Refugee Economies in Uganda: What Difference Does the Self-Reliance Model Make?

Alexander Betts, Imane Chaara, Naohiko Omata and Olivier Sterck

Refugee Studies Centre, Oxford Department of International Development, University of Oxford, January 2019


Uganda’s refugee policies have been widely recognized as among the most progressive in the world. Its ‘self-reliance model’ permits refugees to work and choose their place of residence, allocates plots of land for refugees to cultivate, and encourages integrated social service provision and market access. This report examines the impact of Uganda’s self-reliance model, by comparing outcomes for refugees and host community members in Uganda and Kenya—neighboring countries with contrasting refugee policy frameworks. The authors compare Kampala in Uganda with Nairobi in Kenya, as refugee-hosting capital cities, and compare the Nakivale settlement in Uganda with the Kakuma camp in Kenya. The authors find:

  • Refugees in Uganda enjoy greater mobility and lower transaction costs for economic activity. This allows them to adopt economic strategies that might not otherwise be possible, including split-family strategies. Mobility is particularly important for Somalis whose commercial activities are often connected to national and transnational supply chains. In Kenya, refugees are working and moving outside the camps but they incur far higher transaction costs as a result of doing so.
  • Refugees with jobs in Uganda generally enjoy higher incomes and more sustainable sources of employment than refugees in Kenya, even though there is not a significant difference between the surrounding host communities. The exception is Congolese refugees in Nakivale who are worse off than Congolese refugees in Kakuma; Congolese refugees in Nakivale mainly engage in subsistence agriculture, while Congolese in Kakuma are mainly employed as incentive workers by NGOs. Somalis generally engage in commercial activities, and are able to earn higher incomes across the research sites in Uganda than those in Kenya.
  • Refugee employment levels in Uganda are surprisingly lower compared with refugees in Kenya. In Kakuma, this is largely due to the availability of ‘incentive work’ supported by international organizations and NGOs, whereas refugee employment in Nakivale relies on self-employment in agriculture and market-based sources. In Nairobi, the difference may reflect that the city offers a larger labor market.
  • Access to education is more limited in Uganda. Being in Nakivale is associated with three years less education than being in Kakuma for refugees who arrived before the age of sixteen. This may be partly due to the greater involvement of the international community in parallel service provision in Kenya compared with direct national government provision in Uganda.
  • The more land farming households have access to, the better they do in terms of dietary diversity, food security, and calorie intake. However, the authors raise questions about the viability of current land allocation practices since: (a) the approach does not benefit all communities: although many Congolese households take up the opportunity to cultivate land, Somalis refrain from agricultural activity; (b) there is insufficient land for newly arrived refugees: the overwhelming majority of land is cultivated by families who arrived before 2012; and (c) although Congolese refugees who have access to land do better than those who do not, and more land is associated with better food security outcomes, subsistence agriculture is inherently limited as a pathway to high income levels.
  • Aside from land allocation, levels of assistance in Uganda and Kenya are broadly comparable. This suggests that the most important explanation for refugees in Uganda’s generally better welfare outcomes is the different regulatory environment rather than the assistance model.
  • Host communities in Kenya are slightly more likely to have positive perceptions of refugees than in Uganda, particularly for the Turkana around Kakuma and ethnic Somali Kenyans in Eastleigh. The difference seems to be based on a perception that refugees bring a positive economic contribution, notably through employment. In the camp context, this difference may be because whereas the economic activities of refugees and hosts are complementary in Kakuma, refugees and hosts undertake similar economic activities in Nakivale, making competition more likely.

Overall, the research offers a strong endorsement of the value of allowing refugees the right to work and freedom of movement, however, the authors call for a more nuanced view of the strengths and weaknesses of refugee assistance in Uganda. The authors conclude with recommendations for refugee policy in Uganda and globally.

  • In Uganda: (a) providing refugees with the right to work and freedom of movement makes a difference, and in this regard Ugandan refugee policy deserves to be seen as exemplary; (b) due to growing refugee numbers, the quantity and quality of land available to new arrivals is inadequate and agriculture should be promoted alongside a range of other pathways to self-reliance; (c) Uganda’s integrated service provision model may need greater international support in order to overcome practical barriers to access; (d) it is necessary to revisit the assumption that refugees who choose to reside in urban areas are able to support themselves—a better level of social safety net may need to be available to some urban refugees; (e) for refugees in Uganda who are unable to make an adequate livelihood from cultivating small, low-fertility plots of land, it may be worthwhile for international organizations to consider a structured program of incentive work; and (f) international donors should consider piloting direct funding to refugee-led community-based organizations.

Globally, the authors call for: (a) promoting the right to work and mobility for refugees, since socio-economic freedom for refugees not only is a right under international refugee and human rights law but also leads to better welfare outcomes for refugees and may contribute to improved outcomes for host communities; (b) nuancing country-specific ‘models’ through more precise evidence relating to exactly what works, for whom, and under what conditions; (c) benchmarking against comparative data; (d) rethinking the role of parallel services, which may sometimes be associated with improved outcomes for refugees; (e) distinguishing ‘self-reliance policies’ from ‘self-reliance outcomes’, acknowledging that all policies and practices under the label of ‘self-reliance’ do not necessarily lead to better welfare outcomes for refugees; and (f) creating population-specific enabling environments, recognizing that not all refugee populations perform equally well within the same model.