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International Partnerships

Better employment, income and savings for beneficiaries of livelihoods programmes

Refugees are no different from others in that employment is crucial to their livelihoods, personal empowerment and integration into society. The lack of decent employment for refugees is not only a missed opportunity to contribute to host communities; it also increases the risk of poverty and permanent dependence on humanitarian assistance.

Enabling refugees’ participation in the labour market is a necessary step to support refugees through the challenges of being forcibly displaced. It makes them more resilient and at the same time, eases the burden on host communities. However, many refugees face legal barriers in accessing the labour market. 70% of refugees live in countries with restricted right to work, with a majority excluded from participating in the formal economy and its related protections (UNHCR Global Livelihoods Survey, 2019).

Even where refugees have the right to work, they frequently face additional barriers to employment. Further, the majority of working refugees are employed in the informal sector, making them the most likely to be immediately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Somali refugee farmer from Kenya in Dadaab camp with his harvest

A Somali refugee farmer from Kenya’s Dadaab camp proudly shows off his okra harvest. He keeps some produce to feed his family and sells the surplus to markets in the camps around Dadaab.

In the limited instances where comparable socioeconomic data exists for refugees and hosts, they show that refugees have much lower labour force participation rates than nationals. This refers to the share of individuals from the working age population who are either employed or jobseekers. Examples include:

  • In Uganda, whose legal and policy framework regarding refugees is one of the most progressive in the world, labour force participation rates among refugees is 27 percentage points lower than the rate for Ugandan nationals (69% for nationals versus 42% for refugees), according to the World Bank.
  • In Kenya, refugees residing in Kalobeyei have much lower labour force participation rates than Kenyan nationals on average: 41% for refugees versus 80% for Kenyans, as reported by a UNHCR and World Bank survey completed in collaboration with the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS). And in Kakuma, a forthcoming report by UNHCR and the World Bank in collaboration with the KNBS finds that refugees have a significantly lower labour force participation rate, with only 20% of working age refugees employed versus 72% for nationals.

Against this backdrop, UNHCR and its partners’ efforts to increase employment, income and savings is critical to improving refugees’ welfare and equity in the societies they live and reduce poverty.

Global monitoring of UNHCR livelihoods programmes

Monitoring of UNHCR-funded livelihoods programmes involves building on existing data collection efforts by gathering information through an annual participatory needs assessment, and collecting household level data for beneficiaries before and after the programme. The annual assessment is a structured dialogue between refugees (including asylum seekers) and UNHCR staff. There are separate discussions for women, girls, boys and men to understand the risks to their basic human rights and physical safety, the underlying causes, and their capacities as well as their proposed solutions.

Results from UNHCR’s 2019 global monitoring of programmes show that refugees cite the lack of employment opportunities, followed by difficulty in accessing financial services, as the biggest obstacles to earning a living. As a result of these obstacles, refugees report resorting to negative coping strategies due to lack of money, including selling food rations or limiting their children’s school attendance, in order to help supplement the family income.

The annual monitoring also surveys refugees about the livelihoods support they had received in the past year from UNHCR and its partners both before and after the interventions. The results of the survey are published on the Livelihoods Information System (LIS), an initiative funded by the European Union. The monitoring cycle usually ends in June of the following year; but due to COVID-19 and restrictions collecting in-person data for the endline survey, the monitoring for 2019 programmes will close in September 2020.

Here are some main impact results based on the feedback collected from 178 camps across 21 countries*, representing a third of country operations that have budgeted for livelihoods programmes. UNHCR expects to have half of all countries by the close of the 2019 monitoring cycle in September 2020.

With the COVID-19 pandemic all but certain to adversely impact refugees’ livelihoods, these survey results are even more important to inform ongoing support.

Better legal access to land, employment and financial services

Having the legal right to work, access to land, and to financial services are essential for refugees’ ability to pursue economic opportunities. In this regard, not all programme beneficiaries enjoy the same rights, though the majority report having some or full access.

Among the surveyed beneficiaries, 77% reported either full or some legal access to land. About 85% of refugees said they enjoy either full or partial legal access to employment, while 91% reported full or partial access to financial services. (Note: these access rates reflect the feedback collected from programme beneficiaries in 21 countries. They are therefore different from the rates reported in the global survey of 111 countries representing 97% of the global refugee population.)

