Refugee-Led Organizations: Support and Challenges in the Uganda Response

By USCRI July 2, 2024

Refugee-led organizations, civil society groups formed and managed by refugees themselves, are a growing actor in displacement responses across the world. Ranging from large, professional networks to handfuls of volunteers, these groups channel their talent and past trauma into providing services, promoting livelihoods, and giving other essential support to their neighbors. But these groups face struggles to become formally registered, to receive consistent funding, and to participate in processes that affect their lives, from local projects to the Global Refugee Forum.

This brief on refugee-led organizations (RLOs) discusses their background, their range of activities, and their challenges, drawing on the case study of Uganda. It is based on existing literature on RLOs and field research conducted by the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) in Uganda in June 2024, including focus group discussions and interviews with RLOs in Kyaka II refugee settlement, Rhino Camp refugee settlement, and Kampala. This brief is an excerpt from a larger forthcoming report on the Uganda refugee response and the role of RLOs within it.



Calls for greater participation of refugees in decisions about their own future have been ongoing since at least the 1980s. However, discussions about refugee-led organizations (RLOs) have only recently become more mainstream, particularly at the UN level. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) did not formally define “refugee-led organization” until 2023.

Through agreements like the 2016 Grand Bargain and the 2018 Global Compact on Refugees, the global humanitarian system is moving toward localization and greater participation of those who are displaced or affected by humanitarian disasters. Despite this momentum toward local actors in refugee and humanitarian responses, significant work remains to be done on ensuring organizations closest to their communities, such as RLOs, have the appropriate resources or are consulted in key decision-making processes.

RLOs tend to be “chronically” underfunded—with only a fraction of humanitarian and development funding reaching these organizations.  Grant sizes to RLOs are also significantly smaller than those provided to international non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

This lack of support has a direct impact on RLOs being able to build their capacity, to expand their services at scale, and to become more formalized. A major study on RLOs in East Africa found that RLOs will stagnate in an informal, “self-help” stage unless they are able to access funding from humanitarian donors or diaspora support.


Click here to read the full brief.


USCRI, founded in 1911, is a non-governmental, not-for-profit international organization committed to working on behalf of refugees and immigrants and their transition to a dignified life.

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