Bringing evidence and action to protracted crises

Published on 4 February 2020

Image of Jeremy Allouche
Jeremy Allouche

Research Fellow

Image of Lewis Sida
Lewis Sida

Co-Director of the Humanitarian Learning Centre

Image of Tina Nelis
Tina Nelis

Knowledge Officer

In 1994, at the age of six years old, Clemantine Wamariya fled Rwanda and spent the next six years moving to the next ‘safer’ country. By the age of twelve, Clemantine had travelled through seven African countries until she was granted refugee status in the United States. Clemantine was ‘lucky’ – she received legal recognition of her status as a refugee – most other refugees and displaced persons are not so fortunate.

The global figures are staggering. In 2009, there were 43.3 million forcibly displaced people; by 2018, this figure had almost doubled to 70.8 million. At the end of 2018, some 15.9 million refugees or 78 per cent of all refugees were in protracted situations with 5.8 million in displacement for 20 years or more. With the return of refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) at a historic low, protracted displacement has long been the new norm.

Refugees and IDPs end up living in limbo, in camps or in urban areas – often slums – for generations, lacking protection, legal status and documentation. Access to basic services, to promote resilience and sustainable livelihoods remain a challenge. ‘Durable solutions’ in this context remain a pipe dream. This situation poses, therefore, as much a development challenge as a humanitarian one, with long-term impact on the countries and communities concerned.

The humanitarian-development nexus

The call for humanitarian-development nexus approaches is not new, originating from disaster risk reduction (DRR), linking relief rehabilitation and development (LRRD), resilience work, fragility and conflict sensitivity approaches to response. While both fields serve the purpose of improving the living conditions of people in need, the principles and values that underpin their work, their time horizons, measures and emphasis on structural change are different. As such, critics claims that humanitarian principles and the protection of the humanitarian ‘space’ are incompatible with the work carried out by development actors.

Such a framing, however, is incorrect and unhelpful. Conflict and the increasingly protracted and recurrent nature of crises, combined with high numbers of displaced persons, at a time when climate-related shocks are more frequent and intense, means that siloed thinking and programming cannot respond quickly at the same time as addressing systemic inequalities and injustices. This point was not lost on UN Secretary-General António Guterres when he urged:

“We must stop seeing the Syria situation as merely a humanitarian crisis. Humanitarian response alone is utterly insufficient. We must establish a solid link between the humanitarian, resilience and development dimensions.”

More coordinated action between donors, national governments, humanitarian agencies, development organisations and the private sector is needed. Holistic approaches which encourage humanitarian-development programming and longer-term funding are needed to support the self-reliance and livelihoods of people in protracted displacement. Yet without political support and integration of the displaced within national and local development frameworks that provide links to sustainable, national systems, positive livelihood outcomes are unlikely for the staggering caseload of displaced persons.

Evidence and action

The Humanitarian, Innovation and Evidence Programme (HIEP) has a vast portfolio of work, innovative in its approach, and relevant and responsive to changing humanitarian contexts and priorities. To date it has funded 26 research and innovation projects, 160 research papers, 10 impact evaluations, and 127 humanitarian innovations have been tested and piloted with 15 supported to scale.

At the ‘Protracted Crises, Resilience and Basic Services – Evidence and Action’ session HIEP is presenting its portfolio at the Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Week (HNPW). They will share their critical findings to provide pragmatic ways in which to operationalise the humanitarian-development nexus in relation to resilience, service delivery and protracted crises.

1. Need to expand knowledge base on service delivery

Academics have been researching protracted crises for decades. Yet this research has usually been lengthy, complicated to digest and difficult to put into action for operational agencies suffering from high workloads and limited time. Moreover, conducting research in humanitarian contexts is difficult.

Findings from HIEP show that service delivery in a recurrent or protracted crisis context is challenging but not insurmountable. At present, the evidence is patchy on some key areas (WASH, market-based interventions) of service delivery. More rigorous studies are required to fill these evidence gaps. Expanding the knowledge base available to policymakers and aid agencies can lead to better strategies and interventions influenced by key insight.

2. Provision of basic services is often a highly contentious and politicised act

In contrast to other basic needs such as food, water, health and shelter, in humanitarian emergencies, energy and education provision are not seen as priorities. For example, an estimate of 5 per cent of humanitarian agencies’ expenditure is on diesel, petrol and other associated costs – $1.2billion on polluting fuel in 2017 (pdf)– and less than 3 per cent of the global humanitarian aid budget is spent on education.

At the crux of this lies political appetite. To find truly durable and viable solutions implies permanence and is often politically impalpable. But this is the new normal. We need to think outside the box whilst also being pragmatic. We need to build on innovations (in education and sustainable energy solutions) that work and push beyond traditional approaches.

3. Cash transfers and social protection work

As a humanitarian response, cash-based transfers are used to provide basic needs (subsistence and non-food items such as sanitation, water shelter, agriculture, education etc.) in times of crisis. Yet with the recurrent and protracted nature of crises, governments and international agencies have sought for a more effective way to respond to such shocks through shock-responsive social protection. Critically, however, shock-responsive social protection is not a ‘silver bullet’ for reducing the negative impacts of shocks and is very much context-dependent.

Where established ‘routine social protection’ systems that enjoy broad coverage exist, there may be little benefit in trying to make these systems and programmes ‘shock-responsive’ in a crisis. At the same time, there is a need for better coordination between actors (social protection, disaster risk management, humanitarian and development), sectors, programmes and delivery systems to enable effective shock-response through social protection programmes and systems.

4. There needs to be greater appreciation of the agency, self-determination and resilience of displaced persons

Many low-income countries are having to cope with multiple humanitarian disasters including civil wars, floods, and epidemics. In the face of these protracted crises, it is often affected populations and individuals that find innovative ways to manage the constant change and insecurity while national governments and international agencies struggle to provide adequate solutions. Refugees and displaced people are a heterogenous group with differing and changeable needs. There needs to be greater appreciation of the agency and self-determination of IDPs who are making their own way but may need support.

An independent evaluation of HIEP found that it has ‘achieved considerable success’ and is a ‘highly relevant initiative addressing key issues affecting humanitarian action and people impacted by humanitarian crises (pdf)’. Through its Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF), HIEP funded the Mobile Vulnerability Analysis & Mapping programme (mVAM) of the World Food Programme (WFP) to monitor food insecurity in conflict and humanitarian settings. mVAM is now used in global operations in over 30 countries on four continents and was used during the Ebola crisis.

HIEPs legacy will live on through the next phase of humanitarian evidence and innovation funding with programmes such as Education Cannot Wait, the Creating Hope in Conflict Humanitarian Grand Challenge, Innovation in Emergencies and Protracted Crises and the Education Research in Conflict and Protracted Crisis programme. After all, there is still much to be done in the field of humanitarian research and a greater need to link such research with operational funding.

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