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‘Every action counts’: why the humanitarian sector needs to fast-track inclusion

Written by Veronique Barbelet, Nicola Jones, Christy Lowe

Expert Comment

The urgency of tackling inequity in all its guises has been made clear in 2020 through twin disruptors. The patterning of the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted stark vulnerabilities to the disease and government containment responses based on gender, age, poverty, disability and ethnic minority status.

At the same time, the international traction of the Black Lives Matters movement has given voice to a powerful call to dismantle structures of racism and discrimination.

In the humanitarian sector, conversations around tackling disparities and promoting inclusive responses are also gaining more prominence in refugee and internally displaced people (IDPs) settings.

However, while the tagline for this year’s World Refugee Day was ‘Every action counts’, action around inclusive policies and programmes in the sector has not been quick or systematic enough. Here our experts explain why and outline solutions, as well as potential new approaches that we are assessing, to support efforts to fast-track social change for all.

Frequently asked questions

Veronique Barbelet: why the humanitarian sector fails on inclusion

The humanitarian sector, including in refugee settings, struggles to ensure that responses are inclusive. By this I mean that responses to crises do not always reach those most affected in accessible ways, address their needs, or reflect the diverse ways people are impacted.

There is however room for optimism. The 2016 World Humanitarian Summit spearheaded initiatives to make humanitarian responses more inclusive. The humanitarian sector recently endorsed new guidelines on ensuring disability inclusion in humanitarian responses, and we are seeing more and more organisations adopting policies that support inclusive responses such as UNHCR’s Age, Gender and Diversity policy.

Unfortunately, these commitments and guidelines have not translated at scale in practice.

Ongoing research by the Humanitarian Policy Group suggests the following explanations and ways forward for inclusive humanitarian action:

  1. The focus on developing technical guidance is necessary but insufficient to ensure inclusive humanitarian action.
  2. Responders need support from the humanitarian sector to tackle the trade-offs they face. In particular, the choice between reaching the most people possible or reaching marginalised groups most acutely affected by crises.
  3. Vulnerability has often been classified in a categorical, non-dynamic and one-dimensional way, which may lead to more exclusion rather than inclusion.
  4. The humanitarian sector fails to work effectively with local organisations, in particular organisations of people with disabilities. This is needed to ensure communities affected by crises can participate effectively, and there is accountability towards them.

Nicola Jones: we urgently need an intersectional lens in refugee responses

Although the emphasis of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on Leave No One Behind is laudable, surprisingly refugees or forced displacement were invisible in the original SDG indicators.

Only in late 2019 after much lobbying was a single indicator on refugees – related to target 16.3 on the rule of law – included.

This means that globally governments are still not compelled to disaggregate progress on, for example, gender equality, access to health and education, or to social assistance by refugee status.

The recently established UNHCR-World Bank Joint Data Center on Forced Displacement is a welcome development in starting to address this. However, as the ODI-hosted Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence (GAGE) programme’s longitudinal research with over 4,000 young people in Palestinian, Rohingya and Syrian refugee communities highlights, there is a pressing need for more tailored programming that addresses intersecting vulnerabilities.

Our virtual research with Palestinian and Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon shows that married girls during the Covid-19 crisis are especially vulnerable to heightened care burdens, intra-household violence and psychosocial distress.

They are also among the least likely to access services and support. Similarly, we found adolescents with disabilities living in Rohingya refugee camps are less likely to access appropriate health services, more susceptible to peer violence and disproportionately affected by mobility restrictions.

UNICEF Jordan’s integrated child and adolescent Makani programme, which offers education mentoring, psychosocial first aid, child protection, sports and life skills for refugee and vulnerable host communities, is a promising example of an approach addressing such intersectional challenges.

To tackle these intersecting sources of disadvantage and promote resilience at scale, humanitarian interventions must prioritise principles of inclusion from the outset. By starting with the complex needs of, for instance, an adolescent girl with a disability, who is out of school and facing intra-household violence, programme designers and implementers will by necessity address an array of overlapping barriers that can benefit refugee – and host – communities more broadly.

Christy Lowe: how should refugee and internal displacement responses integrate with social protection systems?

Faced with the often protracted and increasingly urban nature of displacement, humanitarian agencies have sought to adapt how they support refugees, internally displaced people (IDPs) and their host communities.

One approach that has garnered significant recent interest is integrating displacement responses with national social protection systems.

Such systems are increasingly being used to channel humanitarian assistance to populations affected by large-scale shocks, from floods in Nepal to seasonal droughts in Malawi, to Covid-19’s global damage to livelihoods.

But refugees and IDPs have often been excluded due to lack of citizenship or documentation, discrimination, language, information constraints, or hesitance to engage with government systems, among other factors. There is therefore still much uncertainty about how humanitarian assistance can, or should, integrate with government social protection schemes.

Our new research will analyse the options for integrating displacement responses with social protection systems in different contexts, to explore when and how closer integration should be considered.

This involves going beyond technical considerations like the social protection system’s coverage, performance and expansion capacity, to also consider political, societal and organisational priorities and concerns.

These include host governments’ potential apprehension about electoral backlash or long-term financial costs of including refugees in national systems. They also include some donors’ hesitance to directly fund government budgets, and humanitarian agencies’ concerns about upholding principles of neutrality and independence when collaborating with governments.

The project, funded via a World Bank-managed Trust Fund on Forced Displacement, includes primary research with partners in Colombia, Cameroon and Greece. Alongside interviews with government, humanitarian and donor agencies, we will conduct focus groups, interviews and surveys with thousands of refugees, IDPs and host community members to understand their experience of current integration approaches.

Through this, we aim to ensure that the perspectives of those most affected by displacement lie at the heart of future decisions about the systems designed to support them.