Self-Reliance and Livelihoods

Encouraging self-reliance and enabling refugees to earn livelihoods are important ways to improve the lives of refugees in protracted situations. Promoting livelihood opportunities can enable refugees to become self-sufficient and contribute to the local economies in their countries of asylum. With these acquired skills and experiences they can also be better prepared for an eventual return to their home country or building a new life in their country of resettlement.

What are livelihoods?

A livelihood comprises the capabilities, activities and assets (material and social resources) required for living. A livelihood is sustainable when it can withstand the stress and shocks of changing circumstances. A sustainable livelihood should also be capable of being maintained, or even enhanced, while not undermining the natural resource base.[1]

PRM defines livelihoods activities as those that allow people to acquire and access the capabilities, knowledge, goods, and assets necessary to live in safety and with dignity. In most cases, this simply means decent work.

What hinders refugees’ efforts to pursue livelihoods activities?

The 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol set out the legal framework for refugees to lawfully obtain wage employment and pursue self-employment in countries of asylum. Nevertheless, despite growing evidence that refugees can fill labor gaps and contribute to host economies, many countries prohibit refugees from working legally. Often, these rights are not recognized, even by States that are party to the Convention and/or Protocol. This can be a consequence or a combination of domestic political pressure, social tensions, and weak economies.

Why are self-reliance and livelihoods important in a refugee response strategy?

Promoting livelihoods in all phases of displacement is critical. Livelihoods activities allow refugees to retain dignity; contribute to the economy of their host country; reduce pressure on direct aid programs; and retain or even build skills that can be utilized in exile, upon return home, or in a third country. Allowing refugees to pursue livelihoods activities can also improve their safety and reduce their vulnerability. This also holds true for internally displaced persons.

What is PRM doing to improve livelihoods for refugees?

In conjunction with other USG partners, PRM is increasing diplomatic efforts to promote work rights for refugees, including through initiatives taken at the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees at the UN General Assembly, co-hosted by then-U.S. President Obama on September 20, 2016. One of the three overarching goals of the Summit was to increase self-reliance and inclusion for refugees around the world, including through legal work opportunities. Additionally, PRM supports programs that boost livelihoods for refugees with contributions to international organization partners, as well as non-governmental organizations. Finally, together with the State Department’s Office of the Chief Economist and UNHCR, PRM is working to expand the evidence-base around the positive economic impacts of refugee labor.

What kind of livelihoods programs does PRM support?

PRM supports programs for refugees and other populations of concern that can have sustainable, positive impacts on the economic welfare of beneficiaries. Please see PRM’s General NGO Guidelines for more information.


[1] From Robert Chambers and Gordon R. Conway, “Sustainable Rural Livelihoods: Practical Concepts for the 21st Century.” 1991.