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After the Crisis

By: Ziad Ayoubi


Trickle Up


The current global population of displaced persons tops 65 million, a level not seen since World War II. In 2015, 24 people on average were displaced from their homes every minute of every day. Displaced people face economic hardship, the risk of exploitation, and the denial of fundamental human rights while global aid agencies and host countries must cope with strained resources.

With the average duration of protracted refugee situations currently at 26 years, refugees often remain displaced long after the immediate conflict or disaster that caused them to leave their homes. Without assistance, they may face sustained discrimination and marginalization. Refugees are at risk of violence, chronic hunger, and other challenges facing people living in extreme poverty.

Despite these many challenges, recent studies have shown that refugees can be productive contributors to the economy of host countries. To help refugees become economically active in their host countries, Trickle Up and the Livelihoods Unit at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have been piloting the Graduation Approach to build sustainable livelihoods for refugees and other displaced populations.

Trickle Up & Refugees

Trickle Up uses the Graduation Approach to meet the needs of people living in extreme poverty around the world. Graduation projects typically feature cash stipends to support refugees at the start of the project, regular coaching and mentoring, access to savings, training, and either seed capital to launch small businesses or links to employment opportunities. UNHCR recognized that the model held potential for refugees living in poverty, and in 2013, Trickle Up and UNHCR began working together to design Graduation projects adapted to the refugee context. Trickle Up utilized its experience implementing Graduation in India, the Americas, and West Africa. UNHCR brought its global mandate and expertise helping refugees, and its knowledge of the local context and resources. Together we support economically vulnerable refugees.

Through our partnership, we are implementing Graduation pilots in Burkina Faso, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Egypt, and Zambia. Each country has a different context, with refugees living in rural, urban, and camp settings. Some situations are emergencies while others are protracted. Each program must account for the specific vulnerabilities of the refugee population and the political, social, economic, and legal environment in which it is implemented.

Often many of Graduation’s core components already exist in a typical UNHCR operation, but they are rarely combined for maximum effect. Trickle Up’s approach to Graduation provides a deliberate sequencing of Graduation components to achieve the greatest impact within a specific period of time. Services supporting the specific needs of refugees have been added, including legal assistance, psychosocial counseling, and opportunities to integrate into local communities.

Graduation also involves individual coaching, so staff at UNHCR and partners can monitor household progress, provide encouragement, and troubleshoot issues, allowing for quick adaptability as a household’s circumstances evolve. All households will continue to receive UNHCR protection, but Graduation will help refugee families establish sustainable livelihoods and no longer require ongoing economic assistance.

An Urban Challenge

Over 60 percent of the world’s refugees live in urban environments. Unlike camps, cities allow refugees to more easily integrate into local communities, engage in livelihood activities, and access other services. However, refugees in urban and peri-urban settings may try to keep a low profile because of harsh sentiments against them. They may also be vulnerable to exploitation, discrimination, arrest or detention, and competition with local workers.

One of the exciting innovations of the Trickle Up-UNHCR partnership is that it is among the first to test Graduation in urban settings. With urban projects in Egypt, Costa Rica, and Ecuador, the Graduation Approach faces both advantages and disadvantages. Urban environments enable access to wage labor opportunities and formal financial services, but the dispersed location of refugees in cities makes weekly home visits by coaches challenging. Many urban refugees lack the community that is often formed in rural and camp settings, making engagement in Graduation program components more challenging to organize and sustain. Careful program design is required to overcome these challenges and to take advantage of the unique opportunities, which will be documented in an upcoming Urban Graduation Manual.

Reaching More Refugees

Over the next three years, Trickle Up and UNHCR will expand Graduation’s reach in UNHCR operations to up to 17 new countries, supporting 37,000 refugees worldwide. By incorporating the Graduation Approach into the UNHCR Livelihoods Unit’s arsenal of livelihoods interventions, we will provide sustainable economic empowerment to more of the poorest refugees than ever before.

To learn more about our work with refugees visit