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Session 8. Meaningful Participation of Refugees

A Definition * B Background * C Tools & Exercises * D Stakeholder Exercises

The following three sessions are very closely linked.  We have grouped them into a training module which we call The Three P’s –  Participation, Partnership and Privilege. They draw on the findings from the previous sessions to examine what model of meaningful participation is most likely to succeed in a particular site.

Aim of the Session

The aim of this session is to assist stakeholders to undertake a thorough situational analysis which will help determine which model of participation is most likely to succeed in any given site, and to identify steps to be taken to address barriers to this.

Suggested Timing for the Session

This session involves bringing together information and evidence from previous sessions.  Using the tool will take 2 – 3 hours.

A. Meaningful Participation –  A Useful Definition

When refugees – regardless of location, legal recognition, gender, identity and demographics – are prepared for and participating in fora and processes where strategies are being developed and/or decisions are being made (including at local, national, regional, and global levels, and especially when they facilitate interactions with host states, donors, or other influential bodies), in a manner that is ethical, sustained, safe, and supported financially.

Global Refugee-led Network: https://www.asylumaccess.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Meaningful-Refugee-Participation-Guidelines_Web.pdf (page 7)

Participation means the involvement of intended beneficiaries[1] in the planning, design, implementation and subsequent maintenance of the development intervention. It means that people are mobilized, manage resources and make decisions that affect their lives.

Price and Mylius 1991:6

[1] While we no longer use the top-down language of beneficiaries this classic definition still resonates with our approach and understandings of participation

B. Background reading for challenges for meaningful participation and potential solutions in implementing these

The Conundrum of Meaningful Participation

One size does not fit all! But the principles do apply.

Cross-cutting concepts – the intersection of meaningful participation, partnership, social inclusion, a human rights approach and incorporating all levels of lived experience.

An important component to the implementation of the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) has been the process of refugees meaningfully participating in decision making about their futures. Refugee groups are now demanding to be heard and involved. “Nothing about us, without us” is the slogan of the Global Refugee Led Network (GRN) who have been working on developing approaches to support the meaningful participation of refugees at all levels[1]. They have progressively been supported in this demand by some NGOs, INGOs, donors and UN bodies, in particular UNHCR. It is included as a key principle in the GCR and the AGD Policy and Framework. However, there is not a clear definition of what meaningful participation means in a refugee context, nor how it can be achieved. Several times while working in Geneva, members of government delegations commented that while they agree in principle on many of the commitments outlined in the GCR, such as participation, age, gender and diversity and refugee led, they were not sure how to achieve this either as host or donor governments. The phrase “one size does not fit all” became a catch phrase, and one we adopted as a key challenge to be addressed in our project.  We worked on the hypothesis that it should be possible to fulfill key principles using different approaches, which were suitable to local circumstances. This is the approach we took with regard to analysing the potential applications of the term of ‘meaningful participation’ in the context of work with refugee women.  So far we have identified at least three models, particularly in the context of refugee led work.  They are:

  1. Fully refugee led, which means that refugee groups are able to receive and manage their own funding.
  2. A collaborative model, where RLOs work in partnership with trained supportive local service providers, including UNHCR, but design and deliver the services themselves.
  3. Refugee Informed, where RLOs are consulted about the services to be provided and are involved in service delivery as far as the local conditions allow.

One of the key learnings from the project  is that it is important to determine which model is feasible in any given site before developing a project.  This will guard against disappointment, and sadly, even “refugee blaming” if the programs are not successful.  It will also highlight areas which need to be addressed through advocacy and activities, to provide the  maximum opportunities for RLO’s and WRLO’s to develop and succeed in different contexts.

For more detail see Three Different Countries, Three Models of ‘Participation’.

A Flexible Model

Building on a substantial volume of work on participation in community management and development studies, we have developed a flexible model for use when designing models of meaningful participation and analysis of local contexts. The major difference between notions of participation used in development studies and projects and in a refugee situation, is that participation in development is predicated on the concept of citizenship and rights, such as the right to work, which the majority of refugees do not have.

Acknowledging this caveat as well as the different forms and levels of partnership (Arnstein 1969;Cornwall 2008), definitions we have drawn of so far include that ‘participation’ is a process during which individuals, groups and organizations are consulted about  and may have the opportunity to become actively involved in a project or program of activity. This if often described as ‘participation as consultation’. Moving beyond consultation is the notion of ‘participation as partnership’.  This describes an approach in which communities take a lead role identifying problems and proposing possible projects and programs but work in partnership with service providers to develop and implement these. The highest level of participation, is ‘participation as self-mobilisation and ownership’. In this approach communities initiate, implement and own the whole process (Kenny and Connors 2017:193).

