Refugee Livelihoods

Reimagining refugee camps: what we’ve learned over 8 years in Dollo Ado

© UNHCR/Diana Diaz

There is a flurry of activity at one of the refugee camps in Dollo Ado, Ethiopia: livestock traders negotiate the sales of goats; farmers grow onions, maize, tomatoes and watermelons; women butcher meat; and team members in uniform play a lively football match. Nearby, students sit in front of stacks of books, focused on biology. There are banks, a petrol station and many cooperatives offering their members professional training, public services and a confidence boost. And it may not be evident, but refugees and locals work, play and study side by side, forming a cohesive community.

This vibrant and bustling scene is a far cry from the barren desert that was here just a decade ago, thanks to the joint efforts between the IKEA Foundation and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

Together, we embarked on a new approach to helping refugees and their host community build better futures, for themselves and their families.

Beyond the traditional model

Between 2009 and 2011, hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees were forced to cross into the Somali region of Ethiopia to escape conflict and drought. Since then, we’ve invested nearly US $100 million in the five refugee camps in this remote region.

Through our partnership with UNHCR, we began by supporting the work around emergency relief and infrastructure. But soon, our focus shifted. We concentrated less on refugees’ vulnerabilities and more on their capabilities.

We did this because these families were at risk of falling into the same scenario so many other displaced people face: getting stuck in a camp with no freedom of movement or chance to work. Instead, we wanted to move beyond the traditional refugee camp model. We wanted everyone in Dollo Ado—both refugees and local community members—to have access to jobs, education and the opportunity to live with dignity.

Unprecedented work

Eight years later, we looking back on this programme with the help of the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University. Supported by the IKEA Foundation, the RSC conducted a retrospective evaluation of the Dollo Ado programme’s impact. They published a report and two policy briefs in 2020, along with a short documentary.

“The IKEA Foundation’s work in Dollo Ado is unprecedented,” says Alexander Betts, Oxford professor of forced migration and international affairs, who led the evaluation. “It is an attempt to apply private sector investment to engage in the market-based development of a refugee-hosting region. Its livelihoods programmes have measurably led to increasing incomes and living standards for thousands of refugees and host community members.”And yet, “there is still a long way to go,” adds Betts, noting that average incomes remain very low in Dollo Ado and few refugees have an income-generating activity.

We acknowledge that there is still much work to be done in Dollo Ado and around the world. This project provides “a model that we hope can be replicated elsewhere, as investing in refugee livelihoods boosts local markets and the economy,” our CEO Per Heggenes wrote in 2019. “Investing in host community livelihoods helps them hone skills for future generations, prevents conflicts caused by unemployment and inequality, and nurtures peaceful communities.”

What we learned

The RSC evaluation has given us the knowledge to better inform future work in Dollo Ado itself, across the region and globally. It also offers valuable insight into creating sustainable economies in remote refugee-hosting regions worldwide.

The IKEA Foundation has learned five major lessons from this evaluation, which we can use when creating future programmes to help displaced people rebuild their lives. Interested in what those lessons are? Click here to see what we have learned and do some interactive learning yourself.

Learn more about this programme