Transitions and Durable Solutions for Displaced Persons: 21 Reasons for Optimism

Presentation at the Transitions and Solutions Roundtable, organized by UNHCR and UNDP, Amsterdam, April 18-19, 2013.[1]

For at least thirty years, there has been talk of the need to bridge the ‘relief-to-development gap’ or, as it has been more recently described, the ‘transition from humanitarian action to development.’ The need to overcome the institutional divisions in the way we work has been tackled through many programs, initiatives, statements of commitment, meetings and speeches.[2] It has spawned a whole litany of terms and acronyms, from the ‘integrated zonal development approach’ to ICARA I and II, Quick Impact Projects, the Brookings process, the 4Rs, early recovery, etc. While there have been good analyses of the obstacles to overcoming this division,[3] it is hard not to feel cynical about the possibility of ever overcoming the divide between humanitarian and development actors.

But I’m going to step out of my comfort zone this morning and suggest that there are, indeed, reasons for optimism. In particular, I have come up with 21 reasons[4] why this might be the best time in 30 years to achieve progress in building bridges between humanitarian and development actors to work on solutions for displaced populations. I don’t think that any one of these reasons would be sufficient to drive major progress in addressing the gap or transition this time around. But taken together, these reasons suggest that this is a good time to be working on this issue and give grounds for optimism.

Twenty-one reasons for optimism:

1) Donor governments are taking the issue more seriously. Donors have always been interested in the issue, but this commitment seems to be becoming stronger – perhaps as a result of increased pressure on aid budgets and the increasingly protracted nature of humanitarian emergencies. This donor commitment is important for several reasons. Donors drive the international humanitarian system; when donors are interested in a particular issue, things can happen. Not only do donor governments influence the actions of multilateral institutions, but they also have large bilateral aid programs that can bring about change on the ground. In fact, one of the differences between development and humanitarian work is that multilateral institutions are much less important in development than in humanitarian work and thus bilateral programs of donor governments can have a direct impact on the ground. If donors can manage to get their own humanitarian and development departments to work together in supporting solutions to displacement in the field, things can change. Of course, while some governments are moving in this direction, in at least some donor government agencies, the gap between relief and development is alive and well.)

Donors are under increasing pressure to demonstrate results and to justify the large sums they are spending on humanitarian emergencies. The emphasis on demonstrating value for money and programmatic impact is increasing in part because of the economic difficulties facing many traditional donors. Foreign aid budgets among the traditional donors are almost all under pressure. There are questions of how long major humanitarian programs can be sustained – particularly as in cases such as Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya where there are now third-generation refugees. If these humanitarian expenditures are to be reduced, either responsibility needs to be transferred to development actors or solutions need to be found.

It’s still too early to tell, but the entry of more non-traditional donors (e.g. BRICS, Gulf states, military forces) also may be a positive sign in overcoming this divide, as many do not seem to draw the same distinctions between humanitarian and development assistance.[5] If this is indeed the case, then there is a need not only to engage with non-traditional donors but also to refrain from suggesting that they follow models where the divisions between humanitarian and development are tightly drawn.

2) The concept of resilience may offer common ground for development and humanitarian actors to work together, particularly in building local capacity to withstand adversity.[6] The Inter-Agency Standing Committee – the primary coordination body for humanitarian work – recently discussed its perspective on a resilience-based approach to humanitarian assistance with references to such issues as local ownership and integration, which seem to offer a common language for discussion between development professionals and humanitarians.[7]

3) There seems to be growing attention today to natural disasters and climate change in the humanitarian community. Given global trends in which disasters linked to climate change are likely to increase, we can expect that humanitarian actors will be called to respond to increasingly deadly – and costly – disasters in the future. In this field, there are better (though still imperfect) links between disaster risk reduction (DRR), response and recovery. At least there is widespread recognition of the importance of investing in DRR and of the need for development plans to include measures to mitigate the risk of disasters. Perhaps it is time for humanitarian agencies working in conflict situations to reach a similar recognition that working in concert with development actors can reduce the risk of future conflicts, stabilize post-conflict situations and contribute to durable solutions for displaced populations.

