Beyond Humanitarian Response: Why the Displaced Need Development Solutions

The World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul on May 23 and 24th is taking place amidst major shifts in the humanitarian landscape. Displacement is increasingly protracted, with more than 80 percent of refugee crises lasting 10 years or more, and with people more often living in urban areas than settled camps. While there has been extensive media coverage of the asylum crisis in Europe, 4.2 million of the approximate 4.8 million registered Syrian refugees are living in three neighboring states – Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. And, as a consequence of 20-plus years of conflict, there are nearly a million Somali refugees in the Horn of Africa. Indeed, the vast majority of the 15 million refugees worldwide still need pathways to self-reliance through access to public services and opportunities for legal work, often in countries with strained systems and high unemployment rates.

The upcoming Summit will provide an important opportunity to discuss the significant financing gap ($15.5 billion per year according to one report) and important issues like transparency and effectiveness. But it will be a missed opportunity unless leaders agree upon concrete plans to address the new realities of displacement. Here are three areas where we’d like to see some progress.

Improve coordination and division of labor between humanitarian and development efforts.

Refugees want to provide for their families and find pathways to self-reliance. Finding these solutions will require both a division of labor and greater coordination between humanitarian and development efforts. A recent study found that livelihoods programs for refugees were predominately run by humanitarian actors, and lacked adequate market linkages, scale, time horizons, and technical support. Rather than stretch humanitarian capacity even further, such programs should leverage existing development policy frameworks, programming, and expertise.

Improved planning and coordination is also required at the city and national levels. For example, when refugees living in urban areas lack clean water, the refugee response must be integrated with broader plans for the city and national water systems. And, to educate hundreds of thousands of children dispersed throughout cities, local systems need more resources and support. Where possible, host countries and donors should integrate refugee services into their national and subnational development plans. At a minimum, humanitarian and development actors should work with host countries to conduct joint needs assessments and planning exercises.

Expand development financing and policy engagement.

The World Bank has provided $200 million in financing to Jordan and Lebanon at low rates usually reserved for the poorest countries and launched a New Financing Initiative to Support the MENA Region, partnering with the United Nations and Islamic Development Bank Group. These are important steps given the magnitude of the Syrian crisis, but there is a risk that special initiatives may obscure the need for systemic change. The crisis presents an opportunity to consider how best to channel existing and new financing to meet the longer-term needs of refugees and their host communities around the world.

Further, it will be critical that financing discussions do not overshadow technical and political discussions about changes in laws, policies and regulations that must be part of more sustainable solutions, such as work permits and access to financial services for refugees as well as sector reforms. There should also be increased flexibility in the use of funds, including more cash assistance to refugees. When supplies and services are available in the market, providing cash reduces inefficiencies and overhead and gives refugees choices about meeting the needs of their family. One evaluation of a cash transfer program in Lebanon found that every dollar spent generated more than $2 in local market activity – a notable developmental impact. While we focus on refugees here, many of these measures could help the 38.2 million internally displaced persons as well.

Share responsibility more between host nations and the global community – and think creatively!

New financing and more effective, coordinated approaches in host nations do not reduce the international community’s obligation to welcome more refugees. Syria, Iran, Pakistan, Lebanon, Turkey, Palestine, and Jordan host more than 50 percent of all refugees worldwide. Without a broader agreement on shared responsibility, host nations will have little reason to change their own approaches and instead continue to rely on international appeals and short-term responses. A new agreement must include faster processing and greater resettlement numbers, and not only expanded offers of temporary protection.

We also need more creative methods for facilitating resettlement and helping countries’ realize the economic boon that refugees can bring. For example, CGD colleagues Theo Talbot, Hannah Postel, and Owen Barder have suggested the creation of a humanitarian investment fund. Under this scheme, each refugee would have an endowment that is given to host countries to offset temporary resettlement costs, and then in return, host countries would provide refugees the right to work and access to public services. Expanded private sponsorship models could assist in supplementing government-led financing. And CGD Senior Fellow Michael Clemens’ innovative Global Skill Partnerships proposal, which calls for agreements between employers and/or governments and training centers in countries of origin, could be applied to refugees.

Like most global conferences, the World Humanitarian Summit will not meet the expectations of all of its stakeholders. Médecins Sans Frontières announced it will not participate, citing the Summit’s focus on incorporating “humanitarian assistance into a broader development and resilience agenda” instead of vital access and protection issues. Their critique will be justified if talk of development, reducing risk, and ending need becomes a way to double count efforts or avoid confronting serious violations of international humanitarian law and refugee rights. But if the Summit can concretely advance development-oriented solutions as one critical component of responding to today’s humanitarian landscape, it will have made an important contribution.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.