One of the key tenets of Uganda refugee policy is the Self-Reliance Strategy (SRS), a policy that expects refugees to economically support themselves by utilizing a given plot of land to develop a livelihood based on subsistence agriculture, local constructions,. Although many have hailed this policy as being progressive and beneficial for the refugees, others have pointed out the flaws and deficiencies in the policy and its implementation.


Over the last decade, livelihood approaches have become increasingly common in academic analysis and NGO and development agency practice. The notion of livelihood has also entered the discourse of refugee assistance accompanied by a renewed interest in Protracted Refugee Situations (PRS), Self-Reliance (SR), and Empowerment. In recent years, there has been a noticeable shift from high-level abstract dimensions of development towards increased attention to the refugees themselves and how they seek to construct their livelihoods.

There has traditionally been a tendency amongst humanitarian organizations to approach the issue of livelihoods and self-reliance from a technical perspective, focusing on the effective design and implementation of initiatives such as income-generating projects, micro-credit programs, agriculture, and vocational training programs. While this technical perspective is important – as is the question of financial resources – there is also a need to link the question of livelihoods with the issues of rights and protection (Crisp, 2003).

Historical review

This historical review describes how the nature of assistance provided to refugees and other people of concern has evolved over the years and where the points of departure with refugee livelihoods are. In the 1950s, UNHCR mainly focused on the provision of legal protection and the organization of resettlement programs in Europe.

In the 1960-70s and the 1980s when a new spate of refugee movements in Africa and other less-developed regions began to take place, UNHCR responded, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, with the establishment of large-scale agricultural settlements on land made available by host governments. The humanitarian community tended to focus on emergency relief or addressing the immediate needs of displaced persons such as food, water, shelter, and health care.

In the early 1980s, attempts were made to suggest more durable solutions to humanitarian emergencies. Two international conferences, ICARA I and ICARA II (International Conference on Assistance to Refugees in Africa) were organized. ICARA I was primarily a pledging conference, aimed at mobilizing additional resources for refugee programs in Africa to assist refugee-hosting countries to cope with the burden of large numbers of refugees. Unfortunately, ICARA I did not satisfy host states in Africa by failing to meet their expectations for additional resources.

Refugee livelihood strategies

It is important to understand the efforts that people are already making them stabilize and enhance their situation. As explained above, household strategies are how households deploy assets and use their capabilities to meet their objectives and are often based on experience. Coping mechanisms are special kinds of strategies employed during difficult times. This chapter will be looking into the livelihood /coping strategies developed by refugee households to access and mobilize resources. Even though every refugee population and situation is different, an attempt has been made to determine general trends such as seeking international protection, receiving humanitarian assistance, relying on social networks and solidarity, engaging in agriculture or trade and services provision, falling back on negative coping strategies, and adopting new gender roles.

Seeking international protection and migration as a livelihood strategy

In the first instance, fleeing from one’s country to find safety and to protect any remaining assets can be regarded as a livelihood strategy. However, upon settlement in their first country of asylum (often a neighboring country), many refugees find it difficult to build up a decent livelihood and yearn for a better life elsewhere. For example, one of the reasons why many Somali refugees dream about resettlement or to migrate beyond the refugee camps is related to the poor conditions of their life in the camps as well as the slim chances that they will be able to return to their country of origin in the foreseeable future. Horst (2001) was told how over the years the dream for resettlement has increased since the situation in the Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya is getting worse and a solution to the war in Somalia seems far.

Relying on social networks and solidarity

According to Jacobsen (2002), there is growing evidence that communication and ties with relatives and friends living abroad have helped refugees survive the harsh conditions of their displacement. Assistance from family and friends abroad can include financial resources, such as remittances, as well as the social capital that comes with refugee networks which increase information flows and enable trade and relocation. These trans-national resources often complement assistance provided by humanitarian agencies and the host government.

Another important strategy several refugees have readily adopted is the development of inter-household economic and social networks. These networks, based on solidarity, provide a safety net built on mutual aid in coping with limited income-generating opportunities and social insecurity. As illustrated by case-studies in Egypt and Ecuador (Al-Sharmani, 2004; Lo, 2005), refugees frequently share small apartments. This pooling of resources contributes to economic survival and securing livelihoods.

