Issues in Household Vulnerability Assessments and Targeting in the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Assessing vulnerability at the household level has become a central question since the start Syrian refugee crisis. The giant toll placed on countries and humanitarian agencies from the sheer number of the displaced (now over 4.5 million estimated by UNHCR) has naturally led these actors to nuance their assistance, targeting only those most in need. There is a consensus in humanitarian agencies such as the World Food Programme and the UN Refugee Agency that blanket support for refugees past their first months of displacement is very costly and leaves a rather large inclusion error.

Based on this, attempts have been made to target only the most vulnerable and food-insecure refugees for assistance, which ranges from the distribution of tools and shelter to the monthly provision of food.

The issue is that different offices and operations have come to very different conclusions about what vulnerability is, how to measure it, and how to use that measurement to target only a portion of the refugees.


Filippo Grandi, the High Comissionner for Refugees, visiting a family of Syrian refugees in Jordan (Photo by UNHCR/C. Herwig)

Of course different sectors are trying to achieve different objectives- ensuring that refugees are food-secure, or that they have enough income, or safe access to water and sanitation, and so on. But even within the food security sector, the plethora of methods used to decide who is vulnerable and who is not reflect a lack of consensus on targeting methodology.


To be sure, humanitarian agencies are good at targeting: WFP does a lot of geographic targeting, identifying in a population spread out across an area, where those most likely to be food-insecure are living. UNHCR also does targeting based on a short list of socio-demographic criteria- identifying all single women heads of household, or all households with a disabled/chronically ill/elderly person, and so forth.

The complicated nature of targeting in the Syrian case (not just Syria of course- something similar is being done in Sudan) is due to the requirement of having a by-household assessment of food security/vulnerability. This cannot be done by only looking at a sample of households. Geographic spread loses some importance, and single-variable filters (presence or absence of female as head of household) do not capture the multi-dimensional nature of vulnerability.

Therefore the ‘by-household’ part precludes in large part anything but a census to identify households. The ‘food security’ part, while pretty much straightforward, poses problems when it comes to asking ‘how food secure?’

The targeting has been mixed across Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt. It has included a proxy-means test in some locations, a combination of a means-test on target indicators (consumption, income, etc.) and a ‘score card’ approach in others, and even a sort of cross-tabulation of food consumption and coping strategy indices, and poverty indicators.

The mixed nature of this approach is probably more due to differences in thinking across offices than to anything else. The problem is that there is almost no way to compare how well each approach is vis-à-vis the other. It is possible to calculate the extent of inclusion and exclusion errors (not always easy!), but each of these approaches actually measures a different thing- there are several ways to measure food security, and differences in the questions asked and the weights given to different factors means there is an intrinsic barrier to comparison.

Sudan is another issue, since the population is not one of freshly displaced refugees, but one of IDPs displaced 10+ years ago. The IDP identity is highly politicized in Sudan, and the registration of IDPs that took place 10 years ago, along with the subsequent caseload verification, are widely acknowledged in the humanitarian community in Sudan to have been fraudulent to a certain extent. Furthermore there are serious issues of access and security in certain locations in Darfur which may not exist in refugee host countries. The Sudanese case, where targeting methodologies are different still, is perhaps more complex for these reasons.

A couple of parting thoughts on identifying and targeting households by vulnerability, from my experience and conversations with colleagues:

  • Context is important– where are people living? How is their access to services, community assets, connection to the host country? How restricted is their movement and what is their rate of participation in the local economy? All these factors look beyond the single household, but can greatly inform how different locations are treated differently.
  • Vulnerability, and measuring vulnerability, is subjective– every methodology has its faults, and, operationally speaking, there will always be the fear of exclusion errors. Resources permitting, it is better to err on the side of inclusion rather than exclusion.
  • Beneficiary feedback and cross-checking can help– the most glaring exclusion errors can be caught with a good system to process complaints. People who were pushed out of assistance through the targeting should be able to register a complaint and have their case re-examined, time and resources permitting.

