Refugee-led organizations can help improve World Bank financing

A Sudanese refugee woman stands outside a shelter at the Gorom Refugee camp hosting Sudanese refugees on World Refugee Day, near Juba, in South Sudan June 20, 2023. REUTERS/Samir Bol

A Sudanese refugee woman stands outside a shelter at the Gorom Refugee camp hosting Sudanese refugees on World Refugee Day, near Juba, in South Sudan June 20, 2023. REUTERS/Samir Bol

Direct engagement with refugee communities could help investment in host countries go further

Martha Guerrero Ble is an advocate at Refugees International where she specializes in labor market access and engagement with the World Bank. Bahati Kanyamanza is the co-founder of COBURWAS International Youth Organization to Transform Africa.

The World Bank is well placed to respond to forced displacement situations. Through the Window for Host Communities and Refugees (WHR), the Bank provides up to $2.4 billion in financial assistance to low-income refugee-hosting nations. The support from the World Bank has the potential to influence real change for refugees and their communities. However, for the World Bank to implement its financing adequately and effectively in host nations, the institution must ensure meaningful engagement with refugees.

The World Bank operates based on the idea that humanitarian professionals have known for decades: in any displacement situation, emergency and especially long-term, both refugees and the local communities in which they reside need support. The WHR provides grants and highly subsidized loans to support low-income host nations, expanding their capacity and providing sustainable solutions for refugees. This funding is groundbreaking, as it addresses humanitarian situations through a development perspective. In Uganda, for instance, the Window finances a project to build roads to refugee-hosting districts, with the goal of improving both refugees’ connectivity and the country’s infrastructure. Similarly, Ethiopia received financing for a program to foster economic opportunities for refugees and hosts. In total, the Window has now benefitted 17 refugee-hosting nations in different regions of the world, like Bangladesh, Pakistan, South Sudan, and Kenya.

Demonstrators hold placards outside the royal courts of justice
Go DeeperUK digital residence checks lock out refugees, slavery victims
Illustration of Afghan refugees
Go DeeperA year in exile: Afghan refugees tell of fresh starts
An illustration photo shows a women having her iris scanned to pay for her grocery shopping, standing in front of a screen showing the iris of a shopper making their payment
Go DeeperIn Jordan, refugees scan irises to collect aid. But is it ethical?

Despite the importance of the World Bank’s support in refugee settings, the organization fails to meaningfully include refugees in the decisions around the policies and programs that are meant to impact their lives. Currently, the World Bank partners with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to conduct their operations. While the partnership is important to coordinate programming and conduct assessments, it is not a substitute for direct refugee representation. The other way that the World Bank includes refugees is through impact-evaluation surveys. However, refugees often describe these consultation mechanisms as “ticking a box” rather than opening a real dialogue, where their experiences are meaningfully considered and included.

Leaving refugees out of the discussion is a mistake. Experience from several contexts show that failing to engage with refugees creates a disconnect between the real needs and the response. Such is the case of the Jordan Compact—one of the first attempts of the World Bank to finance refugee situations, focused on generating employment opportunities for Syrian refugees and Jordanians. Early on, the Compact excluded refugees’ perspectives in the design and implementation of its programs. This led to investments in businesses with poor work conditions located in areas far away from where refugees lived, which ultimately failed to attract Syrian refugee workers.

One thing is clear: for any refugee investment to succeed, the World Bank must ensure that its financing has a real impact in the lives of refugees. To achieve this, the Bank must engage directly with refugees. Meaningful refugee participation can help improve the design and implementation of programs and policies, while also ensuring that host countries follow through on their commitments.

One way forward for the World Bank is to directly engage with Refugee-Led Organizations (RLOs). The Global Compact for Refugees recognizes the importance of meaningfully including RLOs in the design and implementation of any refugee response. RLOs have historically taken a leadership role to support refugee communities from the ground up and know better than anyone the needs of their communities—this is because they are also part of the communities they serve. As one RLO leader mentioned to the authors: “These are my neighbors, this is my family—we all live through the same issues, I am trying to help find solutions.” In many contexts, RLOs also serve to connect grassroots organizations to decision-makers, ensuring that refugees and their needs are heard and represented. As a result, local and in-country RLOs are in a unique position to represent the interests of the refugee population in host country operations.

The World Bank would significantly benefit from expanding collaboration and dialogue with RLOs in the countries where the Bank conducts refugee investments. To achieve this, the World Bank should create a formal mechanism that allows RLOs to provide input on documents and decisions related to the implementation and evaluation of the WHR. Other multilateral organizations, such as UNHCR and the European Commission have already implemented—albeit imperfectly—structures to increase the participation of refugees in the policies and programs that affect them. The World Bank can build on those experiences to establish a mechanism that relies on fostering refugees’ transformative leadership to influence decision-making. Such a mechanism should go beyond an information exchange and consultation process. In fact, it should focus on allowing refugees to provide input to strengthen host countries’ strategies, policies, and programs (and their respective evaluations) intended to support refugees.

At the country-level, the World Bank should create partnerships with RLOs, similar to the one in place with UNHCR. Given that most operations occur at the country level, the World Bank should partner with local RLOs to inform their planning and operations and help in the implementation and evaluation of policies and programs. Many RLOs are based and operate in the same communities where the World Bank conducts its operations and can be an important ally for the Bank to gain community buy-in and support, especially in contexts with complex security and cultural dynamics. Through such partnerships, the World Bank can also expand direct refugee representation at the country level, while also identifying any implementation gaps.

As the World Bank expands its support in refugee situations, the institution must ensure that the billions in financial support reach their full potential. But they cannot do this without refugees. Only through the meaningful inclusion of refugees can the World Bank ensure the proper implementation of its programs and policies, thus improving the overall effectiveness of its financing. And most importantly, the World Bank can give refugees a seat at the table and a say in the development agenda of their communities.

Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


  • Finance
  • Wealth inequality
  • Economic inclusion
  • Underground economies

Get ‘Policy, honestly’ to learn how big decisions impact ordinary people.

By providing your email, you agree to our Privacy Policy.

Latest on Context