Published on Let's Talk Development

As development actors, how should we address the forced displacement crisis?

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Forced displacement has long been seen as a humanitarian issue. But with the number of forcibly displaced people at historic highs, there are increasing calls for development actors to engage.  

The scale and nature of the challenge underscores this need. There are about 60 million people worldwide who have been displaced by violence and human rights violations – either as refugees, who have fled across an international border, or as internally displaced persons, who remain within their own country. They typically spend years, sometimes decades in forced displacement, with limited economic prospects. An even larger number of people are indirectly affected, especially in host countries and host communities.

Yet what should we, as development actors do?  What does a development approach entail, and how is it different from traditional ways of working and humanitarian approaches?

The engagement of development actors is premised on the recognition that refugees and internally displaced persons have different characteristics and needs from the poor at large and that host communities also differ from other communities in a given setting. Otherwise traditional poverty reduction efforts would suffice and there would be no need for specific forced displacement programs. It follows, then, that the goal of development actors is to help gradually eliminate these differences and to normalize the socio-economic situation of forcibly displaced people and their hosts in a given environment.

It is worth pausing for a few seconds on the implications of this notion.  The traditional “durable solution” to forced displacement is to enable return to the country or place of origin; integration in the host country or community; or resettlement in a third country.

The proposed goal for development actors is fundamentally different, although not inconsistent. It is not about where the person is, but whether (s)he has distinct needs.

For example, an Afghan Pashto who has been living in Northwestern Pakistan since 1979 and is fully integrated in the local society will continue to be a refugee from a traditional and legal perspective, but (s)he may not be a “person of concern” for development actors in a way that is distinct from the poor of the community in which (s)he lives.

Conversely, a former Burundian refugee who has been granted Tanzanian citizenship may no longer be a forcibly displaced person from a traditional and legal perspective but (s)he may still be “of concern” to development actors if (s)he continues to face specific difficulties arising from the forced displacement experience.

So what are the differences between the forcibly displaced and the poor at large?

To put it simply, refugees and internally displaced persons carry extra vulnerabilities because of their forced displacement experience. They have suffered a sudden and often catastrophic loss of assets.  They have to cope with a number of psychological hurdles, such as dealing with the uncertainties of being in a “temporary” situation and/or having directly experienced traumatic violence.  They often end up in a place where there is no prospect for them and few economic opportunities, and their legal status sometimes does not even give them the right to work. Mitigating the impact of such vulnerabilities ought to be the main goal of development actors.

And what about host communities?  

They are experiencing a demographic shock when large numbers of people suddenly flow in.  As a result, there is a mismatch of demand and supply in a number of markets including services and jobs, with excess demand in some areas and excess supply in others.  External support may help smooth the adjustment, which will be easier if market mechanisms (including onward movements) by the forcibly displaced are left to function.

This process will create winners and losers, which needs to be managed. It may also exacerbate pre-existing tensions related to ethnic composition etc., hence adding to the fragility of the hosts. Specific support by development actors will be needed to help mitigate the short-term impact of these shocks and potentially turn the inflow of people into an advantage over the medium-term.

Defining an effective approach to the forced displacement crisis is critically important for the World Bank Group to meet its twin goals to end poverty and promote shared prosperity, and for the development community to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Having clarity on our potential goals is a first step.


Xavier Devictor

Co-Director, World Development Report 2023

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