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Owen Barder: we need an alternative to refugee camps

Refugee camps don’t help refugees – so why are they still being built?

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Chief Innovation Officer, International Rescue Committee
Director of Innovation Strategy, International Rescue Committee

Perhaps the worst part of living in a refugee camp is how hard it can be to leave refugee camps. Apart from the fact that, by one measure, refugees are on average displaced for over 12 years, refugee camps often restrict refugees’ mobility. “You have no opportunity to move around the country in which you live,” says Owen Barder, vice president at the Center for Global Development (CGD), today’s guest on Displaced. “You're essentially imprisoned in a camp.”

Only one-fifth of refugees live in refugee camps, but those who do face far more obstacles than refugees who live among host communities. Refugees in camps are, in general, more poorly fed and housed, and have fewer opportunities for employment, than refugees living outside of camps.  

Owen Barder is a prolific and insightful commentator on the international humanitarian sector. After a career in civil service spanning over two decades, Barder joined the Center for Global Development as a vice president and director for Europe. He also serves as a visiting professor at the London School of Economics, a specialist advisor to the UK House of Commons International Development Committee, and is involved with organizations pushing for greater transparency and accountability in the humanitarian sector.

Apart from pushback from host countries worried about political or economic backlash from permitting refugees to live and work where they please, Barder says the largest obstacle to moving beyond refugee camps is the aid sector itself. Donors and UN agencies are bogged down by their funding models, which rely on recouping the operational costs involved in running vast global logistics by charging donors a percentage on the value of goods and services procured for refugees and others in need.

Owen Barder, vice president at the Center for Global Development (CGD)

In other words, agencies need to buy stuff (food, blankets, housing) and hire people (nurses, teachers, engineers) in order to keep the lights on in their offices in New York, Geneva, or Nairobi. The incentive, therefore, for agencies to approach every problem with their own institutional hammer is almost overwhelming.

A related problem is that the aid community does not typically rely on independent needs assessments to determine what to procure. Instead, agencies present their own best estimates of the resources needed to address a given crisis in a funding appeal to the donors community, says Barder. And despite a consensus in favor of independent needs assessments embodied in three UN humanitarian reform agendas, it has yet to be implemented widely.

So when it comes to refugees, agencies may deliberately overlook the one form of aid that works better than any other — solely because it endangers their funding model. Cash transfers, for example, are backed by reams of evidence proving that they are the most effective way to boost the health, wealth, and well-being of people in need. But as of 2016, only 10% of aid was dispensed in the form of cash assistance. Moving to cash aid could spell the end for refugee camps, says Barder. When refugees are able to buy what they need for themselves, the logic of centralizing distribution of goods and services in a camp disappears. And cash may not be the death knell for big UN agencies as some may believe: In situations where refugees are unable to access services through the state, Barder imagines they could buy those services from development organizations, offering an alternative funding stream for aid agencies.

We spend an enormous amount of resources on supporting refugees in refugee camps. And one interesting question is whether if we used that resource to reduce the friction of absorbing refugees into our societies in other ways, whether we could reduce the political opposition to having refugees.

This is a conversation about how to return decision-making power back to refugees. Cash does that. Camps, often, don’t. “One of the striking things about the humanitarian system is how little voice the affected populations have in it,” Barder tells Grant and Ravi. But, he says, if donor states push for some common-sense reforms to the aid sector — including independent needs assessments and an increased use of cash-based aid — that voice can grow louder.

Related Resources

Uganda’s approach to refugee self-reliance — Forced Migration Review, Kelly Clements, Timothy Shoffner, and Leah Zamore

Simplifying the UN Budget — Devex, Peter Troilo

The World Humanitarian Summit: The System’s Broken, Not Broke — Center for Global Development, Owen Barder and Theodore Talbott

Rethinking the humanitarian business model — Center for Global Development, Jeremy Konyndyk

State of Evidence on Humanitarian Cash Transfers — Overseas Development Institute, Sarah Bailey and Paul Harvey  

Cash transfers: only 6% of humanitarian spending – what’s the hold up? — The Guardian, Paul Harvey

Opinions and views expressed by guests are their own and do not reflect those of the International Rescue Committee.