Can Refugees Speak? Challenging Power and Creating Space in the Humanitarian System for Refugee Agency and Voice

Title: Can Refugees Speak? Challenging Power and Creating Space in the Humanitarian System for Refugee Agency and Voice
Authors: Kaga, Midori Tijen
Date: 2021-05-11
Abstract: Global humanitarian standards increasingly call for greater refugee participation in the decisions that affect refugees’ lives, with the dual aim of developing more equitable relations with refugees (transformative participation) and improving the effectiveness of aid interventions (instrumental participation). However, the limited research available suggests past approaches to refugee participation have habitually failed to meaningfully include refugees in the decision-making processes of humanitarian programs and policies. Rather, humanitarian organizations are criticized for paying lip service to refugee participation while maintaining control over important decisions and, thus, their power in relation to refugees. Though this issue has long been recognized as problematic, few studies have tried to understand and explain why efforts to implement meaningful refugee participation continuously fail to achieve this concept’s empowering and transformative objectives. The following dissertation responds to this query through an in-depth case study of refugee participation in the context of Beirut, Lebanon with the objective of understanding: how urban refugees are able to participate in decision-making processes of the humanitarian interventions that impact their lives; what barriers exist that impede their participation; why these barriers endure; and what the consequences of a lack of meaningful refugee participation are to refugees and to the wider humanitarian response. I answer these questions by drawing on semi-structured, qualitative interviews with a diverse group of refugee participants (44 interviews) and humanitarian organizational participants (42 interviews). This data is triangulated by comparing and testing the information received from interview participants with each other and against documentary evidence, such as government and NGO policy documents and reports, quantitative studies, newspaper articles, field notes, and academic studies. My analysis is further strengthened by a conceptual framework built on three approaches: the concept of meaningful participation and what this really entails; a Foucauldian concept of power to explain how discourses of power/knowledge shape and produce the relations between refugees and humanitarian organizations; and the Capabilities Approach as a comprehensive framework that can strengthen and guide participatory processes to ensure they maintain their transformative objectives. Relying on the perspectives of both humanitarian organizations and refugees, my research reveals conflicting understandings of what refugee participation means to these groups. Most humanitarian organizations view their efforts as generally successful and think that they listen to refugees. In contrast, refugees feel that their voices are frequently dismissed or ignored, particularly when their requests fail to match up with what organizations have already decided. This failure to listen to refugees’ voices and what they see as important creates a continuous gap between how humanitarian organizations, the Government of Lebanon, and refugees frame the problems at hand and the solutions to address these problems. In turn, this gap limits the impact of humanitarian efforts that aim to ‘protect’ refugees–in the fullest sense of this word–as refugees’ real needs go unmet. This forces refugees to respond in the few ways open to them, by resisting, manipulating, or avoiding humanitarian interventions all together, further undermining the effectiveness of these interventions. It is often implicitly assumed that refugee participation will naturally lead to its intended outcomes of greater program effectiveness and more equitable power relations between refugees and humanitarian organizations. However, this thesis demonstrates that neither of these objectives can take place unless refugees have influence and control over the decisions that affect them. Building on these findings, I offer a number of concrete recommendations to address the barriers identified in the research and help make meaningful refugee participation a reality.
CollectionThèses, 2011 - // Theses, 2011 -