Planting the seedlings of change

By Jessie Thomson, CARE Canada's Vice President, Partnerships for Global Change

A refugee settlement in northern Zambia might not be where you would expect to find hope. And yet when I visited Mantapala – a settlement that is home to 15,000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo – I had more hope for a brighter future than I've had in a long while.

Having spent my career working with refugees and host communities, I have witnessed profound suffering. And these hardships do persist in the Mantapala Refugee Settlement. Children huddle in temporary shelters made of plastic sheeting, parents line up to receive monthly food rations, women report high levels of sexual and gender-based violence.

But looking carefully past the incomplete infrastructure and overburdened services that are typical to refugee camps, I saw hope stirred as community members working for NGOs, staff from UN partners, refugees and locals are coming together to forge plans for the future. Could last year’s adoption of the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) already be translating into meaningful change?

The GCR, as laid out by the United Nations, is an international agreement on a framework for more predictable and equitable responsibility-sharing. Its biggest idea is that a sustainable solution to refugee situations cannot be achieved without international cooperation.

As the number of refugees around the world in exile for 10 years or longer continues to grow, partners working together in Mantapala shifted from a focus on saving lives to a focus on helping refugees earn an income and provide for themselves in only 24 months.

This accomplishment reflects the Zambian government’s commitment to the GCR’s Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, which defines principles for upholding refugee rights and easing pressure on host countries.

This also means that those on the ground, including CARE Zambia, are bringing their rich development knowledge and expertise into the programs in Mantepala. From day one, those responsible for the camp’s operations have included both refugees and the host community in its planning. As a result, local authorities now welcome new refugees to their community and see new opportunities to bring much-needed development to this remote part of Zambia.

I saw hope again in how CARE is helping refugees in Mantapala to launch savings groups that have traditionally only been established in stable, long-term development programs. Group members lend money and save interest paid from fellow members to start a business selling tomatoes, onions and dried fish in the local market. And while the refugees have not been able to save as much as their peers in the host community due to limited opportunities to earn money in the settlement, they are nonetheless saving $2.15 CAD each a week.

These stories of hope will help us push for an even stronger international commitment to a new approach for supporting the 70 million people who have been forced to leave their homes around the world, and for supporting the millions more who have opened their doors out of compassion. The doors will only open wider when we experience the collective hope that is unleashed when every individual is afforded their human rights.

Jessie Thomson

If we can find ways to invest in more opportunities to earn money in the settlement, there will be more people with money to spend in the local market and these women may just be able to save more and invest more in their families and their future. That’s what a different approach to aid looks like and it certainly feels much more empowering and much more dignified than the warehousing of refugees in camps.

Organizations like CARE are also prioritizing sustainability. In Mantapala, wood is often cut to burn in the baking of sand bricks for construction, hurting both the environment and the ecosystem. CARE has been planting fruit trees to replace trees lost during the establishment of the camp and is working with refugee collectives who have been trained to make sun-dried bricks and are now earning an income selling bricks for construction activities in the camps.

As the trees will take time to bear fruit, so too will this shift in approach.

Humanitarian assistance will remain critical, but continuing to transition to longer-term, empowering approaches is our best chance to transform Mantapala from a refugee settlement into a village. For these transitions to take hold in the developing countries that host 85 per cent of the refugee population, global partners must work together to provide sustained and predictable economic support.

If development actors and donors commit to these investments, together pushing towards a longer-term development approach, the benefits may appear as quickly as they have in Mantapala. As refugees lay down new roots and are granted rights to work and access basic services, they can quickly become productive members of their new communities, shedding aid dependency and easing corrosive social responses such as xenophobia.

The first-ever Global Refugee Forum provides an opportunity for countries like Canada and Zambia to share their collective success. These stories of hope will help us push for an even stronger international commitment to a new approach for supporting the 70 million people who have been forced to leave their homes around the world, and for supporting the millions more who have opened their doors out of compassion. The doors will only open wider when we experience the collective hope that is unleashed when every individual is afforded their human rights.