4) While it is difficult to draw many long-term positive lessons from the response to Haiti’s earthquake, the experience of many humanitarians clearly underscores the difficulties of finding solutions for displaced which don’t take into account broader development goals. Humanitarian agencies recognized that their ability to develop good humanitarian programs depended on development approaches such as the rule of law, poverty eradication, gender equity and environmental issues. As those involved in the Haiti response have moved on to work on other operations, we can only hope that they carry this lesson with them.

5) Humanitarian actors working with internally displaced persons (IDPs) often find themselves working more closely with development actors than when they are developing programs for refugees. National governments have a fundamental responsibility for the protection and assistance of those displaced within their borders and there is no way of bypassing those authorities to reach IDPs. In fact, a recent meeting to take stock of response to internal displacement agreed that a fundamental paradigm shift is needed to see IDPs as a development – and not exclusively – as a humanitarian issue.[8]

6) Within the humanitarian community, there is increasing interest in the situation facing refugees and IDPs living in urban areas.[9] Planning humanitarian response to displaced people living outside of camp settings perhaps inevitably involves working with a wider range of actors (e.g. urban planners, local governments, development agencies, multilateral development banks, etc.) than in camp settings. For example, providing water and sanitation in a refugee/IDP camp is often a very different task than ensuring that IDPs/refugees dispersed in a large city have access to clean water and to sanitation facilities. Assisting those displaced in urban areas usually means working with municipal authorities and investing in infrastructure and social services which benefit communities as a whole.

7) There is a growing realization that most of the world’s displaced are living in protracted situations lasting five, ten or more years. Dealing with long-term displacement (e.g. Darfur, Colombia, Pakistan) is a development issue. It is increasingly widely recognized that national development plans should take IDPs into account and that finding solutions for both IDPs and refugees requires the engagement of development actors. There are a few examples of national development plans that already include provisions on support for refugees and IDPs, which provide an important example for other states to follow. Finding solutions to displacement often involves issues such as restoration of livelihoods, the resolution of housing, land and property issues and the promotion of tenure security – all areas where development actors have more expertise.

8) There seems to be more concern about the role of affected governments in humanitarian response. For example, the Swiss government, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and ICVA are pursuing a dialogue between humanitarian actors and governments of disaster-affected countries.[10] Similarly, the IASC Principals have agreed on the importance of ensuring more effective engagement with governments in the cluster system as part of the Transformative Agenda.[11] If, in fact, humanitarian actors do make engagement with governments a priority, this could lead to the discovery of more common ground with development agencies who have emphasized the importance of local ownership and governmental buy-in as a basis for all their work.[12]

9) There are some interesting examples of good practice from Southern NGOs (e.g. Sarvodya in Sri Lanka[13]) that are development organizations by nature but became involved in disaster response in their own countries. These NGOs bring in their development expertise and sustain their engagement after international humanitarian agencies leave or reduce their presence. The growing experience and capacity of these NGOs is a cause for optimism. Local Southern organizations may be better placed to overcome some of the divides that characterize large international bureaucracies.

10) Stocktaking exercises undertaken by the World Bank have demonstrated that international development organizations have done more work with displaced communities and to generate/promote durable solutions than is often recognized.[14] By highlighting these experiences, we can recognize that the development community is not starting from scratch and that there is a foundation on which to build further cooperative efforts.

11) While humanitarian agencies often distance their work from broader migration debates, the current ongoing global discussions on migration and development offer a recognition that population movements are related to development.[15] Can we learn from such discussions about the relationship between displacement and development?

