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For millions facing emergency situations in developing countries, international humanitarian assistance is a vital lifeline, funded through global generosity and administered by a wide range of well-meaning organizations. Yet the humanitarian system reaches too few people, allocates resources inefficiently, and is often out of step with what vulnerable populations say they most need. CGD develops cost-efficient policy options for moving the humanitarian system away from the fragmented, duplicative, and supply-driven model of today, toward a more coherent, efficient, and demand-driven model for the decades ahead.
In recent years, cash transfer programming (CTP) has emerged as one of the most significant innovations in international humanitarian assistance. The Cash Learning Partnership estimates that $2.8 billion was spent on cash and voucher programming in 2016, up 40% from 2015 and nearly double since 2014. Cash and voucher programming has demonstrated positive outcomes in addressing food security, access to education, healthcare, and economic recovery, in addition to supporting choice and dignity among affected populations.
Last week, a UN official said that the recent violence against Rohingya has “the hallmarks of a genocide,” underscoring why the plan to repatriate refugees to Myanmar is shockingly premature. While it is far too soon to discuss returns, it is the right time to plan for the longer-term wellbeing of refugees and their host communities in Bangladesh. Cox’s Bazar, a district of about 2.3 million people, is now hosting 900,000 Rohingya, more than 688,000 of whom have arrived since August 2017.
The refugee compacts model—deployed in Jordan and Lebanon now, and soon Ethiopia—offers a promising way forward. Compact agreements bring together the host government, donors, and the international community to develop multi-year commitments aimed at fostering inclusive growth and opportunity for refugees and host communities. As in the Jordan Compact, a key component should be policy reforms, such as the ability for refugees to work, own businesses, and attend school; in turn, these reforms enable refugees to become economic contributors to their host countries.
This CGD policy note argues that Bangladesh and its partners should explore the compact model and consider the inclusion of three ideas that would yield the level of ambition necessary to generate a sustainable response: European Union (EU) trade concessions, migrant worker opportunities, and partnership with China and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
1. Expanding Bangladesh’s trade preferences with the European Union
Bangladesh is set to lose trade preferences with the EU and other countries when it graduates from least developed country (LDC) status. More than half of Bangladesh’s exports went to the EU in 2016, about 90 percent of which was textiles and clothing. Upon graduation from EU and other trade preferences, Bangladesh’s export revenue could decline by well over an estimated 5 percent. A compact could extend preferences, bringing significant benefits to Bangladesh without affecting the EU’s fiscal situation. Another potential opportunity that could have more immediate impact is further relaxing rules of origin in emerging sectors such as pharmaceuticals and agri-processing.
2. Increasing opportunities for Bangladeshi migrant workers
A compact could break new ground by including provisions for greater numbers of Bangladeshi migrant workers in the Gulf and Southeast Asia. Raising quotas could help meet labor demand and increase earning opportunities for Bangladeshis—and potentially for refugees as well. Labor migration is a fundamental component of Bangladesh’s economy: in 2015, remittances accounted for about 8 percent of GDP, the second-largest source of foreign income after garment exports. But given the exploitation and abuse that migrant workers experience, any compact should simultaneously seek to strengthen protections for workers. By participating in a compact, Gulf states could strengthen their nascent role in refugee response, building on their contributions to the Syrian crisis and initial support to Rohingya refugees, on mutually beneficial terms.
3. Partnering with China and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank
Bangladesh is an important strategic and economic partner for China. More than a third of Bangladesh’s imports come from China—and more importantly, Bangladesh is a critical link in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). One of the six BRI economic corridors would connect Bangladesh, Myanmar, India, and China, including the construction of a new port in Bangladesh. The Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is playing an important complementary role, including financing energy projects. Given the reality of protracted displacement, China has an incentive to invest in a solution that promotes inclusive growth and stability in Bangladesh. China could enhance current trade preferences by granting zero tariffs to a greater proportion of Bangladeshi products. It could also accelerate or expand BRI and AIIB projects in Bangladesh and include provisions for Rohingya employment in their implementation.
Although refugees can become economic contributors with supportive policies and investments, the politics can be very difficult. A compact can offer a path forward by creating a package of new and substantial development opportunities for Bangladeshi citizens and Rohingya refugees.
