Livelihoods and Self-reliance

Promoting livelihood opportunities can enable refugees and others1 to become self-reliant, build useful skills, and contribute to local economies in their host countries while reducing pressure on humanitarian assistance programs and host community resources.  With these acquired skills and experiences, they can also be better prepared in the event they locally integrate, return to their home country, or build a new life in their country of resettlement.

What Are Livelihoods?

A livelihood comprises the capabilities, activities, and assets (material and social resources) required to live and sustain oneself.  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.2

The Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (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 legal, decent work.3

What Hinders Refugees’ Efforts to Pursue Livelihoods and Economic Inclusion?

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, the right to work is not recognized, even by States that are party to the Convention and/or Protocol.  Moreover, refugees may face barriers to accessing other rights or services related to work such as  freedom of movement, identity documentation, bank accounts, education, healthcare, land and property, or business ownership.  The same challenges in accessing decent work opportunities can often exist for other forcibly displaced persons such as asylum seekers and internally displaced persons (IDPs), stateless persons, and vulnerable migrants.  This can be a consequence or a combination of domestic political pressure, social tensions, and/or weak economies.

Why Are Self-reliance and Livelihoods Important?

Promoting livelihoods in all phases of a humanitarian crisis is critical. Sustainable livelihoods allow refugees, other forcibly displaced persons such as internally displaced persons (IDPs), conflict victims, stateless persons, and vulnerable migrants 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 used in their current communities, upon return home, or in a third country. Allowing these populations to pursue livelihoods activities can also improve their protection, including by reducing their use of negative coping mechanisms, such as limiting meals or resorting to unsafe work opportunities.

What Is PRM Doing to Improve Livelihoods and Self-reliance?

In conjunction with other USG partners, PRM is increasing diplomatic efforts to promote work and related rights for all those it assists, as well as to advocate for their inclusion in existing services and programs by host governments, development actors, and the private sector. Two of the four overarching objectives of the Global Compact on Refugees are to ease pressures on host countries and to enhance refugee self-reliance, both of which can be advanced through legal, decent work opportunities for refugees.  Additionally, PRM supports programs, including with private sector convenors such as the Tent Partnership, that boost employment and entrepreneurship for refugees and other vulnerable populations.

To promote migrants’ access to decent work, PRM partners with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) working with governments, the private sector, and migrant workers, to create new or enhance existing labor migration pathways, support ethical recruitment policies and practices, increase workers’ access to and awareness of labor rights, conduct research, and improve information management on labor markets and labor migration.

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 well-being of participants.  In order to help inform the design and implementation of impactful programs and policies, PRM is working to expand the evidence-base around the economic impacts of hosting and allowing employment opportunities for refugees, other forcibly displaced persons, stateless persons, and vulnerable migrants through partnership with research organizations such as the World Bank-UNHCR Joint Data Center.4

For prospective NGO applicants, organizations must include a recent market analysis in their application packages for all proposals that include at least one livelihoods-sector objective. Please see PRM’s current funding opportunities and PRM’s General NGO Guidelines for more information.


[1] PRM supports the protection of a range of vulnerable populations based on needs and contextual factors, while recognizing that these groups are not all the same and require different types of sectoral support to enhance their overall protection.  Groups who may be supported with livelihoods services may include, in addition to refugees, victims of conflict, internally displaced persons (IDPs), stateless persons, and vulnerable migrants. [back to 1]

[2] From Robert Chambers and Gordon R. Conway, “Sustainable Rural Livelihoods: Practical Concepts for the 21st Century.” 1991. [back to 2]

[3] The ILO defines decent work as “work that is productive and delivers a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for all, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, organize and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men.”  Decent work (ilo.org) . [back to 3]

[4] The World Bank-UNHCR Joint Data Center  website houses resources with the aim of improving and supporting the collection, analysis, dissemination, and use of primary socioeconomic microdata and population data that inform policymaking and programming.  The website also includes a literature review database  highlighting recent publications, academic scholarship, and thought leadership on issues relating to forced displacement which can be sorted by country and topic.  [back to 4]

U.S. Department of State

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