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Chapter 4.5 Sectoral responses



Cities are home to a wide range of income-earning opportunities, both formal and informal. Re-establishing livelihoods after a disaster as quickly as possible, and supporting livelihood opportunities for refugees and IDPs, are vital activities.

Livelihoods links with other sections in this Good Practice Review, in particular cash and markets (Section 3.3) and assessments (Section 3.6). It also links to protection, where some livelihood activities may be risky to those engaging in them, or where people may be unable to undertake livelihood activities due to age or infirmity (see Section 1.4 on vulnerability).

This section defines livelihoods.+Livelihoods here refers to income-earning opportunities, rather than ‘sustainable livelihoods’ as used within developmental thinking. It discusses livelihoods programming after rapid-onset disasters. For refugee settings it identifies challenges to and opportunities for effective programming. The section ends with points for engaging refugees in livelihoods opportunities.

4.5.1 Defining livelihoods

Livelihoods projects in emergency contexts ‘aim to preserve and restore the income-earning opportunities of affected communities while stimulating economic recovery’.+CRS, Guidance on Livelihoods Programming in Emergency Response and Recovery Contexts (Baltimore, MD: Catholic Relief Services, 2018), p. 1. Livelihoods programming can account for a large portion of post-disaster recovery expenditure.+For example, expenditure on livelihoods programmes from the Disasters Emergency Committee among its 13 operational NGO members in the 2015 Haiti earthquakes accounted for 31% of total expenditure for recovery funding, second only to shelter. In urban areas, and in particular in relation to refugees and their access to jobs, this definition can be expanded to include the need to influence the policy environment in which livelihoods can be secured (this is discussed further below).

Following rapid-onset disasters, livelihood programmes can aid recovery and help improve opportunities for poorer and more vulnerable people, for instance through providing certified skills training (see the case study in Box 4.14). For protracted displacement situations, livelihoods programming is vital. Refugees and IDPs with little if any savings or remittances or insufficient access to employment are particularly vulnerable, and risk falling into deeper debt. A study of Syrian refugees living in Lebanon+UNCHR, UNICEF and WFP, Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon – 2015 Report, cited in IRC, Finding Economic Opportunity in the City: Lessons from IRC’s Cash and Livelihoods Programmes in Cities within Lebanon and Jordan (New York: IRC, 2016) (, p. 12. found that almost 90% of households surveyed were in debt in 2015, compared to 81% in 2014. Building livelihoods therefore presents opportunities to reduce dependency, and to tap into the varied resources and opportunities available within cities.

Box 4.14 Post-disaster recovery skills training programmes

NGOs and others have implemented training programmes in a number of post- disaster recovery operations. Following Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013, UNDP supported training in masonry, plumbing and carpentry as part of an accredited programme, Skills Training for Early Recovery and Reconstruction (STERR). In the 2005 earthquake response in Pakistan, Church World Service Pakistan/Afghanistan supported a programme of training for men in carpentry, plumbing, electrics, masonry and welding. At the end of the 40-day programme, trainees sat an exam. Those who passed were recognised as suitably qualified and were subsequently hired by local employers. An independent review of the programme found that ‘The trainings helped in enhancing the income of graduates substantially and have been instrumental in establishing a sustainable source of livelihood for the beneficiaries. Most importantly, the training programmes instil skills that will remain with the trainees for life’.

Sources: D. Sanderson and Z. Delica Willison, Philippines Typhoon Haiyan Response Review, 2014 (, p. 4; and A. Hasan et al., ASPK-61 Appeal Earthquake Recovery and Rehabilitation – Pakistan. Evaluation (Geneva: ACT Alliance, 2009), p. 55.

4.5.2 Livelihoods in post-disaster settings

One of the IASC’s strategic objectives in urban post-disaster recovery is: ‘Restore Livelihoods and Economic Opportunities as a Priority, starting in the Emergency Phase for Expedited Early Recovery in Urban Areas’.+IASC, Final Strategy for Meeting Humanitarian Challenges in Urban Areas, 2010 (  According to the IASC, livelihood restoration in response strategies can be strengthened by:

  • Linking livelihoods to shelter reconstruction, including training people in relevant skills (see Box 4.14).
  • Engaging with supply chains, distribution systems and markets (see Section 3.3 on cash and markets).
  • Providing support to local suppliers and contractors.
  • Enacting protection approaches that tackle extortion and other corrupt practices.
  • Engaging younger people in particular (see the case study example from Ethiopia in Box 4.16).

