​On Leading and Saving: Refugee-run micro-finance in Kampala / Blog / The Oxford Character Project

Evan Easton-Calabria is a DPhil student in International Development focusing on refugee self-reliance. She has been working with urban refugees in Uganda over the last five years as the co-founder of a grassroots non-profit organisation.

When we think of leaders, we often envision heads of states or CEOs. Rarely do we think of refugees. While undertaking research in Kampala, Uganda, however, I recently had the opportunity to meet many refugee leaders and reflect on both the common and particular challenges of leadership in the context of displacement. This research project, funded by the Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF) and undertaken with Robert Hakiza, a Congolese refugee living in Uganda and himself the leader of an organisation in Kampala, focuses primarily on understanding urban refugees’ finance mechanisms. It was only when we began to interview the leaders of refugee-run savings and micro-loans groups that I also realised how integral leadership was to our findings.

Refugees face an abiding exclusion to financial services, meaning that they are often unable to obtain start-up capital for small businesses. Particularly in urban areas, where refugees are not provided food or shelter from humanitarian agencies, this poses a huge barrier for refugees to become self-reliant. Today there is a significant amount of research exploring the best practices of providing micro-finance loans to refugees, yet there is a notable gap in research on micro-savings and micro-finance groups formed and led by refugees themselves (‘refugee-run’). This lack of knowledge extends beyond a gap in refugees’ micro-finance mechanisms — it bypasses an important area of study regarding refugee self-reliance and leadership. In dozens of sites around Kampala, refugees meet weekly in grassroots savings and loan groups to place small amounts of money (averaging from 50 pence to 5 pounds) into group savings and take out and repay micro-loans. These groups provide individual members with an opportunity for a lump sum of capital that many could not otherwise accrue, and are generally used to boost small businesses. In short, the financial support refugees offer to each other is a significant and under-researched site of initiative and innovation, and one often started by a single person who witnessed a need.

The leadership required for these groups to start and run is enormous. As the founder of one refugee-run savings group explained,

‘It was a personal idea. I saw a lot of people suffering, moving from place to place [from organisation to organisation] looking for support and not getting help. I was affected…While I was at a HIAS [a NGO] counselling group I heard that FRC [Finnish Refugee Council, a NGO] offered savings training. I asked to start a training group and then went back to HIAS to ask if those who had finished the counselling wanted to join the group. We also wanted more members who weren’t part of the group. It took six months to get people together. Then FRC trained us and we asked for a space at HIAS to meet every week. They accepted and we started.’[1]

This story of initiative and perseverance is similar to many told by other founders of refugee-run savings and loan groups in Kampala. These groups and their leaders are important reminders that leadership does not need podiums, or big offices, or even much in the way of resources at all. To think otherwise is to give in to what one of our GLI readings called ‘the reductive seduction of other people’s problems’, in which people in the Global South are commonly perceived as needing ‘saving’.[2] To that I respond that the refugee leaders and members of the micro-finance groups I interviewed in Kampala are already saving, and it is in their own interest (10%, generally) that we recognise all they have already achieved.

[1] Interview, Bolingo Savings Group, 3/18/2016

[2] Martin, C. (2016) The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems. The Development Set, January 11. https://medium.com/the-development-set/the-reductive-seduction-of-other-people-s-problems-3c07b307732d#.3aky5ip5q

Originally published at https://oxfordcharacter.org.

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