It has been a rough year for the State Department’s Population, Refugees, and Migration bureau—colloquially known as “PRM.” Speculation about PRM’s future has swirled following the Trump administration’s moves to curtail refugee admissions, and a proposal by the White House Domestic Policy Council to eliminate the bureau and distribute its components to the Department of Homeland Security (resettlement and migration policy) and USAID (assistance funding). Most observers agree that resettlement and migration functions should stay at State, but the question of whether assistance funds should shift to AID has gotten more traction. These two matters are likely linked—stripping PRM of its program funds would leave it greatly diminished and far more vulnerable to a DHS takeover. But the issue of program coherence nonethless remains an important one to address on the merits.
The office I used to lead—USAID’s Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance—would be a major beneficiary of such a change. Shifting PRM’s assistance portfolio to USAID would roughly triple OFDA’s budget, adding nearly $3 billion a year to its existing $1.5 billion appropriation.
So it may be surprising that I have deep reservations about this idea. Why? I fear that diminishing or removing an empowered humanitarian voice from the State Department weakens humanitarian priorities in US policy writ large. And I believe there are ways to address legitimate concerns about the existing structure without dismantling PRM. Let’s dive in.
First, it is important to acknowledge that there are downsides to the current setup. In an era that demands greater coherence from the humanitarian system, US humanitarian assistance remains split across three offices—two at USAID (OFDA and Food for Peace) and State/PRM. Each has a different focus—food, refugees, and everything that isn’t food or refugees. In 2017, these are no longer sensible dividing lines for humanitarian assistance. Food and non-food aid must be mutually reinforcing in order to be effective, and the assistance needs of refugees and non-refugees are often broadly similar. Moreover, these divisions mean each office funds programs in different ways, with its own redundant grant procedures, reporting requirements, and programming tactics (more on this below).
The argument for folding PRM’s funding into USAID is primarily about streamlining this outdated assistance model. Doing so (along with an anticipated merger of OFDA and FFP within USAID) would consolidate all US humanitarian funding into a single bureau at AID. This could lend greater alignment to US humanitarian assistance strategy, enable the US to speak with one voice (rather than three) in UN agency governing bodies, and harmonize the very different funding approaches that USAID and State/PRM now employ.
If that were the end of the story, I could wholeheartedly support such a move. But it isn’t.
For humanitarian action is not just about aid—it is also about protection. This requires diplomatic and policy engagement—areas where the State Department plays a key role, and often carries a lot more weight than USAID. Somalis fleeing into Kenya, South Sudanese fleeing into Uganda, Syrians fleeing into Jordan, or Burmese Rohingya fleeing into Bangladesh don’t just need food, shelter, water, and health assistance. They also need legal protection, respect for their human rights, and access to job markets and education systems. Under international law, they need a process in place for making asylum claims, and for ensuring they will not be forced back to life-threatening conditions in their home country (a legal principle known as non-refoulement).
These are, fundamentally, foreign policy matters. They are best pursued with refugee-hosting governments through diplomatic channels. A message on non-refoulement carries more weight coming from the ambassador than from a USAID mission director. PRM keeps State Department leadership attuned to these issues, and ensures they are raised diplomatically when needed. PRM’s stature within the Department—and, in turn, an ambassador’s ability to negotiate refugee protection with a host government—is heavily tied to PRM’s program budget. It is a truism in government—but an accurate one—that controlling resources gives leverage at the policy table.
Leaving PRM’s policy functions in State while moving its programming to AID is a recipe for marginalizing this aspect of humanitarian action. Inside State, PRM would get far less traction because—when stripped of its $3 billion budget—it would be seen (accurately) as a much weaker player. Leverage with host governments would be diminished as well, because PRM’s policy engagement would no longer be backed up by substantial program funds.
And weakening PRM doesn’t just weaken US refugee policy—it weakens US humanitarian policy. In the interagency policy process, having strong and empowered humanitarian voices at both State and AID helps amplify humanitarian perspectives in deliberations. And PRM is an important go-to for the secretary of state; on humanitarian matters, PRM typically holds more sway with the secretary than anyone at AID outside of the administrator. Marginalizing this channel will permanently erode the priority of the humanitarian concerns reaching the secretary’s desk—and that, in turn, will send signals throughout the rest of the Department.