Key considerations in programming for livelihoods recovery include:+This discussion is based on the British Red Cross’s experiences in urban livelihood recovery in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

  • First, distinguish between basic needs and livelihoods promotion – after immediate relief needs, more detailed assessments may be required to understand and support different livelihood options, the market, skills, etc. Adequate assessments are critical to avoid people being forced into livelihoods they may have little interest in, and also address gendered views of livelihoods (for instance that women should learn basket-weaving).
  • Second, be timely in implementing programmes – given the fast-changing nature of urban environments, the time between assessment and implementation needs to be short.
  • Third, strong partnerships with city authorities can help ensure that activities become established and are in line with existing policies and laws.
  • Finally, link relief and recovery actions with longer-term development programmes, where they exist.

4.5.3 Refugee livelihoods

The key finding of a wide-ranging study of urban refugees across eight countries is that ‘A common thread weaves the argument that urban refugees could be highly beneficial to cities if they were allowed to pursue productive lives absent of legal restrictions, harassment and insecurity’.+K. Jacobsen, ‘Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Urban Areas: A Livelihoods Perspective’, Journal of Refugee Studies 19(3), 2006, p. 1. It is unsurprising that, globally, the majority of refugees choose to live in cities. This is in no small part due to the livelihood opportunities they offer. Research by UNHCR in a number of countries+UNHCR, Designing Appropriate Interventions in Urban Settings: Health, Education, Livelihoods, and Registration for Urban Refugees and Returnees (Geneva: UNHCR, 2009). Note this research took place before the Syrian crisis.  concluded that most refugees of working age are either employed or self-employed, in both the formal and informal economy. That said, livelihood opportunities for urban refugees face a number of challenges, including:

Prevention of the right to work. Many refugees are refused the right to work in their host countries, closing off opportunities to engage in society, pay taxes and enjoy various forms of insurance. Skilled and experienced people who find themselves as refugees are prevented from formally applying for positions that match their vocation or expertise.

Precarious existence in the informal economy. Many refugees have no other option but to work in the informal sector. This in many ways is a benefit (at least as against having no work at all) and has been the mainstay of millions of urban dwellers for decades. However, the informal economy does not bring the benefits usually associated with formal employment, such as social security, health and safety and fair employment practices.

Refugees may have little or no documentation to prove they are qualified in a certain profession. They may also lack the funds to begin an enterprise or establish a livelihoods activity. They almost certainly lack (in the initial stages at least) the social capital to link with existing employment activities. Refugees may also be from a rural background, and may have to re-train to be relevant to the urban labour market.

Exploitation risks. Refugees working in the informal sector may be exploited, for instance being paid less than locals. In Lebanon, this has increased tensions between displaced   and host communities living in often impoverished urban areas. Here, host communities perceive the lower salaries as an unfair form of competition. Some refugees may also have no choice other than to work in illegal or risky areas, such as commercial sex or child labour.

For further examples of livelihoods and refugees, drawing on case studies from Khartoum, Nairobi, Yei, Juba, Kabul and Nairobi, see S. Haysom, Sanctuary in the City? Urban Displacement and Vulnerability, HPG Report (London: ODI, 2013) (

4.5.4 Opportunities for urban refugee livelihood programming

Interventions related to urban refugee livelihoods include:+This section draws in particular on UNHCR, Designing Appropriate Interventions in Urban Settings; IRC, Finding Economic Opportunity in the City.