The Case Against Zero Hunger and the Sustainable Development Goals

With 2016 just around the corner, we are mere days away from getting started on the next set of development goals, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). I have been able to follow the long consultation process that led up to their adoption in bits and pieces, through a conference in Seoul in 2012 and some related work on the food security side in Rome in 2014. I have a bit of an issue with the ‘Christmas tree approach’ to development goals (hang everything up and hope it sticks) embodied in the 17 goals and 169 targets the UN has adopted to guide the next 15 years of development work. But here I want to address one goal in particular: Zero Hunger.

I don’t like the concept of Zero Hunger as a development goal. This is not the most popular opinion in the place that I work, and so I thought I would give a few reasons to explain myself. What follows are the four main reasons for which the 2nd SDG is simply not good enough for me.

1. It’s not a goal. It’s an anti-goal. A goal would be something measurable, not just ‘find whatever I think we should eliminate, and eliminate it’. Zero anything is more of a vision. The underlying logic behind Zero Hunger is that it must be possible, and therefore can be a useful development goal. I address this point further down.

2. It’s confusing. Zero Hunger as in absolute Zero? The food insecure in Switzerland too? There’s no reason not to focus on them, sure, but let’s define terms. Is getting to absolute zero the same thing as getting to the current level of developed countries in general? And does it solicit the same approaches? I think no in both cases. Maybe we are on the cusp of large gains in the access, availability and utilization of food across the world- gains in the past decade alone have been astounding, and that’s good news. But the quality of food insecurity in richer countries in my estimation is very different from that in poorer countries. Food insecurity dropped with development in these former countries, but has kept steady at low levels for decades- even FAO stops counting undernourishment when it drops below 5%. To have this type of food security be the focus of the SDGs is to miss the point; sure, developed countries have gains to make, and it’s important to push them along that path- but to have that distract from the monumental effort required in developing countries is to miss where the largest impact can be had.

3. It’s not coherent with other goals. The goals on poverty reduction aren’t well linked to the food security goals- on one hand there’s ‘Reduce by 1/2 the number of people living in poverty…’, and on the other ‘End hunger, ensure access to safe nutritious food all year long’. That’s not the current relation of poverty reduction to reduction in food security though. People get less poor, then less food secure, not the other way around. FAO and WFP’s State of Food Insecurity annual report from back in 2013 had a great graph showing progress on the 1st MDG from 1990 to 2010. In this 20 year period, the prevalence of poverty dropped by almost half, while reductions in food insecurity (malnourishment and underweight) were of only about 10% points. How are we to get zero food insecure people while only aiming to reduce the number of people living in poverty by half? More importantly, if poverty is such a problem, why are we not running a ‘Zero Poverty’ campaign?

4. It’s not doable by 2030. It’s not. A goal is not, should not be, something that you walk into knowing that you will fail. You have to actually be able to do it. In Sudan WFP is cutting its support to tens of thousands of people. Not because there are fewer food insecure people, just because WFP doesn’t have any more money. It’s being disguised under the auspices of more ‘sustainable programmes’ to help people in the long term, but the fact is that WFP is helping fewer people who need help; it is cutting people off from support (bad, dependence-inducing support, but still support). Meanwhile the government of Sudan bombs towns, cuts off humanitarian access, and we have to shut up about it, because if not, we get kicked out. Rwanda is housing Congolese refugees for 20+ years now, and they’re not going anywhere soon; they still need support. What about international dialogues and agreements in the past 5 years makes anyone think that things are changing so much that in the next 15 years all these problems can be solved?

Food security is, like everything else, a matter of politics as well. And politics are…well, complicated. In a United Nations that continues its tradition of ambivalence toward governments that oppress their people, it becomes impossible for development and humanitarian actors to effectively support food security, much less eliminate food insecurity.

In this light I would have much rather seen an SDG goal and targets for food security that talk about humanitarian access to protracted conflicts, about the right to food, about government accountability, and about pushing states to capitalize on the truly great gains in food security over the past decades. Instead we are left with a vague wish list,the unfathomably dense idea of saying ‘I know, why don’t we just end hunger?’.

Rwanda: Paul Kagame, the friendly dictator who freed millions of Rwandan from poverty

The unfathomable ambivalence of leadership on the continent: Kagame.

