Move past the challenges and pitfalls in development-led responses to displacement

A line of Syrian refugees in front of the UNHCR registration center in Tripoli, Lebanon. Photo by: Mohamed Azakir / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

The traumatic images of the past year — whether on the Greek islands, in Lebanese cities, or on the southern border of the United States — have refocused global attention on the protection and resource allocation failures that have left large swaths of displaced populations without a future or means of support.

In both political and operational circles, the need for a response to displacement that connects refugees with opportunities to return to a normal life — and mitigates costs for hosting communities — is not just an abstract nicety, but an absolute necessity.

Yet despite broad-based agreement regarding the need for a development-focused humanitarian response, progress on implementing this approach has been uneven at best.

The complex operating environment in which refugee situations arise remains the most significant challenge. Many host and transit-country governments simply lack the political, operational or economic capacity to provide high-quality protection.

Major refugee-hosting states (including Malaysia, Thailand, Jordan and Lebanon) often do not have a legal asylum infrastructure to grant refugees protection status and the associated rights, including the right to work, open a business, or send their children to school. Moreover, refugee-hosting countries (including Jordan and Lebanon) can face substantial economic disruption due to the broader impact of conflicts in neighboring states. Under conditions such as these, host countries often find it a political impossibility to direct more assistance or legal rights to refugee populations.

The traditional approaches of both humanitarian and development actors are, in many ways, ill-suited to these challenges. Used to working in emergency contexts with little direct intervention from domestic policymakers, humanitarian agencies may feel out of their depth coordinating with the myriad national actors, policies and regulations that govern labor markets, training systems and other key development areas.

This is particularly true in countries including Turkey and Jordan where these systems are relatively well-developed. Development actors, for their part, may not be familiar with the unique set of vulnerabilities or political and legal constraints inherent in refugee contexts.

Moving past these challenges will require intense cooperation and collaboration between the humanitarian and development communities. Each will need to recognize their limitations and acknowledge where the other’s specialized knowledge and expertise is needed.

Both sets of actors will do well to bear in mind the following three guidelines:

First, appreciate the importance of the legal and political context. For both humanitarian and development practitioners, understanding the domestic legal and political context — and planning interventions accordingly — is critical. Actors from both sectors, eager to foster self-sufficiency among refugee populations, frequently underestimate the full development implications of the unique operational constraints in which refugee situations occur; this is an increasingly frequent occurrence as interest in development-led responses has proliferated following the Syria crisis.

Any intervention must begin with a careful mapping, not only of the local economic and development context, but of the legal and policy frameworks that apply to refugees specifically. As a part of a targeted response, development and humanitarian actors will need to engage delicately with governments to encourage the creation of protection systems that remove some of the legal barriers refugees face, otherwise the benefits of development and livelihoods efforts will remain extremely limited — no matter how well programs are designed or implemented.

Second, act in close partnership with host-country governments and actors. Efforts to build capacity in countries of first asylum face a clear and related pitfall due to a tendency to intervene at a distance from the host government and its key institutional partners. In Lebanon, for example, the initial United Nations-led response to the Syrian crisis was undertaken with minimal involvement or consultation with the government or national authorities, and very little funding has been directed to Lebanese institutions — much to the frustration of the Lebanese government.

Yet host-country actors, whether in government or civil society, are uniquely positioned to identify needs, analyze how these needs can best be addressed and account for capacity limitations. Moreover, there may be situations where effective partnerships could enable host-country actors themselves to deliver services to refugees, preventing the creation of parallel support structures for the displaced (often a risk in refugee situations) and in the process even increase the capacity of host-country institutions to better serve their own nationals. Similar recommendations were a key outcome of the consultation process ahead of the World Humanitarian Summit in May.

Finally, think creatively — and bigger — about where support for host and transit countries would be most beneficial. Efforts to develop opportunities for refugees in first-asylum countries have tended to focus on “microinterventions” that serve small numbers of people over a wide geographic area. But projects to build up host-country infrastructure or management and governance capacity may have a greater reach and impact by creating the conditions for protection more effectively and at a larger scale — tackling some of the inherent capacity issues limiting protection space in a given country.

Development assistance should thus be targeted along two lines:

First, strengthening and expanding host-country institutions and infrastructure that have been strained by refugee inflows, such as education systems (e.g. both expanding physical capacity and training or providing more teachers); health care services; physical infrastructure (e.g. electricity, water and sanitation); housing availability; and social and support services, particularly at the local level.

Secondly, there is a need to increase the availability of financial support to offset the broad impact of refugee crises on host-country budgets, whether through grants or other financial mechanisms at the international level that can be quickly deployed. Current development and humanitarian financing tools are ill-equipped to serve these needs. Some major refugee-hosting countries, including Jordan and Lebanon, are not eligible for the most preferential loans and grants because they are classified as middle income. There is thus a clear role for traditional development actors, such as the World Bank, to play in both lines of engagement by providing support for institutional development, securing financial assistance and offering guidance on where assistance would do the most good.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Susan Fratzke

    Susan Fratzke is a policy analyst and program coordinator with the Migration Policy Institute's international program, where she primarily works with the Transatlantic Council on Migration. Her research areas include forced migration and European Union asylum policy, as well as vocational training and labor market integration.