Self and self-reliance

By Gerawork Teferra

A woman preparing vegetables for sale in the Kalobeyie integrated refugee settlement area. Photo Credit: Gerawork Teferra

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are more than 70.8 million people who are displaced.[1] This figure, out of which 25.9 million persons are refugees, accounts for more than the total population of France. As prolonged temporary humanitarian aid has created dependency and hopelessness among large parts of this population, the international community has shifted its focus toward strengthening the ability of refugees to live independently from humanitarian assistance (i.e. self-reliance).[2] The current self-reliance programming, however, has its own risk as it mainly focuses on creating jobs that don't go beyond temporary lifesaving economic gains; it also neither fully considers specific contexts nor addresses it strictly at an individual level. Understanding the challenges of achieving self-reliance in view of individual rights and capabilities is vital to successfully facilitate the process. This essay discusses self-reliance through the lens of a refugee, seeing her or him as an independent and dignified human being. As such, I critically explore the existence of ‘group-reliance' or ‘group dignity’ in a situation where individual self-reliance and identity is in question.

The intended goal of self-reliance programming to me, as a refugee, is to make sure we refugees stand for ourselves and continue to thrive and meet our own needs so that we are not reduced to a mere burden of humanitarian aid agencies and host nations. If one tries to define ‘self’ in self-reliance focusing on the fundamental conditions of a human being, this definition might comprise only ones’ physical nature and basic physiological needs. Consequently, this leads to common attributes (e.g. a physical needs like food, health, and water) being considered over individual differences (e.g. being a farmer, a social worker, an artist, mother, etc), or metaphorically speaking, on the forest rather than the trees. As a result, the scope of self-reliance mainly captures the essential needs of an individual and overlooks their specific life experiences, talents, and capabilities. If a person is only able to satisfy those essential needs (food, water, etc.), it does not mean that the self truly exists and can be relied upon, even if that person appears physically well. Instead, facilitating self-reliance must start with recognising that self, whose potential can then be utilised and strengthened in order to proactively start being relied upon. A development intervention should, therefore, focus on channeling individual capabilities to where they are most productive; just like a diligent teacher focuses on teaching or a farmer on farming. In short, strengthening self-reliance should ideally involve creating space to freely utilise already existing capabilities – and ultimately ensure that a refugee maintains his or her agency and dignity.

As stated in the UNHCR Handbook, when an individual case has been taken into account, livelihood interventions can be better tailored around the individual initiatives of refugees, and better focus on alleviating barriers, such as rights related to free movement, property, getting permits, etc.[3] On the contrary, if livelihood interventions focus on, for example, the availability of resources or ease at which they can be deployed (supply-driven approach[4]), achieving self-reliance becomes more unlikely. A good example of associated challenges of this supply-driven approach is the short training that various organisations have been aggressively offering here in Kakuma refugee camp – so far it has provided us with a bunch of certificates. Such training helps to keep hope alive but so far doesn’t go far beyond that. There are a good number of entrepreneurs who have been trying to do businesses but failed because of obstacles related to restrictions on free movement, permits, equipment, access to market, etc. There are also many high school and post-secondary graduates who are competent enough to be employed in different organisations, but they lack such paid opportunities and are only offered volunteer positions.

Instead of creating a fashion of ‘volunteerism’ or group support, organisations should focus on individual support that considers what each person requires to overcome barriers even within similar group contexts. For example, the barrier of one refugee farmer may take shape in the form of a deep-water well that he relies upon to develop his farmyard throughout the year; but for the other farmer it may be the lack of good quality seeds instead. Similarly, for one trader the barrier may be related to movement restrictions whereas the other may require support with strengthening the supply chain to get better products and reach more customers.

In order to follow such an individualised approach, humanitarian actors must look beyond the patronising ‘refugee’ label: a refugee is also a teacher, farmer, barber, translator, etc., and developing these identities further catalyses their progress towards self-reliance. If such actors ignore this fact and pursue a supply-driven support model instead, it forces those at the receiving end of the intervention to give up part of their identity (e.g. everything beyond what the term refugee can capture), or even to create and adjust to a new, pseudo identity. In terms of self-reliance, the question then is ‘how can you rely on yourself without being yourself?’

Humanitarian aid workers should also program a relevant intervention with due consideration (and use) of the specific context of the intervention and the individual at the receiving end. In short, when organisations try to understand the context and individual needs, they themselves rely on the active involvement and information provided by refugees; a starting point where refugees become their own agents. Such approach, for instance, reduces ‘recycling’ projects and programmes in a situation where needs are continuously changing. Maintaining those considerations can help transform an intervention from a ‘top-down' (supply-driven) process easily to a ‘bottom-up’ (self-reliance) one.

The UNHCR self-reliance framework also indicates that the successful design and implementation of an intervention is a continuous long-term process that incorporates refugees’ self-reliance in the overall development planning and implementation process.[5]

Starting this process by recognising the existence of a self (beyond the refugee term) in turn helps humanitarian workers to capture and support the short- and long-term goals of individual refugees. To adjust or scale up such programmes, it requires monitoring and evaluation standards, tools, and indicators that seek and value refugees’ participation. Excluding refugees and other beneficiaries from the evaluation process does not only conceal the full picture of the intervention but also discredits their struggle towards self-reliance, takes away their agency, and denies their dignity.

To conclude, as a refugee—but also as a teacher, a development worker, and a dignified individual in the broader sense—I think that one can only be self-reliant if his or her ‘self’ is recognised legally and socially within the development terminology; but not only as a person of concern. Moreover, concealing individuals' self under the guise of ‘group self-reliance’ is counterproductive and only leads to underutilising the nuanced capabilities that individuals could otherwise rely upon; such groups are always the product of self-reliant individuals who seek collaboration and synergy.

Gerawork Teferra, a learning facilitator and development worker, has lived in Kakuma refugee camp for almost a decade. He is currently working as an academic advisor under a Jesuit Worldwide Learning (JWL) and Global Education Movement (GEM) tertiary level education programs.

[1] Out of this 70.8 million displaced people, 41.3 are internally displaced people, and 3.5 million are asylum seekers. UNHCR, ‘Figures at a Glance’, accessed 27 October 2019,

[2] The UNHCR handbook defines self-reliance as ‘the social and economic ability of an individual, a household or a community to meet essential needs (including protection, food, water, shelter, personal safety, health, and education) in a sustainable manner and with dignity. Self-reliance, as a programme approach, refers to developing and strengthening livelihoods of persons of concern, and reducing their vulnerability and long-term reliance on humanitarian/external assistance.’ UNHCR, Handbook for Self-reliance’ (Geneva: UNHCR, Reintegration and Local Settlement Section, August 2005),

[3] UNHCR, Handbook for Self-reliance’ (Geneva: UNHCR, Reintegration and Local Settlement Section, August 2005),

[4] This describes an approach whereby an organisation brings support that is available and easily implementable without necessarily considering the context, background and interest of individuals. From personal experience, those at the receiving end of this type of assistance often see a mismatch between our needs and interests and the support that is provided through an intervention. The underlying belief appears to be ‘something is better than nothing’. Still, we often make use of this support because of the same belief; however, it does not bring any significant change and often makes us more dependent on support (rather than self-reliant).

[5] UNHCR, Handbook for Self-reliance’ (Geneva: UNHCR, Reintegration and Local Settlement Section, August 2005),


UNHCR (2005) Handbook for Self-reliance’ (Geneva: UNHCR, Reintegration and Local Settlement Section),

UNHCR, ‘Figures at a Glance’, accessed 27 October 2019,