Three Key Takeaways on Bridging the Humanitarian-Development Divide

May 20, 2016

How can we do better for the 60 million displaced people around the world? That was the focus of a major CGD event ahead of the World Humanitarian Summit featuring President Jim Kim of the World Bank and David Miliband, President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee. The lively conversation on refugees, displacement, and development covered many topics, including major changes in the humanitarian landscape, such as longer periods of displacement and fewer refugees living in settled camps, and what new tools and approaches are needed in response.

Here are my three key takeaways from the event:

Build an evidence base for emergency interventions

Both speakers highlighted the importance of building and following the evidence base. Miliband spoke about IRC’s commitment to make all of its programs evidence-based or evidence-generating, including emergency interventions. This is no small task given the lack of a common outcomes framework for humanitarian activities and lack of rigorous evaluations.

According to Miliband, there have been more than 2,000 impact evaluations or equivalent studies of development projects since 2006, but fewer than 100 have been conducted in humanitarian settings. Significant investments are needed to close this evaluation gap and strengthen the evidence base so the global community can identify what works and what is most cost-effective. When there is strong evidence that interventions deliver impact, as in the case of cash transfers, donors and implementers have to move beyond their biases. Kim recounted questioning his staff about the huge number of studies of cash transfers – and discovering that the reason was persistent misperceptions about giving cash to people living in poverty. According to Kim, even as development organizations have scaled up cash transfers, the percentage of humanitarian funds delivered as cash remains far too small.

Focus on people and tools, not sectors

With half of all refugees displaced for 10 years or more, there is a need to shift the balance between social and economic interventions. As Miliband remarked, there can’t be a sustainable social policy program for that length of time unless it has an economic component. Rather than view the world through a humanitarian or development lens, we should see people in humanitarian situations. Individuals and families need multiple tools and services to survive and find a path to self-reliance. Both Miliband and Kim called for greater collaboration between humanitarian and development actors to bring more comprehensive and coordinated analysis, tools, expertise, and financing to the table. Kim noted that the World Bank is engaging “with great humility” because of its lack of experience working with refugees. At the same time, he highlighted that the Bank is deploying familiar tools in familiar sectors to reach these new populations; for example, by creating job opportunities with the support of concessional financing and private sector partners.

Design win-win deals

Finally, Kim and Miliband described how to create win-win deals that offer hope and dignity to both refugee and host populations. In the case of Jordan, the World Bank and its partners brought more financing to the table to create special economic zones that will build infrastructure, attract private capital, and increase the country’s capacity to employ more Jordanians and refugees. It was in the context of this deal that the government agreed to make it easier for Syrian refugees to get work permits. But sustainable solutions are difficult to achieve.

Miliband reflected on a recent trip to the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, noting that the poverty rates outside the camp are higher than within. In such contexts, “the political challenge is to align short-term help for refugees with the medium-term help for the local or national economy and community.” Creating this new equation will require significant political will and partnership with low and middle-income host governments that host more than 80 percent of the world’s refugees.

I was delighted that CGD could host this important conversation with two development and humanitarian leaders, who shared their visions and practical ideas on how to bridge the humanitarian-development divide. The session inspired me to dig deeper into this issue and look for ways to help policymakers “move away from ideology and toward evidence,” as Kim called for, so that we as a global community can better deliver for people in such great need. Stay tuned!


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.