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When Jean Marie Ishimwe was in primary school in Nairobi, Kenya, he wore an outdated school uniform and never got to go on school trips. He stayed back at school with the other students whose families couldn’t possibly afford the excursion. For Ishimwe’s family, who are Rwandan refugees, the struggle of paying school fees followed him to high school.
Ishimwe’s father owned a tailoring business and his mother did casual jobs and community work. The little income his parents generated were mostly used up on food and rent, with little left to Ishimwe and his siblings through school. A year’s fees in high school cost around 45,000 KES ($396 CAD). In his final year of high school, Ishimwe didn’t even know if he would graduate. He still had a few courses he needed to complete, but was scrambling to find the fees, without which he couldn’t take the final exams.
Ishimwe started reaching out to some international development organizations which supported refugees for financial support. One of the organizations denied him because they only supported widows, single mothers, and LGBTIQ+ people, and he or his family didn’t fall in these categories. Another organization couldn’t help him since he didn’t have official refugee status at that point.
Though Ishimwe’s family has been in Kenya for over two decades now, getting refugee status took years. Ishimwe was only granted status in 2019 — 22 years after being in Kenya. Without the right documentation stating that he’s a refugee, Ishimwe was cut off from a number of services and resources that are in fact created to help refugees. For instance, he couldn’t get the UNHCR’s DAFI (Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative) university scholarship for refugee students, which he applied to for three consecutive years. But in 2019, after being granted refugee status, Ishimwe was able to finally secure the scholarship.
Eventually, Ishimwe found an organization called Xavier Project which paid for his school fees. He went on to become an educational trainer for the organization, helping other youth refugees in Nairobi learn things like computer and business skills. Now he’s a young advocate who works to empower refugee youth, while studying journalism and media.
Identifying the disconnect
As a community advocate with lived experience as a refugee, Ishimwe has an immediate connection to youth refugees in his community. As an education trainer in the past, he has worked closely with youth and continues through the refugee-led organization he founded, Youth Voices Community.
While Ishimwe focuses on education, building digital skills, and empowering youth, his work is malleable based on what the community needs presently. In 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he shifted gears to raise money for families who were struggling at the time and put together packages with food and masks, and educating them about COVID-19.
In his work, Ishimwe has collaborated with a number of development actors on projects which overlap with the goals he advocates for like education and youth empowerment. He emphasizes the importance of developmental support for social movements, both of which can share similar goals — the intersection between the two is undeniable.
At the same time, while some development organizations claim to be a part of social movements, Ishimwe says that in a very big way, there’s a disconnect. “For so many of these global development leaders and organizations, they still see social movements as not very significant, and that the people can’t be part of decision making. For a big part of it, they actually see them as maybe aid seekers, or just mere people who need benefits or beneficiaries,” explains Ishimwe. “For a good number of years, [development leaders] have just not taken social movements as equal service partners. They see them as just mobilizers. They see them as people who can help them in just that one thing.”
Social movements and community advocates like Ishimwe look at social issues holistically, where empowering refugee youth goes way beyond teaching digital skills. It brings in language learning, financial help, obtaining refugee status, and also establishing a network. Being a refugee himself, Ishimwe has a better understanding of what these youth may need based on his own experience. To create a community outlet for these youth, he also co-founded Youth Voices Community as a platform for refugee youth in Kenya to share their personal stories and have their voices heard.
On the other hand, he points out that a number of organizations can develop tunnel vision and only be driven to accomplish their predetermined objectives.
For instance, Ishimwe recalls an organization that came to Kenya with the goal of helping refugees gain business skills and support them to start their own businesses — a noble goal for the community. But Ishimwe says while the organization focused on business training, they managed to overlook the biggest underlying problem: many of these individuals don’t have the documents (i.e., refugee status, work permit) which would allow them to work.
“It feels that they’re just coming in to accomplish that project that maybe there’s funding for… anything away from that is not something of their concern,” says Ishimwe. “But can you not train the authorities to learn that there are certain documents that refugees have? Can you not find a way through the same project to actually address that?”
Local advocates working within social movements have a deeper understanding of what their communities really need. They can see how a particular issue intersects with a greater problem present. Development actors, on the other hand, can often cast a blind eye to anything outside the scope of their project, according to Ishimwe.
“When you’re talking about social movements, you have to see that you’re part of it — not as a segmented person from outside but you’re actually supporting,” says Ishimwe, adding that there needs to be an on-going conversation where development actors are asking the movements what they need and being flexible based on that.
What is meaningful support for social movements?
Amina Doherty, director of the Equality Fund’s Women’s Voice and Leadership in the Caribbean, notes that the often stringent ways of international development, which centre around things like targets and outputs, is in large part disconnected from the heart of movements and what communities really need.
Doherty, in her own work, focuses on movement-building work for feminist organizations and describes herself as being at the intersection of social movements and philanthropy.
While talking about FRIDA, Doherty says that being flexible to work around a movement’s needs is key. “We look at how we can fund in a time frame that works for [a group]. That could be three years, it could be 10 years…but it’s recognizing that social change is not something that can be measured in metrics; social change is something that takes time.”
For advocates like Ishimwe, being part of a movement and supporting it means looking beyond just a project or event or a few objectives, but rather understanding the vast network of intersections of the cause they are working towards. Movements are most impactful when there is meaningful collaboration which creates a unified voice, he says; this is what moves social change forward.
“If you’re part of a social movement, then that means you actually part and parcel of it; you give motivation, you support, you give opportunities, you connect, you network, and all those kinds of things. That is something that I cannot say [development actors] are proactively doing,” says Ishimwe.
Despite the gap, Ishimwe says the relationship between social movements and development organizations is slow, but growing. An ideal relationship between the two, Doherty explains, is a symbiotic one where development actors and social movements are both helping each other by providing resources without being extractive.
So how can development actors be better allies to social movements?
Social movements can greatly benefit through support from development actors. Whether that’s support through funding, capacity building, or resource sharing, movements need push from many hands.
Resources, Doherty explains, are way beyond just funding. They include things like access to the right people, access to information, digital access, and operating space. International development organizations hold power in that they are a pool of these resources. The work comes in when we ask how do we shift some of these resources to social movements?
At the same time, it’s also important to note that many social movements can often face barriers to funding due to being informal groups that may not be officially registered as a charity. They also might not have the capacity to apply for grants. Ishimwe agrees that funding does tend to be one of the biggest areas that social movements need support, but that should not be the only way to collaborate. The collaboration needs to be all around and consistent.
In terms of actionable steps to help movements, Ishimwe says development actors need to engage movements on a more regular basis. Not just meeting once or twice a year but regular collaboration where organizations can listen to the needs as well as progress of a movement.
Just as important is also motivation and encouragement for social movements. “Most of the social movements are actually there and continue to be there because of the peers that support them to continue doing the work they do,” says Ishimwe. “So when you find more organizations that are of a higher level coming in and showing that kind of support in one way or another, it supports the organization; it gives them the energy…and that’s how we move forward together.”