Using the Graduation approach to uplift refugees in a changing world: An Interview with UNHCR’s Ziad Ayoubi

June 19, 2020

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Exploring how integrating the Graduation approach into social protection programmes can  improve and empower the lives of refugees and internally displaced people around the globe.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are currently over 79.5 million people around the world who have been forced to flee their homes. This includes 25.9 million refugees, with those under 18 years old making up half of this number. Not since the Second World War have so many people left their homes, and on this year’s World Refugee Day, the current pandemic crisis has exposed major issues within existing systems and development programming, and forced us to reconsider how to serve those most in need and often left behind.

BRAC Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative (UPGI) sat down with our partner Ziad Ayoubi, Head of Livelihoods and Economic Inclusion Unit at UNHCR HQ in Geneva, for this year’s World Refugee Day to discuss how development organisations should respond to the increasing rise in both the numbers of people forced to flee their homes and those living in extreme poverty.

The mission of BRAC to ensure services and programming reach the most marginalised intersects directly with that of the UNHCR’s, which is to protect and provide assistance to refugees and persons of concern, representing an even more specific portion of the extreme poor. The Graduation approach, an intervention now being used by the UNHCR and its partners, is comprehensive, multi-faceted programming designed to meet the complex and interconnected needs of hard-to-reach populations and instill in them the belief that with a little assistance they can pull themselves out of poverty.

Read more: Celebrating the stories of 2 million women

In addition to providing assets such as livestock, we coach programme participants on livelihood, financial, and life skills; train them to make assets productive; mentor to instill confidence and hope; teach about basic health care; and more. BRAC Ultra-Poor Graduation has implemented or provided technical assistance in 14 countries, reaching over 2 million households, and works with governments to bring this scalable solution to many millions more. The Graduation approach has been adapted to also meet the complex needs of both refugees and their host communities. From Ecuador to Pakistan, organisations and governments are implementing and integrating the Graduation approach to respond to the unique challenges faced by refugees living in extreme poverty around the world.


What is one thing you want everyone to remember this World Refugee Day?

Ziad Ayoubi: The current pandemic and lockdown have provided us with an “opportunity” to remember this crisis has changed the world in a way that has changed the very idea of borders and nationality. We are one world entity exposed to the virus; putting everyone and everything (economies, systems, etc) at risk.

Refugee inclusion is no longer an option, it is a must! We cannot be selective, we must have a global universal response, or else we will lose the battle.

We are slowly reestablishing the understanding that global issues cannot be tackled in a fragmented way, they must be handled in a universal manner.

How can development actors bring economic stability and social inclusion to refugee and internally displaced populations in precarious socio-economic and political contexts?

Some of the problems faced in this COVID-19 crisis within refugee populations are not so different from host community groups. As a result of the crisis, people working in the informal economies are suffering loss of income and jobs, and it is impressive how social protection schemes are stepping up (over 100) to engage livelihood loss and help exercise physical distancing without falling into extreme poverty. Refugees should not be outside of this circle of social protection. They should be included in all these schemes

Why is building self-reliance and sustainable livelihoods for refugees so important, particularly now with COVID resulting in major socioeconomic impacts?

Self-reliance and resilience for refugees means empowering people to meet their needs in a safe, sustainable and dignified manner.

It means also giving displaced people the chance to contribute to their host economies and prepare for their future whether they return home, integrate in their country of asylum or resettle in a third country. The lack of self-reliance makes people dependent on aid and puts them at risk of resorting to negative coping mechanisms. During lockdown measures imposed during the COVID-19, moving around to earn and put food to the table was considered by itself a negative coping mechanism from a public health perspective.

Ziad Ayoubi poses with a group of young Afghan refugees and Pakistani students in a Technical and Vocational Education Training centre in Peshawar Pakistan. (Photo credit: Ziad Ayoubi | UNHCR)

Why did UNHCR adopt BRAC’s Graduation approach?

By nature, the approach has impactful case management and mentorship components which is so important for the engagement of vulnerable and at risk populations. People living in poverty need that multidimensional support. The Graduation approach creates a pathway for sustainable livelihoods while also applying protection measures and hand-holding.