So, neither the status quo bifurcation, nor a full merger at AID, is an appealing option. What to do?
There is a third option—addressing the incoherence of the current structure while ensuring an empowered humanitarian voice remains within both State and AID. Here are some ways that could work:
Unify Field Operations: The fragmentation of US humanitarian assistance is most overt at field level, where NGO and UN partners potentially have three US humanitarian representatives to engage—the OFDA team, the FFP representative, and the PRM refugee coordinator. More often than not, each of these folks are based out of different embassies in the region, and report back to different masters in Washington. All should be merged into unified USG regional humanitarian teams, managed by USAID, a structure that should be mirrored at country level as well. PRM field staff could be seconded onto these teams while maintaining an oversight and reporting line to PRM/DC—a common practice between other interagency partners and USAID. This consolidation would both ensure the US government presents a more coherent face toward its implementing partners, and facilitate more efficient and integrated programming. USAID appears poised to get the ball rolling on this by consolidating its OFDA and FFP field teams—a good first step.
Consolidate NGO Funding Tools: OFDA, FFP, and PRM all maintain their own distinct funding processes, with distinct proposal solicitations, grant templates, and reporting requirements. This means that NGO partners seeking to implement, say, a food and water project for a blended refugee and non-refugee population must do so through three different grant processes and submit three different reports on three different timelines and three different formats (and probably a few more for the US-supported cofinancing they get through UN intermediaries). These systems should be harmonized into a single, consolidated NGO proposal and reporting process, through which USG implementing partners can apply for integrated program funding across both USAID and State.
Harmonize Program Approaches: I believe OFDA’s programming approach should be the principal model for US humanitarian assistance. Through its famous “DART” teams and excellent field operators, OFDA takes a hands-on approach that delivers impact, influence, and high visibility for the USG. This model provides robust support to both NGO and UN partners, based on which type of partner is best positioned to deliver results. It is swift and operational, deploying large teams to new disasters in a matter of hours or days. It ensures strong accountability and oversight, as it enables USG personnel to engage with and monitor implementing partners directly at field level, in real time. And OFDA’s model sets funding strategy in the field, based on partner delivery capacity and comparative advantages of UN and NGO organizations. PRM’s programming model instead relies heavily on the multilateral system, routing most of its funding through global or regional-level UN appeals.
For the reasons outlined earlier, I do believe it is important that PRM continue to manage refugee assistance programming—but that it shift to a more OFDA-like model for doing so. If field teams and funding tools were harmonized as proposed above, PRM could begin applying an OFDA-like field-centric model in the refugee space as well, which would enable tighter oversight. And it would ensure more consistent programming interventions across refugee and non-refugee programs as well.
Share Oversight of Multilateral Partners: The USG needs cohesive engagement with the multilateral system not just at the field level, but at the global level as well. At present PRM leads on governance of UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration, and the Red Cross; FFP leads on governance of the World Food Programme; and OFDA leads on governance of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. There is often a significant degree of turf protection in these roles, despite the fact that all three USG offices have significant equities at play with all of these agencies. This makes for siloed governance and contributes to UN interagency dysfunction. Going forward, the USAID administrator (as the government’s senior-most humanitarian official) should have the lead on overall USG governance of the major multilateral humanitarian agencies, with the policy outreach, day-to-day relationship management, and support functions continuing to reside where they respectively sit in PRM and AID.
Merge the Funding Accounts: In FY 2010, OFDA and FFP began sharing resources from the International Disaster Assistance (IDA) account, which previously had exclusively funded OFDA. This started off contentiously, but over time the inter-office tension dissipated and gave way to new budget processes that significantly improved budget coordination. Sharing the account forced both offices to look more holistically at problem sets, and to consider budget trade-offs in terms of the greatest humanitarian impact rather than as zero-sum turf wars.
