There are more refugees in the world now than ever before in recorded history.  They exhibit extraordinary resilience and resourcefulness in dealing with challenges most of us would fear to face. And yet the international community is barely tapping into their collective wisdom.

According to UN estimates, 117.2 million people are forcibly displaced or stateless worldwide, nearly 30 million of them refugees, having fled their homes because of protracted crises from Syria to Ukraine, Afghanistan to Israel and the Gaza Strip.

World leaders will gather in Geneva next week for the world’s largest international meeting on refugees, the Global Refugee Forum. The last GRF, in 2019, was disappointing. Not only were financial commitments inadequate and often vague, far too little space was given to refugee leadership. Fewer than 2 percent of attendees were refugees, leaving those most impacted by decisions on the outside looking in.

Progress since 2019 has been slow at best. A recent, highly sobering report from ODI and Development Initiatives (DI), independent global affairs think tanks, showed a widespread failure to properly fund the refugee-led organizations (RLOs) doing some of the most important and effective work on the front lines of these crises. RLOs have deep experience with the problems facing their own communities and expertise on what works and what doesn’t. Supporting these organizations should be a central component of any lasting solution and, critically, it can help grow the refugee community’s own political and economic power.

But current funding to RLOs is dangerously low. In 2022, when $6.4 billion was provided to UN-coordinated refugee response plans, RLOs received only $26.4 million in humanitarian and development assistance, according to the ODI report. None of the government donors contacted for the report could even produce data on their funding to RLOs in 2022, and few tracked how or whether their large international partners passed on funding to such groups. UN agencies were not tracking this information either, nor were over half of private foundations.

The GRF has to take some big swings at reorienting how we lift refugee leadership, support refugee-led organizations, and better resource refugees overall. Here’s how the GRF can make progress this month and reboot a more dynamic global conversation around refugees:

First, we need organizers to move from rhetoric to action on meaningful participation of refugees.

Second, the multilateral development banks at the core of financing this response need to use the forum – and their evolution process – as a moment to double down on their support.

Third, it comes down to how and where dollars are allocated.  Donor government funding directly and through NGO partners needs to increase dramatically, and this funding needs to be tracked.

Read the full article about refugee leadership by Sarah Smith at Alliance Magazine.