Read more: New opportunities in the face of new challenges in Cox’s Bazar 

How does UNHCR adapt the Graduation approach to meet the unique needs and challenges of people who are displaced?

In some countries where UNHCR piloted the Graduation approach for refugees like in Ecuador, a sub-component of legal assistance has been introduced to the programme. This was not initially done in early Graduation programming and we found it to be quite impactful and important to the specific goal of engaging refugee populations in a sustainable way.

What are the major barriers that stand in the way when adapting the Graduation approach to refugee contexts? Do you see them increasing or decreasing?

Graduation is an excellent methodology to build self-reliance and this is proven by research. However, it is naive to consider that using this methodology alone will lead to self-reliance for forcibly displaced people. There are some other crucial factors for building self-reliance. For example, 70% of refugees are living in locations where the basic right to work is not fully granted. Even when the legal right to work is granted, several barriers often affect the de facto access to work. The absence of very important enabling elements such as the freedom of movement, the right to housing, land, and property, the right to education, access to justice, and the right to financial services, training, and certification can effectively hinder the results of the Graduation approach.

What mechanisms need to be in place so that we can enable the poorest within these groups to acquire the skills they need to thrive economically?

One thing we learned is the need to tailor programmes to the needs of the people (aka skills development). Traditionally the humanitarian community in general has done lots of generalised skills training. This led to success for some, but not too many. One mechanism is skills development/capacity building that is responsive to local markets and individual needs. Simple supply and demand.

So the difficult question…how do we get there? Can this be answered in 10 seconds?

We need to include refugees in national schemes and programmes. Connections need to be made to markets. And host countries should be supported and local economies should be developed to recover from the crisis, accommodate labour, and attain growth.

Read more: A letter from Sir Fazle for International Women’s Day 

What impact has the Graduation approach had on refugees?

The urban programme in Egypt is one that immediately comes to mind as it was very impressive from a protection point of view. Community centres and psychosocial work were leveraged to identify and engage vulnerable refugees in large cities such as Cairo and Alexandria.
Another example I will mention again is in Ecuador. The positive results of the Graduation programme got the attention of the government, which resulted in considering the Graduation a component of the national social protection programming.

Technical and vocational education training centre of the National Vocational and Technical Training Commission in Peshawar, Pakistan.

What lessons has UNHCR learned through this work?

First – and this has become increasingly apparent – Graduation programmes need to target both refugees and the surrounding host communities. Secondly, it is always better to expand the national programme to include refugee needs, rather than creating a standalone refugee programme. For example I am thinking of the case of Pakistan, where refugees are supported by the National Poverty Alleviation Fund (which covers everyone in a poverty context). This ensures consistency, inclusion, and most importantly, social cohesion.

What does the future look like for integrating the Graduation approach into refugee programmes?

I don’t think a lot of direct implementation will be coming out of the UNHCR, but rather scaling up through partnerships with organisations and governments. The Poverty Alleviation Coalition (of which BRAC is a member) that was launched in 2019 represents a great opportunity to achieve this scale up. Additionally, I think the partnerships with multilateral development banks and development financial institutions will support national governments to scale up the Graduation approach and make this programming more inclusive.


The challenges presented by the world’s current refugee crisis are immense and the future appears even more uncertain than usual, but one thing is certain and more clear than ever: This is a global problem that requires a global and unified solution.

As the COVID-19 crisis showed us quite clearly, borders, nationality, and even the very definition of home can be upended in an instant. Both BRAC and UNHCR have been working for decades to bring unique, innovative, and tailored solutions to issues of displacement and poverty and through interventions like the Graduation approach, we are seeing the impact and benefits of an integrated and holistic approach all over the world.

Solving issues as immense as those brought to light by World Refugee Day will not be easy, but through partnership, cooperation, and understanding, we are now presented with an unprecedented opportunity to change the course of history for many generations to come.

Bobby Irven is UPGI Communications Officer, BRAC USA.

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Mokhleshur Rahaman
Mokhleshur Rahaman
3 years ago

A good hope for the world refugees