  • Offer legal services – this is a critical area of work, providing assistance for example in preventing unfair evictions (see Section 4.1 on HLP rights).
  • Provide information on work permits and business registration. This links to employment support and career guidance (see the examples in Boxes 4.15 and 4.16 from Lebanon and Ethiopia).
  • Link refugees to vocational training schemes – preferably certified.
  • Make links with existing employers (where formal refugee employment is permitted) and support job applications, such as help with formulating CVs.
  • Provide help in accessing financial services. This may include raising awareness of loans offered at unaffordable interest rates, to help refugees avoid falling into unsustainable debt.
  • Offer financial assistance, such as seed funding to set up income-generating enterprises.
  • Make links with educational establishments and promote relevant courses.


Box 4.15 Economic recovery and development in Lebanon

IRC’s Livelihoods Centres in Akkar and Mount Lebanon are open to both Syrians and Lebanese who need assistance in legal matters and finding employment. Assistance is provided in developing business plans and securing small start-up grants. At the centres, ‘job-seekers are able to take advantage of intensive counselling services, with some also receiving training in marketable skills and – within the constraints of the Lebanese labour regulations – opportunities for on-the-job learning/ apprenticeships and short-term cash-for-work projects’.

Source: IRC, Finding Economic Opportunity in the City: Lessons from IRC’s Cash and Livelihoods Programmes in Cities within Lebanon and Jordan (New York: IRC, 2016) (


Box 4.16 Livelihood programming in Ethiopia

A livelihood programme for younger refugees and host populations in Dollo Ado and Shire in Ethiopia comprises basic literacy and numeracy skills and practical vocational training. The programme, implemented by NRC, undertakes market assessments to gauge the relevance of skills training. People on the scheme have been trained in a variety of skills, including plumbing, electronics and hotel management. An evaluation of the programme found that ‘refugees and host community members work together to maximise their income generating potential. For example, host community beneficiaries (who know the refugees from vocational training programmes) work with their refugee peers to help them purchase or sell goods on the market as well as to procure local host communities contracts’.

Source: Samuel Hall, Thinking Forward about Livelihoods for Refugees in Ethiopia – Learning from NRC’s programming 2013–2016, 2016 (

4.5.5 Engaging refugees in livelihoods opportunities

UNHCR observes that, ‘In urban settings, successful livelihood interventions result from a good understanding of the context, of the attitudes of potential beneficiaries and the capacity to identify existing services which can support refugees in the employment ambitions’.+UNHCR, ‘Livelihoods and Self Reliance in Urban Areas’ ( Strategic interventions for engaging refugees in improved livelihoods opportunities include:

  • Advocating for host governments to meet their international obligations to allow refugees to work, which should ‘foster an enabling environment for the economic empowerment and self-reliance of displaced populations’.+UNHCR, Designing Appropriate Interventions in Urban Settings.
  • Recognising and capitalising on livelihoods efforts that build social cohesion. According to IRC, ‘Anecdotal evidence indicates that livelihoods programmes can enhance social cohesion between displaced and host communities to some degree. This goal should be considered a critical component of urban humanitarian response’.+IRC, Finding Economic Opportunity in the City, p. 22.
  • A recognition of the need for long-term engagement by donors, agencies and others to provide support in establishing urban refugees in their chosen locations.
  • In programme design, build in a diversity of approaches, such as combining livelihoods programming with cash transfers. Build relationships with all actors. IRC’s research on the livelihoods of refugees in Lebanon and Jordan+Ibid. found that effective collaboration with government (at different levels), the private sector, service providers and community-based organisations improved programme efficiency and effectiveness and helped make programmes more locally relevant.

Further guidance and ideas can be found in Feinstein International Center, Refugee Livelihoods in Urban Areas: Identifying Program Opportunities, 2012 (

An inventory of toolkits and guidance notes can be found at ‘Livelihoods’ and ‘Emergency Livelihoods’, Humanitarian Response, 2018 (; and

The Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium (SLRC) ‘aims to strengthen the evidence base and inform policy and practice around livelihoods, basic services and social protection in conflict-affected situations’. See

See also:

Food Security and Livelihoods in Urban Settings Working Group, Food Security Cluster, 2018 (

What is a Livelihood?, IFRC, 2018 (

Guidelines for Integrating Gender-based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Action: Livelihoods, IASC, 2015 (