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Urban Pioneers

By: Alexi Taylor-Grosman


Trickle Up

Over 60% of the world’s refugees live in urban environments.[1] Unlike refugee camps, cities allow refugees to live anonymously, engage in economic opportunities, and build a better future for themselves and their families. But working with refugees to build and grow their income in urban environments also presents great challenges. Many refugees tend to live in slums or informal settlements with high levels of social and economic inequality. They often face a range of risks: the threat of arrest and detention, harassment, exploitation, or discrimination; inadequate and overcrowded shelter; and vulnerability to sexual and gender-based violence and human trafficking. The instability of these factors leads refugees to keep a low profile and shift locations frequently, making them harder to protect and reach with services.

While urban areas tend to have more opportunities for refugees to make a living than rural areas, including more accessible markets, better infrastructure, and a greater range of services, refugees often face significant barriers when trying to access livelihood opportunities. They may have few social connections and encounter legal restrictions to their right to work. Consequently, refugees often have limited access to sustainable livelihoods and are therefore more likely to enter into hazardous work and risk violence, exploitation, and abuse. They are also often forced to compete with local workers for undesirable jobs.[2]

While the Graduation Approach was originally designed to work with people living in extreme poverty in rural villages, Trickle Up in partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has been the first to adapt the Graduation Approach to urban settings.
Beginning in 2013, UNHCR piloted the Graduation Approach in three urban settings: Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Egypt. These pilots have reinforced the flexibility of Graduation, confirming the approach can be adapted to a range of urban refugee situations.

Trickle Up and UNHCR are continuing to learn how to best adapt the Graduation Approach for urban refugee populations, but here are eight important learnings so far:
1. Explore different mechanisms for coaching that respond to participants’ needs and availability. Traditional Graduation programs include face-to-face weekly or bi-weekly coaching visits. However, many urban graduation participants work away from home during the day and aren’t available for home visits. In response, coaches in urban areas need to explore alternative ways to meet with participants. In both Ecuador and Costa Rica, coaches communicate with participants on a regular basis by phone and text messages between face-to-face visits. In other instances, coaches visit participants’ place of employment instead, or participants visit coaches at the UNHCR office.

2. Leverage existing social networks, groups, and activities to intentionally engage participants during and beyond the Graduation program. Involvement in social networks builds social capital, which in turn helps to build household resilience. In traditional Graduation programs, network engagement is inherent in savings groups and group trainings. However in urban contexts, where participants are often dispersed and distrustful of one, another coaches must look for other ways to encourage the growth of networks. Often participants are already members of some sort of network, like a cultural group, neighborhood group, or religious organization. It is good practice for coaches to map and encourage engagement in existing networks, rather than require participants to join new ones. Linking participants to a service, network, or individual increases the likelihood that the participant will continue to be actively engaged after their involvement in the program.

3. Explore multiple vehicles for savings, including formal options. Traditional Graduation programs tend to rely on informal savings mechanisms, like savings groups. However, urban areas offer greater access to formal saving structures, such as banks and microfinance institutions. When possible, leverage these formal banking options, as they also increase safety. However, it can often be difficult for displaced persons to open savings accounts because of documentation issues and a lack of awareness among savings institutions as to their rights. Advocacy and education of both financial services providers and participants can help overcome these barriers.

4. Educate stakeholders about refugee concerns and establish strong systems for vetting employers to ensure they conform to international labor standards. Unlike in a traditional Graduation program, many refugees living in urban settings seek out wage employment opportunities. Often potential employers are wary of hiring refugees, either due to discrimination or because they are not educated about refugees’ right to work. Raising awareness among employers, employers’ unions, Ministries of Labor, and refugees about their right to work (where applicable) can be an effective way to advocate to secure the right to work where it is not guaranteed. Meeting with employers also provides an opportunity to discuss employment rights and international standards for decent work, potential issues for vulnerable employees (gender, disability, refugee status) and mechanisms to resolve potential issues.

5. Explore non-traditional partners that offer flexible training experiences. Urban settings can offer many options for linking with public, private, and nonprofit vocational and technical training organizations. As refugees in urban areas may already be involved in some kind of work, standard vocational programs may not always be suitable. Non-traditional partners can offer flexible training experiences (night classes, weekend classes, intensive training programs) that may be better suited to participants’ needs and preferences. In some cases, programs can even work directly with the employers themselves to develop training plans and identify relevant training opportunities that will provide refugees with the technical skills they need to succeed.

6. Use local context to determine how to disburse cash transfers. In an urban setting, cash, particularly electronic transfer, is often preferable to a transfer of an in-kind asset, as participants are more likely to have access to local competitive markets. In addition to being easier and safer to facilitate logistically, cash allows recipients to choose what to purchase. It helps to stimulate the local market, which not only has wider economic benefits, but also helps to reduce social tensions. In-kind transfers can be useful if the required supplies are not available at local markets, but often involve additional logistical and procurement challenges.

7. Limit the program to one location within the urban area. Often refugee populations are thinly spread throughout an urban area, which causes implementers to want to spread their resources to reach everyone. However, limiting the program to one location, which typically means one or two neighborhoods, is recommended. This allows a program to figure out what works best, and make adjustments before scaling up. Having more than one location may complicate partnerships and overextend the capacity of an office, jeopardizing the program’s sustainability and effectiveness. Implementing partners are often resistant to limiting the working area, but extending coaching services across a broad geographic area hampers good implementation. The area chosen should have a high concentration of refugees close to the lead implementing partner and access to markets.

8. Use a proactive approach to identify potential beneficiaries. Many Graduation pilots rely on participatory community appraisals to identify the poorest households to participate in Graduation. However, in urban areas, where many families are invisible and do not know one another, or move frequently, this technique may not work well. Instead, advertisements and mobilization activities have helped to inform potential participants about the program and its benefits, particularly in situations with a low density of refugees who qualify for Graduation. Leveraging the networks of service providers, community groups, leaders, government agencies, and others have proven useful in conducting coordinated outreach and developing referral systems.


[2] Graduation in an Urban Context: A Technical Guide, Trickle Up, 2017 (Forthcoming)