Fostering Refugee Self-Reliance – A Case Study of an Agency’s Approach in Nairobi

Amy G Slaughter

Journal of Refugee Studies, Volume 33, Issue 1 (2020), Pages 107–124


This article traces the development of a self-reliance approach used by the non-governmental organization (NGO) RefugePoint to assist urban refugees in Nairobi, Kenya. In developing its approach, RefugePoint drew on elements of the model employed by the United States Department of State and its contracted partners for resettling refugees in the United States, in particular intensive case management, coordinated referral networks and centralized accountability for client outcomes.

RefugePoint initially set up a small clinic to care for a group of around 50 HIV+ refugees and their families, including a therapeutic feeding program. Over time, the caseload grew to include refugees who were not HIV+ but were severely at risk in other ways with a variety of needs, and the program expanded to regular food-distribution program. With limited opportunities for durable solutions, in 2012 RefugePoint’s caseload approached 2,000. RefugePoint acknowledged that it had, in effect an urban ‘care and maintenance’ program, and that new approaches were needed to help refugees build better lives with agency and dignity, and ultimately achieve self-reliance.

RefugePoint hired staff with experience in refugee livelihoods and began providing livelihoods coaching and grants to start small businesses. Gradually, the program became a ‘one-stop shop’ that offers a set of holistic ‘core services’ to its core clients. Out-of-house referrals are made for legal aid, vocational training, and secondary and tertiary medical care, but the majority of the clients’ needs are handled in-house through coordinated internal referrals. RefugePoint’s core clients are assigned caseworkers who work with them to develop and adhere to case plans. The model anticipates an average 24-month service period, with ‘stabilization’ reached within the first three months through the provision of basic goods and services, with a focus on the most vulnerable urban refugees.


RefugePoint developed a Self-Reliance Measurement Tool (SRMT) to support critical decisions, e.g. who to accept into the caseload, how long to provide food and rent support for, and when a case might be considered self-reliant. SRMT includes eight assessment domains: (i) food; (ii) shelter; (iii) non-food items; (iv) economic wellbeing; (v) health; (vi) self-determination (mental health); (vii) safety/protection; and (viii) child protection. Households are scored on a scale of 1–4 (from worst to best) for each domain, with descriptors associated with each score to aid in the assessment process.


Over four years, a total of 2,576 refugees have been graduated after the households exceeded a 3.5 score. In 2018, RefugePoint’s program cost $1,000 per person services (including around 50 staff, operating costs and the cash, goods and services provided directly to clients), i.e. roughly $2,000 to help a refugee move from vulnerability and instability to self-reliance over 24 months. This compares to an estimated per-capita cost of providing basic assistance (food, shelter, education and health care) coupled with livelihoods support in the Dadaab camp of US$315 per annum (although not all elements of assistance are directly comparable).

Collaboration with Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) and other agencies has led to the creation of a set of common self-reliance indicators, the Self-Reliance Index, which began pilot testing in 2018. The tool is anticipated to: aid in identifying which service models or programmatic elements are most effective at facilitating self-reliance; chart progress of refugee households; help illuminate gaps in service models and disconnects in referral networks; help detect in the host environment both enabling and inhibiting contributors to refugee outcomes and changes in refugees’ coping strategies; and enhance the evidence base showing that refugees can be a net positive to their host countries and communities.