Published on Development for Peace

Measuring the poverty of forcibly displaced populations: Challenges, progress, and prospects

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Child peering at camera next to standing mother and another child looking away. Child peering at camera next to standing mother and another child looking away.

According to UNHCR estimates, the total number of forcibly displaced persons (FDPs) has exceeded 110 million as of May 2023. Accurate poverty data on FDPs is essential for host governments and international organizations to design effective and targeted humanitarian interventions.  However, measuring poverty among FDPs, including refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), is challenging and expensive. In a recent research paper, we explore the rapidly changing landscape of poverty measurement among FDPs.

Poverty research on FDPs is hard for several reasons. FDPs are often not accurately reflected in national household surveys because sampling frames do not cover FDPs explicitly or are not updated frequently enough.  Political or privacy concerns may induce national statistical offices to overlook FDPs or the location of FDPs may be hard or risky to reach, or simply be unknown. The absence of proper residency addresses or frequent changes in addresses make listing households in samples difficult. If FDPs perceive governments as contributors to displacement, they may be hesitant to share data.

The specificities of FDPs also make standard poverty measurement tools inadequate. It is difficult to quantify housing, education, and health services provided in camps for free. In-kind assistance and irregular incomes complicate the measurement of standard indicators of well-being. The definition of household and the number of household members are key information for many statistics such as household income or consumption and any per-capita measures, but accurate information on numbers and structure of FDPs households are hard to obtain. While FDPs respond more frequently to surveys than regular populations, refugees complain about survey fatigue, and FDPs have specific cultural and language needs that must be addressed when selecting enumerators.

Fortunately, a new resolve emerged to address these data and measurement issues. Poverty measurement among FDPs is a relatively new field. However, it advanced remarkably fast since the beginning of the Syrian conflict. Specific initiatives aimed at improving data collection have been established such as the World Bank-UNHCR Joint Data Center and initiatives aimed at improving research such as the UK-World Bank-UNHCR research program Building the Evidence on Forced Displacement (BoEFD). Today, the World Bank has a special collection in its microdata library focused on fragility and conflict data and the UNHCR has a new microdata library focused on FDPs data.

These data repositories contain hundreds of data sets on FDPs with mostly open access. Thanks to these advancements, research on FDPs is now regularly published in leading peer-reviewed social science journals. In the space of only a few years, research on forced displacement has passed from a minor sub-discipline of migration studies to a major field of research in its own right with thousands of dedicated publications.

This new field and its inherent difficulties with data collection and poverty measurement have led scientists to develop innovative survey and measurement methods that can serve the wider community of poverty researchers and have been applied to survey populations that are difficult to reach or very mobile as is the case with FDPs. These new methods include satellite imagery, remote sensing, advanced phone surveys, rapid survey techniques, and social media surveying.

The combination of big data with the use of machine learning and artificial intelligence tools was applied to the context of FDPs populations because traditional methods proved inadequate. These advancements, in turn, are now being deployed in more traditional contexts because of their time and cost efficiency. While standard household consumption surveys remain the gold standard for poverty measurement, these new methods expand the reach of poverty measurement and the range of validation tools available to researchers.

The huge growth in research that this field has experienced over the past decade is expected to continue in the years to come. Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine and the civil conflict in Sudan are the latest two episodes of a long string of new conflicts that are increasing the ranks of FDPs worldwide.  The media attention to FDPs and the research interest towards these population on the part of academia and policy makers is expected to grow in the years to come. Therefore, continuing to invest in data and research on these populations is a necessary step to increase the capacity of the international community to protect these vulnerable populations.  


Paolo Verme

Lead Economist, Manager of the Research program on Forced Displacement and Head of Research and Impact Evaluations in the Fragility, Conflict and Violence group of the World Bank.

Utz Pape

Lead Economist, Poverty and Equity Global Practice

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