12) I think that there are signs that the development and humanitarian communities are making tentative steps toward speaking one another’s ‘languages.’ For humanitarian agencies, concepts of protection and human rights have long been central to both programs and discourse, but this is not a language that necessarily resonates with our development counterparts. However, concepts such as rights-based approaches to development and the previously-mentioned concept of resilience may offer possibilities of finding common ground for discussions between humanitarian and development agencies. For example, the UN Secretary-General has long emphasized the centrality of human rights in the UN’s development work,[16] the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has organized meetings on the right to development[17] and the IASC is engaging in discussions about the relationship of humanitarian work and human rights. There also seem to be signs of increasing possibilities for experts in humanitarian/human rights to contribute to discussions by development agencies.[18]

Three Issues of Growing Humanitarian Interest

13) Over the past 15 years or so, issues of housing, land and property (HLP) have come to be recognized in the humanitarian community as a critical concern, particularly in finding solutions for displacement. This is an area where the development community has long-standing expertise and there should be synergies to ensure that the HLP ‘solutions’ promoted for refugees/IDPs/returnees fit into broader tenure reform processes and land issues. I find it encouraging that UN Habitat is playing a more active role with humanitarian agencies, particularly around urban and protracted displacement. [19] The question arises as to whether humanitarian agencies should be developing expertise in these areas – or whether there is an opportunity to use the expertise that development agencies have acquired over many years?

14) Also over the past decade, there is growing recognition by humanitarians that the issue of livelihoods is central to humanitarian action[20] and I sense a certain ‘humility’ among staff of humanitarian agencies about their lack of expertise in this area. Income-generating projects are not the same as sustainable livelihoods. Again, the question is whether humanitarian agencies should devote the resources to acquire the necessary expertise to support livelihoods well – or if they should see this as an opportunity to learn from their development counterparts?

15) A third issue, emerging in the last 15 years has been growing interest – and perhaps even progress – in integrating displacement into transitional justice frameworks and ensuring that the displaced have the opportunity to participate in these processes.[21] At their core, issues of accountability and transitional justice are issues of governance and rule of law that fall into the broader development portfolio.

Three Upcoming Opportunities

16) In the development community, the wide-ranging debate and intensive consultation process about post-2015 development goals is an opportune moment to raise the concerns of the millions of displaced persons around the world who are often sidelined in development processes. At a time when many groups are mobilizing to build support for inclusion of their issues in these future goals, it may well be a timely opportunity for those working with refugees and IDPs to raise their voices in the debate.

17) Similarly, the fact that the UN Development Program is presently working on a four-year strategic plan offers an opportunity for a major development actor to recognize the importance of working on displacement as a part of its future development agenda.

18) And in yet another upcoming global initiative – the fact that the UN Secretary-General has announced that a humanitarian summit will take place in 2015 under the leadership of the Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs – offers an opportunity to place on the agenda of that summit the issue of working more closely and more intentionally with development agencies in resolving displacement situations.

19) Recent research, for example by researchers such as James Milner, shows the value of investing in training, education and peacebuilding efforts (i.e. development work) among the displaced while they are still uprooted.[22] These investments have been shown to pay off in the pursuit of durable solutions (for example, the skills displaced persons gain while uprooted can facilitate reintegration, community development and state-building). Remember that when refugees returned in Central America, South Africa and Namibia, the skills of the returnees contributed to their communities and, at least in some cases, provided political leadership to their countries. Are development actors missing opportunities to build future leadership and capacity by not investing in refugees and IDPs while they are uprooted?

20) I sense a greater emphasis in the humanitarian world on evidence-based approaches and a search for indicators to measure the impact of humanitarian interventions and the effectiveness of different kinds of aid. This approach to humanitarian work – difficult as it is for many humanitarians to accept – could well bring them closer to development actors in the way they operate and assess their work.

21) Finally, I think it is a sign of hope that the international community is willing to try again, after so many failures, to bridge the gap! After so many efforts, there is now the Transitional Solutions Initiative being piloted in Colombia and Eastern Sudan and the Secretary-General’s Policy Committee Decision on Durable Solutions, which is presently being implemented in Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan and the Ivory Coast.[23] And I suspect that there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of good examples from around the world where development actors have engaged to support solutions for refugees and IDPs. We need to hold up these good examples and learn from them. Perhaps the main reason that we need to try again is that displaced people – whether IDPs or refugees – will benefit when we overcome our bureaucratic divisions to work together.

