Refugee organisations get $24.3m funding boost

The Larsen Lam ICONIQ Impact Award supports calls to localise aid funding and increase direct support to frontline organisations.

Two refugee-led organisations based in the Middle East have been named among a group of grassroots nonprofits chosen to receive a share of more than $24m in philanthropic prize funding. The Larsen Lam ICONIQ Impact Award has given $10m to the Resourcing Refugee Leadership Initiative, a coalition of refugee-led organisations (RLOs), to help provide durable solutions for refugees.

The five-member group includes Basmeh & Zeitooneh, which works with Syrian refugees in Lebanon; St. Andrew’s Refugee Services (StARS), a Cairo-based organisation supporting displaced people from more than half a dozen countries in the region; and three other RLOs in Uganda, Colombia and Indonesia.

Each member of the coalition will receive up to $2m to spend on programming as well as capacity building, to help them tap new funding streams usually reserved for more established and international NGOs.

“With this grant, the coalition will have the capacity to fund long-lasting community solutions, rather than short-term projects that often miss the mark,” explained Mohamed Ahmed, programmes director at StARS in Egypt. It was also, he said, “a way for donors to overcome the structural complexities of funding RLOs directly”.

A third regional initiative, Unlocking Skilled Migration Solutions for Refugees, which connects refugees in Lebanon and Jordan with international employers and is led by Talent Beyond Boundaries, will receive $1.25m.

The remainder of the $24.3m prize pot will be distributed to NGOs working with refugees in Africa and the US.

Cecilia Conrad, CEO of Lever for Change, a nonprofit affiliate of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation which organised the competition, said: “In this moment of global reckoning and social upheaval, it is critical for philanthropy to be bold and daring. By investing in these inspiring ideas, donors have an opportunity to improve the lives of displaced people for generations to come.”

According to the latest data from UK-based thinktank Development Initiatives, in 2019, just 2.1 per cent of international humanitarian assistance passed directly to local and national actors. The rest went to multilateral institutions, UN agencies, and international NGOs, who then subcontracted smaller, local entities to deliver programmes on a case-by-case basis.

Frustrated by this uneven share, there are growing calls for new types of funding models to decolonise aid. Advocates for the so-called localisation agenda say it is better to support local and national organisations, such as those led by refugees or other marginalised communities, because it gives recipients more say in how aid money is spent.

It also helps to ensure that programming reflects grassroots needs, as opposed to top-level policy preferences based on short-term funding cycles, which are unable to deliver durable support.

By flowing money directly to the RLOs and other grassroots initiatives, the Larsen Lam ICONIQ Impact Award seeks to upend traditional aid funding models and encourage bottom-up development.

Diana Essex-Lettieri, vice president and COO of Asylum Access, a US-based advocacy group which oversees the Resourcing Refugee Leadership Initiative, described the $10m prize as “a game-changer”.

The funding will “help scale outstanding RLOs around the world and increase the representation and inclusion of refugees in the design of refugee solutions at national, regional and global levels,” she said.

“In this moment of global reckoning and social upheaval, it is critical for philanthropy to be bold and daring.”

Cecilia Conrad, CEO, Lever for Change.

Doing it differently

Refugee-Led Organisations (RLOs) are just that, nonprofits run by refugees, for refugees.

Initiatives conceived and run by the five members of the Asylum Access’ coalition range from education programmes and skills training to hardship grants and humanitarian relief, community centres, and support with legal status and overseas sponsorship.

In Uganda, for example, the Bridge to Formal Schooling project, run by YARID helps refugee children - who had come from a French school system and then missed several months of lessons – settle into an English set-up. The NGO also provides targeted vocational training so that their parents can get work to be able to afford school fees.

“These are the types of holistic, community-based solutions designed by RLOs,” explained Diana Essex-Lettieri, vice president and COO of Asylum Access. “And they work, because everybody is so dedicated to seeing the solution. If you had an international NGO trying to do this, you wouldn’t get the same outcome.

Donors are sometimes reluctant to give out smaller grants to grassroots organisations because that creates more administration than fewer larger grants. Some also worry about less well-known NGOs having poor fiscal control or being linked to terror or criminal networks.

Smaller NGOs, which are often run by volunteers and community members, can lack the capacity to deliver the level of monitoring and evaluation international funders require and may struggle to access formal banking services, particularly in fragile environments. But, without more funding, they will never be able to strengthen this capacity and engage larger donors.

“When the Global North is funding the Global South, it’s always about risk, never about trust.”

Sana Mustafa, director of partnerships and engagement, Asylum Access.

In a bid to break this cycle, Asylum Access will also establish a first-of-its-kind RLO-to-RLO pooled fund. Over the next five years, this aims to catalyse an additional $40m by collecting money centrally from a variety of donors to support 45 RLOs globally and benefit more than 1 million refugees worldwide.

“The evidence is clear that billions of dollars are flowing into the global refugee response, yet the solutions remain far out of sight,” Essex-Lettieri said.

“RLOs are living and breathing the reality,” she added. “They have an inherent built-in knowledge of what the problems are. There's a deep dedication to finding solutions, yet according to our calculations, less than 1 per cent of funding made available for refugees reaches RLOs.”

The pooled fund format is a way to create an interface between donors and RLOs, with Asylum Access bringing smaller organisations – which would not normally be on large funders’ radars – to the table. Meanwhile, Asylum Access absorbs the risk for the donors.

Sana Mustafa, director of partnerships and engagement at the organisation, said a key goal of the RLO coalition was to achieve a “mindset shift” among donors themselves – to move from risk aversion towards trust.

“When the Global North is funding the Global South, it’s always about risk, never about trust,” she said. “It’s a catch-22 situation. No one wants to invest because they are afraid, but when they don’t invest, they don’t see impact.

“So, with this, we’re hoping to create the evidence that this does really work. The award is very important for this reason: for $10m dollars to be committed to this, that is a big sign for funders and philanthropists that it must be something worth doing.”

The other three members of the Resourcing Refugee Leadership Initiative sharing in the $10m prize are Young African Refugees for Integral Development (YARID) in Uganda; Refugiados Unidos in Colombia; and Refugees & Asylum seekers Information Centre (RAIC) in Indonesia.

The $10m award’s sponsors are Chris Larsen, executive chairman of US-based fintech firm Ripple and his wife, Lyna Lam. Now executive director of the Wat Khmer Kampuchea Krom, a Khmer Buddhist nonprofit Foundation working with the Cambodian American community and other refugee groups, Mrs Lam left Vietnam as a child before eventually settling in the US. - PA