Right now, refugee aid is appropriated through the Migration and Refugee Assistance (MRA) account, fully distinct from the non-refugee assistance in IDA. But in practice, MRA funds non-refugee programs (through multilateral contributions to the Red Cross and International Organization for Migration) and IDA funds refugee support (through FFP’s refugee food aid programs). Yet because of the budget bifurcation, there is weak coordination of these interrelated programs between State and AID, and it is bureaucratically complex to fund holistic programs that encompass refugee and non-refugee elements. Funding most refugee aid through the IDA account, with PRM programming it, could take PRM-USAID coordination to the next level (some functions, like resettlement, would need to stay within MRA). Forcing both PRM and AID to share IDA would doubtless spur some initial tension. But over time it would yield a more engaged budget and strategy dialog and better complementarity between refugee and non-refugee programs. OMB could apportion a subset of the annual appropriation to PRM for refugee support and allocate the balance to AID, based on a joint budget review process between the two organizations.
Some of these steps may sound painful and onerous—but they are far less extreme than the step of folding PRM’s programming role completely into USAID. And they present a means of maintaining strong humanitarian perspectives and programs at the State Department, with robust resources, while dramatically improving the cohesion and effectiveness of US humanitarian assistance. Given the serious downsides to both the status quo and a full merger, this sort of blended approach could provide a viable way forward.
More than 65 million people are forcibly displaced, for on average about ten years. That's the scale of the problem facing Mark Lowcock, the new UN Emergency Relief Coordinator and Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs.
This is not only a short-term humanitarian problem but a development issue as well. How well equipped is the system to respond? What types of reform are needed to make it more fit for purpose?
That was the topic of conversation when Mark Lowcock joined CGD's president Masood Ahmed in Washington recently for his first public event since taking up his new role.
“I am particularly enthused by the work that’s going on to join the development and humanitarian systems up better, which is absolutely at the heart of the UN reform agenda,” Lowcock said. “The truth is there are very few humanitarian crises which are solved on their own by humanitarian interventions.”
The following blog post is excerpted from an op-ed by Cindy Huang originally published in Devex.
This week, at the World Bank Annual Meetings and G-20 meeting of finance ministers and central bank governors, global leaders must address the Rohingya refugee crisis head on by condemning Myanmar—whose regime has burned villages to the ground and brutally murdered children in what a UN official called a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing”—and by committing substantial aid to Bangladesh, one of the poorest 50 countries in the world that now hosts more than 819,000 Rohingya refugees.
On September 28, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that this horrific campaign of violence has "spiraled into the world's fastest-developing refugee emergency, a humanitarian and human rights nightmare." Two weeks later, the nightmare continues. The international community must put intensified pressure on Myanmar to halt these atrocities, which should include a sobering reevaluation of lending by the World Bank to Myanmar’s government.
Given the rate and scale of the unfolding crisis, which is the swiftest outflow of refugees since the Rwandan genocide, the international community is rightly focused on emergency humanitarian measures. But it is also imperative for international actors to move quickly to develop complementary solutions that can improve the situation both now and in the longer-term. Here are three key elements of such a package for Bangladesh:
1. We need to offer immediate aid and assistance.
The international community should immediately offer a bold package of assistance to meet the needs of both refugees and host communities in Bangladesh. The UN estimates that the crisis requires $434 million over the next six months. Even if the international community commits this amount, it still won’t be enough to fully meet the challenge. The government of Bangladesh is already struggling to provide basic necessities such as food and clean water to communities where refugees are now settling. Even before the recent influx, tensions were rising between locals and Rohingya refugees over scarce resources and job opportunities. International support can’t just focus on refugees, it must also help materially improve the standard of living for host communities.
In response to the Syrian refugee crisis, donors including the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development offered Jordan and Lebanon, which host more than 1.6 million registered refugees, significant resources to meet the needs of both refugees and citizens. This has created the possibility of a win-win solution for both groups and has been good politics for the host countries’ governments. This type of compact—an agreement that includes policy changes to expand refugee rights and programs to improve the well-being of refugees and hosts—offers benefits for everyone. Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina must respond to demands to deliver for her constituents first and foremost, and a compact of this kind can generate domestic support for recognizing, hosting, and supporting refugees now and in the longer term.
