Our initial pilot research (2013-15) focused on Uganda, which represents a relatively unique refugee hosting environment. Unlike many of its neighbours, it allows refugees to work and provides significant freedom of movement. It has done this since independence but formalised the approach in its Self-Reliance Strategy from the late 1990s.

  • Kagoma weekly market

    Kagoma weekly market

    N. Omata

Our Pilot Study

What does this mean for refugees and the host community? Following a period of qualitative research, working closely with refugee community leaders, we undertook a survey of over 2000 refugees across the four sites. The research pioneered our participatory approach based on training refugees as peer researchers and enumerators.

The research was undertaken across four sites: Kampala (the urban context), Nakivale settlement (a protracted refugee camp), Kyangwali (a protracted refugee camp), and Rwamwanja (an emergency refugee camp). Across all four sites, we built deep relationships of trust with the refugee communities, initially through community leaders in the Somali, Congolese, Rwanda, and South Sudanese communities.

Central to our research, we built and developed an in-country research team. This comprised three Ugandan research coordinators and 42 refugee researchers, to whom we provided employment and research methods training, including many as peer researchers. We developed strong in-country collaborations with UNHCR, the Government of Uganda, and Makerere University.


In July 2014, we published our initial findings in a report, Refugee Economies: Rethinking Popular Assumptions was launched on World Refugee Day. The report drew upon our qualitative and quantitative data to challenge five common myths about refugees that they are:

  1. Economically isolated;
  2. Inevitably a burden;
  3. Economically homogenous;
  4. Technologically illiterate;
  5. Dependent on assistance.

Uganda is unusual in allowing refugees basic socio-economic freedoms, such as the right to work and freedom of movement. The study found that, as a result, vibrant economic communities were flourishing. Its findings fundamentally contradicted the five common assumptions:

  1. Even in the most desperate circumstances, refugees are part of the global economy, trading with different communities across national borders;
  2. When given the right to work, many refugees are entrepreneurial and create jobs in the host country;
  3. Refugees generate income in a wide variety of ways (the study in Uganda found over 200, including teaching and film-making);
  4. The vast majority of refugees use technology such as mobile phones, often as a core element of their income-generating activities;
  5. Only 1% of refugee households surveyed had no independent income-generating activity.

We then published the Uganda research within an academic monograph: Refugee Economies: Forced Displacement and Development (Oxford University Press, 2016).


This initial research brought the ‘Ugandan model’ significant international attention, and led to notable impact on policy and practice.

“The research conducted by Oxford the refugees’ economic activities has made a significant contribution to the development of the OPM and joint self-reliance programme in Uganda…The analysis and data provided by Oxford have become a significant underpinning of our policy making in the area of refugees’ self-reliance and have also enabled us to conduct evidence-based policy-making” – Douglas Asimwe, Permanent Secretary, the Office of the Prime Minister, the Government of Uganda.

“Oxford’s work has been path-breaking; and it has fundamentally altered the debate on the impact of refugees in countries of asylum, demonstrating the capacity of refugees for self-reliance and their ability to contribute to hosting societies”. -Alex Aleinikoff, Former Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR

“We had the chance to attend and participate and present in an international conference that brought together people from different parts of the world. This has helped me a lot, and especially the fact that I got to present, to increase even my confidence and also to realise that I was still valuable even if I was a refugee. So that was something valuable for me.” - Robert Hakiza, Congolese Refugee Researcher

The Refugee Economies Programme was awarded a University of Oxford Vice Chancellor’s Award for Public Engagement with Research in recognition of its approach to working directly with refugees.

The research was highlighted in well over 100 media interviews, reports, and articles, helping to provide a far stronger evidence-base for public debate on the issue. Although our data was collected in Uganda, the case study served to show what is possible if we do give refugees basic economic freedoms. The research has been directly referenced in the Guardian, the Economist, the Independent, on the BBC, CNN, and Al Jazeera, among others. Television interviews on BBC World News, BBC News Channel, CNN Amanpour, Al Jazeera English, Al Jazeera Arabic, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Central China Television, and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.  Radio coverage included BBC Radio 4 and an NPR documentary made based on the research in Uganda and played across 900 US-based radio stations. Print media coverage included the Guardian, the Economist, the Independent, Fast Company Magazine, and IRIN news.

Research presentations made at major public events, including at the World Bank, UNHCR’s annual NGO consultations, the US State Department, DFID, the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, the Danish Red Cross’ annual meeting, and at joint academic-policy meetings at Harvard University and Stanford University.

Our core team of refugee researchers included 17 refugees: Wardo Omar Abdullahi, Hussein Ahmed Abukar, David Bachy, William Bakunzi, Seinya Bekele, Caesar Bishovu, Osman Faiz, Sada Faiz, Kiflu Hussain, Angelique Kabami, Cosmos Lugala, Abdullahi Mahil, Bernadette Muhongaiyre, Robert Hakiza Ngirwa, Gemus Ngirabakunzi, Ntakamaze Nziyonvira, and Abdirahman Sheik Mahi Yusuf.

In addition we provided training as enumerators to a further 25 refugees: Emmanuel Baraka, Emmanuel Mbabzi, Clovis Bosco, Jean Claude, Mohamed Hasan, Patricia Kalambayi, Rosemary Kamariza, Alexis Kubana, Hellen Mabonga, Emmanuel Mfitundinda, Abdalla Muhamed, Aisha Muhamood Abdi, Eugenie Mukandayisenga, Damien Ndemezo, Christopher Okidi, Abdifatah Hassan Osman, Bosco Pagama, Christian Salumu, Richard Tombe, Richard Veve, Jimmy Wamimbi, Joseph Yuggu, and our survey site supervisors, Joan Aliobe and Henry Mugisha.


New research in 2018

In 2018 we embarked on a second wave of data collection in Kampala and Nakivale to explore the question: what difference does Uganda’s self-reliance model make?

Uganda’s refugee policies have been widely recognised as among the most progressive in the world. Its self-reliance model is distinguished by its regulatory framework (it allows refugees the right to work and freedom of movement), its assistance model, and its model of refugee–host interaction.

Assessing the impact of the self-reliance model is methodologically challenging. It relies upon being able to compare outcomes for refugees and hosts within the model with refugees and hosts outside the model. In order to do that, we compare welfare outcomes for refugees and host communities in Uganda with those in neighbouring Kenya. We choose this comparison because the countries have contrasting legal and policy frameworks relating to refugees, and yet both are in the same region and host refugee populations from the same countries. The comparison can also help answer questions of broader interest like ‘what difference does the right to work actually make?’

Drawing upon quantitative and qualitative research, including a survey of over 8,000 refugees and host community members in urban (Kampala and Nairobi) and camp (Kakuma and Nakivale) contexts, we provide a nuanced account of the impact that different aspects of the Ugandan model have on particular groups in relation to particular welfare outcomes. We focus on outcomes for Congolese and Somali refugees. The data is representative of our focus populations and selected sites but not for all refugees or host communities in Uganda and Kenya.

Overall, the research offers a strong endorsement of the value of allowing refugees the right to work and freedom of movement, but calls for a more nuanced view of the strengths and weaknesses of refugee assistance in Uganda.

We outline a series of recommendations for refugee policy in Uganda and globally that can be found in our report Refugee Economies in Uganda: What Difference Does the Self-Reliance Model Make? and in reduced form in Research in Brief: Uganda’s Self-Reliance Model: Does it Work?.