOs provide employment for Uganda’s autochthonous citizens.

Man & woman standing infront of a grilled door
Bondeko Programme Officer Leonard Kapita Manukinina is a Congolese refugee; Finance Officer Beatrice Akajo, is Ugandan.

"... as international as necessary"

As an expat employed by an international organization engaged in advocacy, refugee leaders’ critiques of the humanitarian sector’s paternalism can feel close to the bone. When they fume against the condescension of do-gooders who represent their interests without having walked in their shoes, are they talking about me?

None of the refugee leaders I interviewed for this article said so (explicitly), and it would be easy enough to join them in pointing fingers elsewhere. No less challenging than ‘speaking the truth to power’, however, is speaking it to oneself: to admit the entrenched privilege they seek to dismantle includes my own.   

To the legions of foreign ‘experts’ whose postings in the Global South involve analyzing, shaping or influencing policies that don’t directly affect us, RLOs pose questions we should be asking ourselves everyday about our long term presence and role in the Global South, above all: What are we doing to devolve power and resources to present and future generations of stakeholders?

Large bureaucratized entities with decades of heritage and established identities have shown little urgency in adapting to a world in which refugees are partners rather than beneficiaries. Despite many words and some (limited) deeds, commitments to structural reform remain unproven and there’s scant evidence of the soul-searching that should be taking place.  

For African NGOs, a different kind of reflection may be required. Though ‘local’ in terms of registration, they tend to be staffed by highly educated professionals hailing from host country elites; lived experience of exile is rare. It is easier for them to attract donor funding than RLOs, which can cause resentment and rivalry. One refugee leader I interviewed seethed as he recounted rebuffing an invitation from a national NGO to participate in a project as a beneficiary: “We’ll get our own funding to work on this issue,” he scoffed, insisting he could have implemented the same project more effectively. 

Devota Nuwe, acting Co-Director of The Refugee Law Project, a highly respected national NGO based in Kampala, has occasionally found herself on the receiving end of such sentiments in the course of her career as a displacement specialist. The kinds of remarks directed at her and colleagues by individual refugee leaders aggrieved at salaried professionals whose job it is to support them suggest a frankness rarely directed against INGO workers. (“Those clothes you’re wearing, it’s because of us!”).

What such sentiment fails to acknowledge is that there are contexts when refugees cannot easily represent themselves: Defending or appealing on their behalf in courts of law, for example, is specialized work that requires qualified professionals acquainted with the host country’s legal system and political context.

Man in suit talking to woman in traditional red outfit
Advocate Gabriel Ochieng of the Refugee Law Project, a Ugandan NGO, in Court in Kampala (2022)

Perhaps this explains Nuwe’s relaxed attitude toward the rise of RLOs, whom she and her colleagues have welcomed into their industry, despite the occasional criticism that comes their way. “There’s room for all of us,” she chuckles, when I ask her if she ever gets anxious about the prospect of a competitive threat from individuals who openly tell her they should be in her place.

In truth, national NGOs that enjoy the trust of their stakeholders have nothing to fear from the rise of RLOs. The same can be said of INGOs already cooperating in partnerships with RLOs, in which each plays a distinct but complimentary role to achieve common objectives.

Indeed, there is something to be said for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s oft-cited commitment to making humanitarian action ‘as local as possible, as international as necessary’. The trouble with the current setup is that it under-utilizes the potential of refugees, and is far more international than it needs to be. In the words of John Bollingo: “No one understands refugees’ problems better than we do”. Those of us who profess expertise on displacement would do well to acknowledge this basic fact and its transformative potential.

This article was originally published as part of a series with the Elephant:  LINK: