The Dollo Ado refugee camps, located close to the Ethiopian-Somali border, have been a major focus for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR)'s attempts to build livelihoods for refugees and the host community. The context presents an analytical puzzle: despite the importance of cross-border activity to refugees’ socioeconomic lives, such transnational activity has been institutionally invisible to and hindered by the international agencies seeking to assist them. The article explores how and why refugees’ cross-border activities have been systematically ignored by international institutions. As a theoretical starting point, it draws upon the post-development literature, and notably the work of James Ferguson, which explores how international institutions frequently misunderstand the agency and strategies of their subject populations. However, contra Ferguson's predominantly Foucauldian methodological and epistemologically approach, the article adopts a mixed methods approach, and emphasises the agency of aid workers, bureaucratic politics, and political economy in its account of the disjuncture between international institutions’ state-centric livelihoods programmes and refugees’ own cross-border economic strategies.