Continued immigration and forced migration, in tandem with increasingly complex problems stemming from new urbanism and democratic crises, have come to challenge top-down arrangements of governance and public assistance. Called into question is the promise of community-inclusion envisioned in partnerships that conjoin non-profit organizations with the welfare state. Some scholars of multiscalar governance point to the ‘lower scales’ for renewed visions of participatory approaches. In the US refugee resettlement policy domain of social welfare provision, Refugee Community Organizations (RCOs) formed and run by refugees themselves operate at the grassroots alongside state-funded NGOs, but are marginalized in official policy processes. This study aims to re-examine how RCOs fit within resettlement policy domain and the scope of their activities, vis-a-vis their state-funded counterparts.
This study draws on 40 interviews and four focus groups with organizational leaders and volunteers of RCOs in Bhutanese communities in 35 US cities across the United States. The nationwide scope of this case study complements and builds upon the depth of knowledge gained from previous qualitative studies on migrant organizations that draw upon a handful of cities or organizations. Applying a theory-guided approach, analysis entails examining themes and ideas shared by informants, using a more structured process that uses coding categories or key concepts determined a priori. Analysis uses theoretical and empirical literature on state-funded organizations and public-private partnerships as informing concepts to formulate a comparative perspective.
Findings indicate that the scope of RCO activities extends the reach of service provision— in terms of the “who, when, where, and how”— of state-funded organizations, which are too often too stifled by the regulatory and fiscal limits of federal policy. Who and when: Findings show that RCOs extend assistance well beyond the eligibility requirements and time limits of policy and target assistance to those neglected by work-oriented policies. Where and how: Whereas mainstream social service organizations have difficulty reaching marginalized communities, our findings show that grassroots RCOs are closer to the needs of refugee communities in terms of proximity and modes of assistance or service delivery.
Conclusion & implications
In the final analysis, I argue that multiscalar governance has not gone low enough. In the resettlement domain of social welfare, these most peripheral levels, at the grassroots, constitute the core. RCOs are poised to have wider reach and to increase access to services, particularly for the most vulnerable members of refugee communities. However, RCOs operate at the margins and are under-resourced. These tensions raise questions pertaining to organizational legitimacy of RCOs and inclusion not only in service delivery but also in decision-making and policy-planning processes. Attention to such issues is particularly crucial, as legitimacy and institutional positioning are directly linked with allocation of resources and with political opportunity structures that may either facilitate or impede capacity. This study yields new insights that help open new lines of research on participatory approaches in refugee resettlement.