Measuring the Self-Reliance of Refugees

Kellie Leeson, Prem B. Bhandari, Anna Myers, and Dale Buscher

Journal of Refugee Studies, Volume 33, Issue 1 (2020), Pages 86–106


Refugee ‘self-reliance’ has been defined as the “social and economic ability of an individual, a household or a community to meet its essential needs in a sustainable manner and with dignity” pending the identification of a durable solution. This article introduces a measurement tool to track refugee households’ progress over time in achieving self-reliance. To capture change at the household level on a continuum from vulnerability to self-reliance, the “Well-Being and Adjustment Index” incorporates the following 12 indicators or ‘domains’:

  • Income—including income from savings, employment, subsidies or remittances;
  • Employment—scenarios from no employment to full-time, stable employment;
  • Shelter—scenarios from no shelter to adequate housing based on family size;
  • Utilities—including access to cooking fuel/gas, electricity, heating or ventilation, running water and a private toilet;
  • Food—capturing both the ability to meet the household’s nutritional needs and whether these were met with or without assistance;
  • Healthcare—capturing both availability and access to health services;
  • Transportation/mobility—capturing both availability and affordability of transport services;
  • Education—whether school-aged children were attending school;
  • Community involvement—family engagement outside of the home to assess social-network development with both refugee and host-community members;
  • Safety—whether household members felt safe in their neighborhoods and shelter and whether they reduced their movements as a result of insecurity;
  • Documentation/residency status—whether households were legally in the country of asylum; and
  • Well-being—feelings of hope for the future.

The authors piloted the tool in Ecuador, Egypt and Lebanon. Findings from the Ecuador and Egypt pilots (for which complete panel data was available) reveal that overall refugee households are moving up the self-reliance scale over time. Overall, 60 percent of refugee households in Ecuador and 65 percent of refugee households in Egypt moved upward in the composite score of self-reliance, while less than 30 percent of refugee households regressed in both countries.

The authors argue that the tool could provide important insights into policy and programming gaps by tracking a wide range of household issues over time. They conclude that practitioners, even if focused on a particular sector, could benefit from a holistic view of refugee households and, over time, this understanding could contribute to better programming.

Subsequent to the pilots, a redesigned tool called the Self-Reliance Index (SRI) was developed through an iterative process in Jordan, Kenya and Mexico.