Legal rights of 2019 beneficiaries of UNHCR-funded livelihoods programmes

Figure 1 - Legal rights of 2019 beneficiaries of UNHCR-funded livelihoods programmes

Overall, impact on employment was positive in 2019

Among refugees who benefitted from UNHCR livelihoods programmes, their overall employment rate increased by 10% points. Many livelihoods programmes target economically able participants and as such, during the baseline survey done prior to the intervention, 62% of beneficiaries report being employed. The employment rate improved to 72% at the endline survey done after the intervention.

By gender, both sexes saw positive gains in employment rates, through females registered a slightly bigger rise of 11% points to reach 71%. The rate among males rose by 9 percentage points to reach 74%.

Aggregate impact of UNHCR-funded livelihoods programmes on beneficiaries’ employment, income and savings in 2019

Figure 2: Aggregate impact of UNHCR-funded livelihoods programmes on beneficiaries’ employment, income and savings in 2019 (UNHCR, 2020)

The majority of programme beneficiaries also reported higher incomes after the livelihoods interventions (44%). Encouragingly, 42% of programme participants reported increased savings, potentially an indicator of improved resilience to future income shocks.

Many UNHCR-funded livelihoods programmes target both refugees and host communities as refugees are generally hosted in under-developed areas of a country and livelihoods programmes are frequently also needed by nationals. Comparing results for refugees and host communities, both groups experienced improvements in their employment rates. The employment among refugees grew by 11 percentage points to reach 75%, while the rate for host communities improved by 14 percentage points to reach 80%.

Employment rate of 2019 beneficiaries (refugees and host communities) of UNHCR-funded livelihoods programmes

Figure 3: Employment rate of 2019 beneficiaries (refugees and host communities) of UNHCR-funded livelihoods programmes

What sectors are refugees employed in and how sustainable are their incomes?

Among the livelihoods programme participants who are employed, almost all were self-employed (98%), with less working in agriculture (44%) than the non-agriculture (54%) sector.

Most programme beneficiaries working in agriculture reported typically being engaged in a temporary contract of one month or less (46%), though permanent employment, classified as a contract with duration of more than 12 months, was a close second (40%). In contrast, the majority of non-agriculture employment (48%) is on a permanent basis, and 27% cite employment durations generally shorter than 6 months.

Global average type of employment and contract for 2019 beneficiaries of UNHCR-funded livelihoods programmes

Figure 4: Global average type of employment and contract for 2019 beneficiaries of UNHCR-funded livelihoods programmes

Big gains in access to market and financial services

While 79% of programme beneficiaries reported access to markets before participating in programmes targeting improved market access, this indicator moved closer toward universal access, with 94% of refugees reporting access at the endline. Access to savings services also improved, rising by 21 percentage points with 77% of beneficiaries reporting access at the endline. Finally, access to loan services more than doubled, with 56% of beneficiaries reporting access at the endline, compared with 56% before the interventions.

Access to savings services, loan services, and markets by 2019 beneficiaries of UNHCR-funded livelihoods programmes

Figure 5: Access to savings services, loan services, and markets by 2019 beneficiaries of UNHCR-funded livelihoods programmes

Using monitored results to inform programmes

Promoting livelihoods programmes which deliver impact is essential to increase effectiveness and maximize results for scarce humanitarian assistance.

Based on these impact results that are generated using the Livelihoods Information System (LIS), UNHCR produces detailed Country Analysis Notes that provide background to the livelihoods-related issues facing refugees in the country and present specific programme impact results for the country.

These country notes, closely studied by UNHCR country operations and partners, provide the evidence needed to adapt current interventions and inform the design of future ones. These notes are available for download alongside the data dashboard showing results on the LIS.

Congolese refugee in Mozambique finds hope and a livelihood makig dolls

*The monitored countries are: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Ghana, Jordan, Kenya, Malawi, Mauritania, Mozambique, Namibia, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tunisia, Ukraine, United Republic of Tanzania, Zimbabwe.

About the authors

Theresa Beltramo is a Senior Economist and the Head of Research and Analytics at the UNHCR. She is currently also an academic fellow at the University of Geneva and has ongoing research projects open in four countries in Africa related to optimal targeting of assistance, impact evaluations of programs, innovative ways to measure multidimensional poverty in forcibly displaced settings, and among individual household members.

Keita Ishitani is a Business Analyst in Research and Analytics at the UNHCR. He has 10 years of field experience at UNHCR in Chad and Sudan in overseeing livelihoods programmes. Keita supports the technical development and maintenance of mobile data collection tools and data management system for monitoring of livelihoods and energy programmes and socioeconomic assessments.


Theresa Beltramo and Keita Ishitani