Konakry Express

I am against all forms of dictatorship. Beyond political and moral reasons, because my father was a victim of the tyranny of Sekou Toure. Myself, I almost ended up at Camp Boiro, for a simple identity check, the same day I arrived in Conakry to spend my vacation in 1964. I escaped only because, when the military was in the process of taking our names, my father and the then Minister of Planning, Barry III, arrived to extricate me from the clutches of torturers.

Furthermore Touré’s dictatorship has ruined foundations of the socio economic development of Guinea and torn the society to the point that the country is still unable to recover, 31 years after the bloodthirsty dictator’s death. Because of it, I lived for decades in exile, sans-papiers.

But, if I were Rwandan, I would have signed, like the almost 4 million signatories of petitions out of an electorate…

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Rodrik’s Triple Trap and Growth Prospects in Africa

Many factors lead people to write about heterodox economics in development. This has obviously been greatly informed by the Eurozone debt crisis and political fiasco of the past 4 years where the good old criticism of ‘the system, man’ has gone beyond simply blaming the excesses and transgressions of the financial sector and the superwealthy, to reach at issues of basic wealth distribution and equality and discrimination in society.

The attraction of the schools of thought which reject neoclassical economic models of growth and convergence to me is that they come with concrete policy tools and prescriptions, which are drawn in many cases not from an ideological contre-posture to the Washington Consensus or the like, but tied to concrete cases of economic success. The policies that East Asian countries like Korea, Japan and Taiwan used to develop since the 1950s have been used to highlight and guide policy advice for current developing countries. In short, my appreciation for heterodox development economics has been rooted in the suggestion that it can actually achieve economic development.

So when my favorite thinker in this line, Harvard’s Dani Rodrick, starts getting pessimistic, I get worried. Rodrick has given talks and put out papers in the past year or so looking at the shifts in labor among different sectors of an economy, the productivity of those sectors, and the rate of growth of the countries. The diagnosis, apparently, is bleak.

Developing economies, Rodrik argues, are facing a triple trap of economic structural change. Convergence in productivity certain sectors of manufacturing has slowed down compared to previous decades, meaning that transitioning an agrarian labor force to manufacturing will be less effective than before at increasing productivity. However, the service sector has its own pitfalls (a leitmotif of many development economists), mainly in the high barrier to entry that it has, presented by the higher skills needed to enter this labor market and the lower number of workers that it can absorb. And the third trap is that of primary-resource-led development. The argument here is also a classic- agriculture and mining are too dependent on demand + investment in commodities, or they are simply not sustainable. Besides which, the more high productivity sectors such as mining are invariable much less labor-intensive. Much of African growth over the past decade (stellar by the way) has been led by high primary commodity prices.

The outlook is somewhat grim. African countries’s real issue according to Rodrik seems to be a mix of their high urban informal sectors, which are apparently very unproductive, and the can’t go here, can’t go there conundrum.

I wonder though. Countries like China and Korea achieved high growth in part because they first saw huge increases in factor accumulation- they brought more labor into their manufacturing sectors, and they bought and used more machines- before productivity went up much (this is Krugman’s famous ‘perspiration not inspiration‘ argument (pdf) regarding East Asia’s development). African countries haven’t seen this sort of shift (at least not into the formal sector manufacturing jobs), so it is perhaps too early to say that manufacturing cannot lead to very solid growth. We simply haven’t seen much sustained manufacturing growth- not even in inputs, forget productivity- in African countries to be able to tell what factors would push it forward. The optimists on Africa will not stop talking about the rise of an African consumer. Imagine a growing manufacturing industry which benefits from rising costs of production in China on one hand and rising demand on the continent on the other.

To achieve this, it’s clear that the large informal urban economy (think Nairobi) would have to be addressed by policymakers. Finding way to drive labor into the most productive sectors of the economy (Rodrik’s opinion on the best way forward)? This isn’t the fight-the-comparative-advantage Rodrik I know. Imagine if you raise the productivity of these informal urban micro-firms and production centres, just a little, and the effect that might have. Imagine subsidy programmes which encourage larger scale production, social protection which drives people to larger firms, and skills and business education which makes individuals more productive.Let’s see if Dani Rodrik can start proning more solutions as well.

While I am by no means an optimist of the “Africa Rising’ type, the continent has not yet had its final word.