Building on Sherry Arnsteins’ Ladder of Participation (1969) Partnerships Online suggests the following five levels of participation:

  • Provision of information about a proposed project or solution.
  • Consultation whereby a number of options are provided for feedback but the decision making is not in the hands of the refugees.
  • Service providers and refugees deciding together about outcomes.
  • Acting together to implement the projects or solutions.
  • Supporting independent community initiatives.

(We also include participation of refugees in advocacy, at a local and international level).

For the purpose of this project, these definitions are used to describe the different approaches that have been supported in the different contexts in which we have worked. Most importantly we acknowledge that rather than fitting neatly into one of these levels of participation the models actually implemented often have some elements of all levels. Thus rather than being a clear hierarchy that can be used to assess the levels of participation it provides a useful framework to explore the different dimensions of what participation might entail in diverse contexts.

Social inclusion refers to the active and meaningful participation of refugees in the social, economic, cultural, and political aspects of the host society. It takes a human rights approach, treating refugees with respect, fostering a sense of belonging and empowering them to contribute positively to society at a local national and international level, through their inclusion and advocacy Kenny and Connors, 2017: 30). Jennifer Hyndman refers to social inclusion as the process whereby immigrants or refugees become participants in particular sub-sectors of society: education, labour market, welfare system, political representation etc. The emphasis is on active and conscious processes: that is policies of public agencies or employers, as well as on the role of the newcomers themselves (Hyndman 2011, p. 36 Research Summary on Resettled Refugee Integration in Canada. Toronto: Centre for Refugee Studies, York University). Social inclusion allows people to fully participate in their community and fosters peaceful societies. UNHCR Social Inclusion of Refugees https://www.unhcr.org/sites/default/files/legacy-pdf/5fc126354.pdf

These goals are aspirational, and there a number of barriers to their implementation. These include the political context at a host country level; the capacity of humanitarian staff; resistance from some humanitarian agencies, staff and donors; and tokenism in the use of the approaches.

Key things which must be reflected in developing participatory approaches with refugee communities:

When designing models of participation, the following questions have to be considered.

  • International politics – how much support is there for the particular refugee crisis at the time?
  • Is the host government supportive or hostile?
  • Local politics – is the host community supportive or hostile?
  • Are authorities supportive or hostile?
  • What is the level of commitment to participation by the most powerful stakeholders?
  • Do the values, attitudes, capacity and resources of the local staff support participatory approaches?
  • What role does ideology and culture, of refugees, hosts and service providers play in particular in sensitive issues such as human rights, including gender equality, and SGBV?
  • Are international agencies willing to co-operate together and work with local NGOs and refugee led groups as equal partners or does funding competition get in the way?
  • What is the level of trust between refugee communities, UN agencies and other service providers?
  • Is there fear that refugee-led groups are ‘too political’ and/or failure to accept that they can be both political advocates and rights-based service providers?
  • What political constraints are faced by local academic partners?
  • Are donors willing to provide flexible funding?
  • … and more?

These are significant challenges and many are outside the control of any one body, or service provider. The major challenge is how to address these external issues, or at least get around some of them.

Potential responses to these challenges include:

  • More focused and context-sensitive training materials developed and delivered.
  • Collaborative work with partners and stakeholders already on side to publicise successful refugee-led projects, and build on the visible success of community led project during COVID-19.
  • Increased and targeted advocacy, especially by refugees e.g., at relevant UN meetings.
  • Production of workable and achievable policy and programming models.
  • Advocacy to, and education of donors – presenting successes and accessible tools.
  • Targeting governments with evidence of some of the benefits of refugee involvement and the contributions they can make in host communities.
  • Funding and support for ethical participatory academic research in partnership with host country academics.

It is exciting to see that many of these steps are being taken by refugee led organisations and other supportive key stakeholders around the world.  If you have a successful example in this area, please send it for posting on the Good Practice section of the website.

C. Tools and Exercises

Ci. Deciding on the Most Effective Local Model of Participation

 Issues to be addressedWhat can be done to address or accommodate these in the short term?What can be done to address or accommodate these in the long term?
What are the key structural issues which will impact on meaningful participation in this site?   
What are the gender-related social issues which will impact on meaningful participation in this site?   
What measures need to be taken to address SGBV in this site?   
How do we ensure that the lived experience of grass roots refugees, including women is taken into account?   
How can we include refugee men in this site?   

Once this information is collected, it will provide a basis for Strategic Planning- Session 12.

Cii. Refugee Participation Index – APNOR Tool

D. Exercise to be completed with community members and local stakeholders

If community members have been included in other sessions, then they should also complete the exercise, above.  If this is the first time you will be working with them, it is suggested that the exercises in Sessions 3 will provide excellent data to inform the decision making.


[1] https://www.unhcr.org/en-au/publications/brochures/61b28b734/meaningful-refugee-participation-transformative-leadership-guidelines-concrete.html