Rural refugee livelihoods – falling back on subsistence farming

Many refugees turn to subsistence farming as a coping mechanism. However, the development of rural livelihoods such as agriculture and pastoralism depends on the availability of and access to land and natural resources.

When insufficient land is available, many refugees may still engage in agriculture by encroaching on land which they have no right to use. Or because refugees hope for a quick return, they could resort to unsustainable farming practices such as example indiscriminate land clearance.

Engaging in trade and services

As part of their livelihood strategy, refugees engage in petty trading, such as buying and selling goods (firewood, charcoal, vegetables, prepared food, cigarettes, sweets, etc.) or in providing services (hairdressing, mechanics, food preparation, construction, telephone booths, language tutoring or interpreting, money transfers.

The example of Liberian refugees in Ghana (Dick, 2002) can be given as an illustration of refugees’ entrepreneurship. The Liberians trade what they have to get what they need. Culturally inappropriate maize rations received from UNHCR were sold to the Ghanaians to buy rice. Also, men and women are running successful tailoring, clothing; shoe, carpentry and electronic goods repair shops and beauty salons as well as selling clean water and cooked food and offering IT and typing training. The sudden growth in telephone enterprises furthermore enables Liberians to keep in touch with relatives and to receive remittances.

Falling back on negative coping strategies

Nearly every study on refugee livelihoods has observed negative coping strategies. These strategies become more frequent when few other options are available: some see themselves forced to sell off vital assets such as domestic items, clothes, part of the food ration, etc. Many find themselves obliged to resort to crime, violence, loans that they are not able to repay, or to reduce the intake of food and selling of food rations to cover the need for non-food items not extended in the assistance package. Other negative coping strategies range from an illegal collection of natural resources such as firewood, theft of crops, cattle, and other assets, to selling sexual services as a means of making a living.

Diversity in types of refugee livelihood

Popular perceptions of the economic life of refugees tend to portray rural refugees as predominantly involved with agriculture, and urban refugees with small-scale ‘petty trade’. These categories fail to accurately portray the diversity of refugees’ income-generating activities. Reducing rural refugees to agriculturalists, for instance, fails to distinguish refugees who grow crops for their consumptions or for sale, those who are employed as farmworkers, and those who buy produce from neighbors for sale as middlemen.

In urban settings, the term petty trade is likewise used to group an equally diverse set of livelihoods: according to the 2011 Inter Aid survey of refugee livelihoods in Kampala, the main income source for 24% of refugees in the capital  was described simply as petty trade, 

Diversity within and between refugee households by livelihood and wealth

Diversity in the economic lives of refugees can be observed at multiple levels of analysis, beginning with the household itself. Refugee households tend to diversify their livelihood portfolio through multiple incomes –generating activities, spreading risk rather than relying on a single member’s income. In a Congolese refugee family in Kampala, for instance, a husband may work as a tailor while his wife vends necklaces and accessories, and their children work for Ugandan construction companies. In rural settlements, where the majority of household members are farmers, crops are highly vulnerable to droughts, floods, and disease. These external shocks can quickly reverse long investments of time and effort made by refugee farmers. As result, many who identify farming as a key livelihood stress the importance of placing other household members into non-farming business activities as social insurance.

Host population

On the other hand, the multiple ways in which refugees pursue their livelihoods may also bring vital contributions to the local economy. An illustration of the productive relationships that can exist in situations where there are mutual benefits to both refugees and host populations in the case of Angolan refugees in Zambia (Bakewell, 2002). Here, the majority of refugees share the same livelihoods based on subsistence farming with their Zambian neighbors. They live as neighbors in the same villages and their children go to the same schools. While the Zambian villagers have welcomed the Angolans and offered them protection and land, the Angolans have brought additional labor for agricultural production plus access to some of Angola’s natural resources.


UNHCR needs to create the right environment and has an important role to play at the political level (advocacy for the protection of refugee rights including the productive/economic rights) and fundraising (more or additional funds shall initially be needed, though this should be regarded as an investment in durable solutions instead of solely sponsoring of survival and life-sustaining activities).


People look for opportunities to improve their lives. This synthesis paper illustrates that refugees are no idle people but willing to rebuild their livelihoods if given a chance. Livelihood analysis provides valuable information on how people manage risk and gives insight into how existing coping and livelihood strategies can be strengthened. To understand and analyze livelihoods is to be better equipped, creative, and efficient in the delivery of aid programs.


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