2. We need to offer more than aid as part of refugee compacts.
The international community should consider new policies and programs that will help the people of Bangladesh and Rohingya succeed, including reducing trade barriers and opening new markets for Bangladeshi companies, providing technical assistance to help the government tackle difficult economic issues, and facilitating private sector investment that will help Bangladesh make critical economic reforms that pay dividends in the long term. One of the breakthrough elements of the Jordan compact was the offer of European Union trade concessions for companies employing Syrian refugees. The details aren’t easy to get right, but if the international community wants to make a real difference in the future of Bangladesh, it needs to look at policies that enable sustainable gains.
3. We need to plan for this crisis to endure.
The reality is that there is little prospect that the Rohingya refugees will be able to return home any time soon. The world’s refugees have been displaced for an average of 10 years, and for those displaced more than five years, that average climbs to over 21 years. While the international community presses for an end to the terrible violence in Myanmar, they must also work with the government of Bangladesh on solutions that will address needs now and in the long haul. The international community has an opportunity to improve the situation in Bangladesh—not just for the Rohingya refugees, but for Bangladeshis as well.
And even though this crisis may seem like it’s thousands of miles away from capitals in Europe and North America, the situation hits close to home for leaders who are facing pressure to reduce refugee resettlement in their own countries. They can relate to the political challenges that Prime Minister Hasina is facing, and should appreciate that they don’t face the other economic and development challenges she is tackling at the same time.
At a recent CGD event, Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International, recounted a question he posed to senior State Department officials:
Ten years from now, if your kids are studying about the elimination of a people from Western Burma and they ask what you did when you were in the government to prevent that disaster, what will you be prepared to say to them?
As the disaster unfolds, we must continue to ask: what will the international community do to respond to one of the great tragedies of our time? One critical component should be a bold package of support that meets the needs of Rohingya refugees and their Bangladeshi hosts.
CGD's experts across a range of issues will also be paying close attention the Annual Meetings.
Here's what they'll be watching:
Will the World Bank’s capital increase campaign be a success? Scott Morris has been keeping an eye on the World Bank’s campaign for a capital increase, but the United States has policy concerns about increased lending at the Bank, with specific skepticism about the Bank’s continued lending to large emerging market countries, like China.
Will the world take action on Myanmar and the Rohingya refugee crisis? Cindy Huang is calling for an international package for Bangladesh – similar to the Jordan Compact that is helping to address the Syrian refugee crisis. She says that for this package to succeed it must include assistance for the 800,000-plus Rohingya refugees now in Bangladesh, as well as provide robust support to the communities hosting refugees. It also must go beyond aid, including components like reducing trade barriers and facilitating private investment in Bangladesh.
Scott Morris is also watching this issue closely. The Bank has provided $2 billion in assistance to the government of Myanmar since 2010, and now a top United Nations official has said the Myanmar regime is perpetrating a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing.” Morris is raising important questions, including “how much certainty does the bank have that its projects are safeguarded against abuses in Myanmar today, that no projects are enabling discriminatory treatment toward the Rohingya population?” and "is the World Bank and major donors willing to use all the tools in their toolset to address the crisis, including sanctions?"
What will the World Bank’s new strong stance on the tobacco tax mean for developing nations? There are about 6 million premature deaths each year from the tobacco epidemic, and that number continues to rise. Two-thirds of those deaths are in developing countries. That's why Bill Savedoff has been working for many years to get the World Bank and the international community to support a tobacco tax. The World Bank is the only international organization of its scale that regularly works with Finance Ministries and has a mandate to improve health worldwide.
This week, the Bank published a new report that shows how tobacco taxes could have a major impact on global health (summary here). It states strongly: “There is a policy measure that can simultaneously save millions of lives, reduce poverty, and increase countries’ domestic resources for financing development. The policy measure consists of increasing excise tax rates on tobacco in order to reduce its affordability and, as evidence shows, lower its consumption... The report sets forth the public health, economic, and anti-poverty case for higher tobacco taxes; shows how some countries have already delivered ambitious reforms; and documents measurable results. It shows that, by implementing tobacco tax reforms now, policy makers can choose a fast road to healthier, more prosperous societies.”
At the Annual Meetings, Bill and I will be participating in discussions of this strategy to combat the tobacco epidemic and save lives with World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and other high-level officials from across the globe.
Stay tuned to @CGDev on Twitter and sign up for our email updates to stay informed about what happens at the Annual Meetings.