The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Making Lives: Refugee Self-Reliance and Humanitarian Action in Cities

This project focuses on refugee self-reliance in the city through three studies, on Halba (Lebanon), Delhi (India), and Thessaloniki (Greece).

Making Lives

19 April 2018

Over the last year, the Humanitarian Affairs Team (Save the Children), the Bartlett Development Planning Unit (University College London), and Jindal School of International Affairs (O. P. Jindal Global University) have been collaborating on research into refugee self-reliance and humanitarian action in cities.

As protracted displacement increasingly contributes to urban change and poses a challenge for city governance and infrastructures, this research project focuses on ‘urban-itarian’ settings – cities that are home to a growing number of ‘persons of concern’ (a category that includes refugees and returned refugees, asylum-seekers, IDPs and returned IDPs, stateless people, and others), and increased humanitarian activity. In these contexts, humanitarian organisations provide an additional layer of urban infrastructure, on top of the conventional provisions for protection, basic services, and livelihoods for persons of concern. They face growing pressure from governmental donors to provide more specialised responses to conflicts and disasters that cannot be isolated from wider urban dynamics.

The project focuses on refugee self-reliance in the city. It explores the socio-economic practices of refugees and host communities, the challenges faced by refugees in gaining access to labour markets, and the ways in which humanitarian actors, often in collaboration with city authorities, seek to promote refugee livelihoods. A broad notion of the market as a space of social practices (characterised by power relations, flows and exchanges, negotiation, and the pursuit of aspirations) informs an analysis of the way in which the activities of institutional actors become enmeshed with those of informal actors, which offer an alternative support network for refugees unable to engage in formal labour. While humanitarian organisations have placed particular emphasis on the economic dimensions of refugee self-reliance, this project explores other aspects of refugee well-being too. Understanding the barriers and limits to refugee self-reliance, as well as the potential shortcomings of self-reliance as a conceptual and programmatic framework, is key to improving the support that is available to refugees in urban settings.

In short, the project sought to:

  • identify and contextualise socio-economic practices adopted by refugees in urban settings, as well as the opportunities and challenges that refugees encounter;
  • analyse the practice of self-reliance programming by humanitarian organisations in urban settings, including its contribution to refugee well-being;
  • increase humanitarian actors’ understanding of how their self-reliance programmes affect, and are affected by, political and economic systems, and processes of urban change;
  • contribute to humanitarian strategies aimed at promoting refugee well-being in changing urban environments.

To read more and download the city studies please visit http://refugeesinthecity.org/


Bringing together three studies, on Halba (Lebanon), Delhi (India), and Thessaloniki (Greece), Making Lives offers a critical perspective on self-reliance as a conceptual and programmatic framework that privileges economic aspects of refugee well-being and market-based interventions by humanitarian organisations. Economic self-reliance through employment becomes an unachievable goal for humanitarian organisations when access to the formal labour market is restricted for refugees by political and legal barriers. Therefore, humanitarian livelihoods interventions focused on self-reliance end up providing a form of distraction through leisure activities, and, at best, supporting refugees’ own coping strategies. The authors propose that, if it is to inform efforts to support the well-being of urban refugees, ‘self-reliance’ should be imagined as an abstract and perhaps ultimately unachievable status, dependent on structural changes, but to which humanitarian programmes might in some way contribute; and as multi-dimensional (not just an economic concern, but also a political, legal, social, and cultural one), multi-scalar (a challenge for individuals, households, and communities, with their mutual dependencies), and multi-temporal (dependent on conditions in the short term and long term).

Read the overview (PDF)

Research Team

This collaborative research project was carried out by:

The Bartlett Development Planning Unit (DPU), University College London

For more than 60 years, the DPU has conducted research, consultancy and postgraduate teaching that helps to build the capacity of national governments, local authorities, NGOs, aid agencies and businesses working towards socially just and sustainable development in the global south. The DPU is a department of the Bartlett: University College London’s global faculty of the built environment.

Humanitarian Affairs Team (HAT), Save the Children

Through critical reflection, research, and outreach, the HAT informs Save the Children strategy, offers proposals for policy and practice within the organisation and across the humanitarian sector, and works to translate these proposals into practicable plans of action.

O.P. Jindal Global University’s School of International Affairs (JSIA)

JSIA is ‘India’s first global policy school’. Bringing together scholarship on International Relations, International Law, and International Business, JSIA aims to produce knowledge that can contribute to India’s engagement in international affairs and can address pressing global challenges.

Research Team:

Anubhav Dutt Tiwari, Research Associate, Centre for Human Rights Studies, O.P. Jindal Global University

Andrea Rigon, Lecturer, The Bartlett Development Planning Unit

Camillo Boano, Professor, The Bartlett Development Planning Unit

Cassidy Johnson, Senior Lecturer, The Bartlett Development Planning Unit

Estella Carpi, Research Associate, The Bartlett Development Planning Unit & Humanitarian Affairs Adviser, Save the Children

Fernando Espada, Head of Humanitarian Affairs, Save the Children

Jessica Field, Assistant Professor, Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University

Juliano Fiori, Head of Studies (Humanitarian Affairs), Save the Children

Sophie Dicker, Research Manager (Humanitarian Affairs), Save the Children

Yamini Mookherjee, Research Associate, Foundation for Rural Recovery and Development

Project Publications
Other texts linked to the project, produced by, or with contributions from, members of the research team:
Presentations and contributions to workshops related to the project:
  • Workshop at the University of Manchester, organised by the Migration Lab, in partnership with Jindal School of International Affairs and Save the Children’s Humanitarian Affairs Team. Hosted by Jessica Field, with contributions from Yamini Mookherjee, Anubhav Dutt Tiwari, Sophie Dicker, Estella Carpi, and Juliano Fiori (20 June, 2017): ‘Refugee self-reliance in cities? Challenges and opportunities’.
  • UCL Humanitarian Summit, organised by the UCL Humanitarian Institute, with a session chaired by Camillo Boano and with contributions from Estella Carpi, Yamini Mookherjee, Jessica Field, and Juliano Fiori  (22 June, 2017).
  • Research Councils UK conference on protracted conflict, linked to the Global Challenges Relief Fund, with contributions from Juliano Fiori and Estella Carpi (2-3 October, 2017).
  • Conference organised by the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore, entitled ‘The Politics of Distribution: Migrant Labour, Development and Religious Aid in Asia‘. Jessica Field presented the paper ‘Supporting refugees to work? Exploring the limitations and possibilities of urban refugee “self-reliance” initiatives in Delhi’ (16-17 November, 2017).
  • Workshop at by Jindal School of International Affairs to share findings of the research on refugee self-reliance in Delhi by Jessica Field, Yamini Mookherjee, and Anubhav Dutt Tiwari (30 May, 2017).
  • Lunchtime talk at Save the Children UK, presenting finding of the studies on Halba, Delhi, and Thessaloniki, with Jessica Field, Sophie Dicker, Estella Carpi, and Juliano Fiori (23 June, 2017).
  • Workshop on refugee self-reliance at the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford, with participation from Anubhav Dutt Tiwari, Yamini Mookherjee, and Estella Carpi (June, 2017).