[1] With thanks to my colleague, Megan Bradley, for her comments.

[2] Jeff Crisp, Mind the gap! UNHCR, humanitarian assistance and the development process, UNHCR Working Paper No. 43, May 2001,; Bryan Deschamp and Sebastian Lohse, Still minding the gap? A review of efforts to link relief and development in situations of human displacement, 2001-2012, PDES/2013/01, February 2013,

[3] Ibid.

[4] My original presentation at the Roundtable included 20 reasons for optimism, but as a result of the discussions there, I added another reason and moved a few others around.

[5] Romilly Greenhill, Annalisa Prizzon and Andrew Rogerson, The age of choice: developing countries in the new aid landscape, Overseas Development Institute, January 2013,

[6] See for example, DfID, Defining Disaster Resilience: What does it mean for DFID, 23 November 2011,; DfID, Saving lives, preventing suffering and building resilience, Policy paper, September 2011,; USAID, USAID Resilience Agenda: helping vulnerable communities emerge from cycles of crisis onto a pathway toward development, 2012,; USAID, Building Resilience to Recurrent Crisis: USAID Policy and Program Guidance, December 2012,


[7] IASC, “IASC Special Event: ‘Resilience: What does it mean in practice?’ – A Panel Discussion,” Feb. 2013,


[8] Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement, Taking Stock of Internal Displacement: Twenty Years On Report of consultation held at Château de Penthes, Geneva, 28-29 November 2012, November 2012,

[9] See for example: Crisp et al., “Displacement in urban areas: new challenges, new partnerships,” Disasters, vol. 36 Suppl 1, July 2012, pp. S23-S42; Jeff Crisp and Hilde Refstie, The Urbanisation of Displaced People, CIVIS, No. 5 — May 2011,; Eveliina Lyytinen, “A tale of three cities: internal displacement, urbanization and humanitarian action in Abidjan, Khartoum and Mogadishu,” New Issues in Refugee Research, UNHCR, 2009; Nassim Majidi, “Urban Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons in Afghanistan,”; UN Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons, Chaloka Beyani, 26 December 2011, A/HRC/19/54; UNHCR Policy on Protection and Solutions in Urban Areas, 2009,

[10] See IFRC, “International Dialogue on Strengthening Partnership in Disaster Response: Bridging national and international support,”

[11] IASC, IASC Transformative Agenda 2012,

[12] OECD, Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness (2005),


[14] See World Bank, Forced Displacement: Overview of the World Bank’s Portfolio, Social Development Notes, no. 122, 2009.

[15] See for example, relevant resources available at OHCHR’s website on the forthcoming October 2013 High Level Dialogue on Migration and Development:



[18] See for example, Walter Kälin and Nina Schrepfer, Internal Displacement and the Kampala Convention: An Opportunity for Development Actors, Geneva: IDMC, 2012$file/WB-analytical-study-nov-2012-web.pdf

[19] See for example, the work of UN-HABITAT,

[20] See for example, Karen Jacobsen, The Economic Life of Refugees, Kumarian Press, 2005.

[21] Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement and the International Center for Transitional Justice, Transitional Justice and Displacement, June 2012 (; see also, Roger Duthie, ed., Transitional Justice and Displacement (New York: Social Science Research Council, 2012),

[22] James Milner, “Refugees and the peacebuilding process,” UNHCR Research Paper No. 224, November 2011

[23] Jeff Crisp, Mind the gap! UNHCR, humanitarian assistance and the development process, May 2001; UNHCR, Concept Note – Transitional Solutions Initiative UNDP and UNHCR in collaboration with the World Bank, October 2010,; UN Secretary-General, Policy Committee Decision on Durable Solutions, 4 October 2011,