Published on Africa Can End Poverty

Participation, pragmatism, and daring to invent: Uganda’s Displacement Crisis Response Mechanism

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Photo: Dorte Verner/World Bank Photo: Dorte Verner/World Bank

“We must dare to invent the future.” The Government of Uganda (GoU) is embracing Burkina Faso’s former president Thomas Sankara’s dictum. Even as Uganda remains at the center of Africa’s largest refugee crisis, hosting almost 1.6 million refugees and asylum seekers (the fifth largest number in the world), the GoU approaches the crisis as a development opportunity. Its Displacement Crisis Response Mechanism (DCRM) facilitates rapid scale-up of public services in poor and vulnerable host communities experiencing displacement shocks.

The DCRM is a prevention and inclusion-oriented instrument supported by the World Bank through the Development Response to Displacement Impacts Project. A previous blog post highlighted the DCRM’s potential role in fostering inclusive relationships between and within refugee and host communities. It does this through financing long-term infrastructure community projects to increase health care, education, and water provision capacity in response to displacement shocks for both refugee and host communities (summarized in Figure 1). The strong partnership between the GoU and the World Bank utilized local knowledge and international best practice expertise to respond to a recent displacement shock.

Figure 1: DCRM Design & Implementation Framework: Scale-up process in response to refugee-related displacement shocks

DCRM Design & Implementation Framework: Scale-up process in response to refugee-related displacement shocks

With its focus on fostering social inclusion, the DCRM was designed to build social capital, foster community leadership, and account for contextual considerations in shock-affected communities. To build social capital, the DCRM scales-up public services on a per-person basis without regard to the refugee or host community proportion of a district’s population. Accountable and locally-gathered time-stamped and geolocated data representing per-person public service access does not differentiate between refugee or host communities. Collaboratively measuring, and responding to, both groups’ needs fosters inter-group trust, collaboration, and localized participation reduces frictions between communities. The DCRM’s transparent, locally-led data collection process also strengthens community leadership and builds stronger local-level institutions and accountability.  Finally, the data collected measures context-specific need by measuring public service access in refugee-hosting districts. This data empowers the GoU to be more adaptative, precise, and proportionate when prioritizing DCRM resource allocation.

The situation in Uganda deteriorated in the period leading up to 2020. A rapid inflow of refugees from neighboring DRC (see figure 2), including more than 1 million refugees in the 18 months immediately preceding 2020 significantly stressed social services in both host and refugee communities. With the design of the DCRM now finalized, the time had come to test the mechanism and implement a response.

Figure 2: Refugee population by country or territory of asylum

Refugee population by country or territory of asylum

Underlying tradeoff: Speed vs accuracy

A fundamental principle of the DCRM is that it is ‘needs-based’, with the local government assessing the need using objective data described above. However, as the displacement crisis was unfolding, and the project team collected data on health, water, and education service provision in the displacement-affected districts, there were discrepancies between the service capacity data collected by the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) and that of relevant ministries. The OPM wanted to undertake efforts to validate and / or clarify these inconsistencies. However, this would have taken time, and the crisis was worsening.

Herein lies the fundamental tradeoff between a timely disbursement of DCRM resources and complete confidence in the data—a tradeoff at the heart of many international development projects: balancing optimal best practice with time-sensitive development needs.

Pragmatic action: Creating alternatives, creating opportunities

The GoU and World Bank team agreed they would not compromise on holding to the three objectives of building social capital, community leadership, and context-specificity.  At the same time, the GoU strove to balance best practice with time-sensitive development needs. It adopted a sequenced, pragmatic approach to the initial disbursement. The selection of the first districts to receive DCRM support was therefore guided by government’s knowledge of districts’ governance structures, locations, histories, and data-informed vulnerabilities. They then immediately disbursed a fraction of the funds into two refugee hosting districts that the data indicated were experiencing the greatest need—Terego and Isingiro. With the immediate needs addressed, the GoU focused on strengthening the data collection system to address the data inconsistencies and create a more objective understanding of need. Once this was completed, the GoU could also disburse the remaining funds into the other refugee-hosting districts, Adjumani, Kamwenge, Kikuube, Kiryandongo, Kyegegwa, Koboko, Lamwo, Madi-Okollo, Obongi, and Yumbe.

This sequenced disbursement embraced a “learning by doing” approach, and the spirit of Sankara’s quote. The data-based decision-making process of the initial disbursement already emphasizes transparency, speed, and accuracy in the targeted allocation of DCRM resources, while the final validation of the data was not yet completed. The $1.2 million disbursement (27% of the $4.5 million currently available under the DCRM) financed one sub-project in the water & sanitation sector (52% of disbursement volume), two health sector sub-projects (41%), and one in the education sector (7%). Both districts would also be severely affected by the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. Since the DCRM resources finance public service provision, they reflect the sustainable development approach adopted by the GoU in addressing displacement shocks and reducing the negative human capital effects on both refugee and host communities. To respond to the Democratic Republic of Congo displacement crisis, the adoption of a sequenced approach allowed crucial, timely disbursement in response to urgent need. It did so while continuing to invest in and strengthen data collection for future disbursements – ‘doing’ to learn.

The GofU dared to invent. Now, as the GoU gather lessons from the DCRM’s first disbursement, it is learning by doing to foster this global innovation’s continued improvement.


Chris Mahony

Lawyer and political economist

Barry Maher

Senior Financial Sector Specialist

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