The science that wasn’t: The orthodox Marxism of the early Frankfurt School and the turn to critical theory

‘Grasping the failures of revolutionary marxism’

Government, Humanitarian Assistance and not Wanting to ‘Develop Darfur’

I was speaking with a UN protection specialist this evening over drinks in Sudan’s Western Darfur, where I have just arrived for a short assignment. We got to talking about (what else) work. And talking shop in Darfur, I am rapidly learning, involves a lot of sighing and disgusted hand gestures.

idp-otash-nyalaThe Darfur region is in an awkward position by humanitarian relief standards. Funds from the normal international donors are drying up and conflict in the region, while certainly down from five years ago, is by no means absent. The number of internally displaced people still living in IDP camps is pushing a million and a half, grouped together for over ten years, caught in (and sometimes party to) a series of power struggles- national (tensions between Khartoum and periphery states such as North Darfur), administrative (States keep getting divided in Sudan, not unrelated to Khartoum’s desire to keep things quiet), local (the Shiekh leaders of IDP populations have their own agendas, which often clash, so a series of mediations is always necessary to keep tenuous peace and order).

But the money is drying up, and humanitarian organizations don’t really know what to do about that. Aid allocations to Darfur are falling, and have to compete in space now taken up by an unprecedented number of crises in the world: Ebola in West Africa, unrest in the Central African Republic, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan…

So the UN agencies and their partners (to say nothing of the government) find themselves with all these displaced people, who have been living in a sort of protracted emergency situation in camps for many years, for whom there will soon be very little assistance (money) left. And all of a sudden these agencies are realizing that they should probably not have kept treating so many people as freshly arrived IDPs for so long. People in the camps are now used to receiving their monthly allowances of food and other items for their household. Thinking on how to avoid creating these protracted emergency situations is happening, for example by changing approaches, working on recovery and resilience from day one, using market interventions such as cash transfers and vouchers to support people- Syria and Lebanon are a good example of the beginnings of this change.

But in Sudan, the fundamental issue is not a technical one.

Back to my conversation with my colleague in West Darfur. While agonizing over the absence of any long-term vision for transitioning out of the untenable IDP situation in Darfur, she told me that for her, the issue was that the government had little interest in sustainable solutions in the region at all: “That’s the problem: they don’t care about developing Darfur”.

The charges are serious. New funds for Darfur coming from Qatar and administered through the Darfur Regional Authority are creating extra confusion when agencies working on the ground try to choose which areas to intervene in. Some police and intelligence services, especially those who take orders directly from Khartoum, are more interested in keeping a certain degree of tension in the region than in protecting the population. Humanitarian assistance, especially in the still insecure areas of the region, have to pass through the filters of sometimes armed groups, who will arrange to take their share of goods first…

What can international agencies do in this situation? A few things, certainly. Taking the example of protection issues, my colleague talked about how women’s centres were paired with work being done by UNDP on rule of law within IDP camps, to create a safe space for women and link them up with viable livelihoods. Okay.

But I am convinced that in so many cases, particularly where there is conflict, humanitarian assistance has all too easily labeled itself as a technical solution to a technical problem, when the reality is that the problem is fundamentally more political than technical. That is to say, without rethinking the approach of Humanitarian agencies sitting in the capital city who are more interested in preserving the space that they currently have to operate (Sudan is wont to throw you out of the country at times) than in challenging the overall approach to delivering assistance and ensuring a solid transition out of conflict– without rethinking the assumption in the UN that the government should always be in the driver’s seat– then there is de-facto no longterm plan, no recovery, no return to normalcy possible.

And this is not just UNDP’s job either. Each agency, country and partner has their own role to play in changing the approach to countries where the priority is calm over peace, status quo over improvement and tension and fear over partnership. The risk in doing this is being expelled from the country, or forced to leave or otherwise not be able to help those who could be helped. The danger in not doing it, besides compromising the very raison d’etre of humanitarian work, is in knowingly being a party to a power game where the winner is decided in advance. And it’s not the people you are working for.

The Problem with Global Income Categories

With so many countries experiencing rapid rates of growth, with so much income disparity and with so many countries whose particular demographic/economic situations are of a complexity which belies the simplicity of mere income-based rankings, how come the World Bank’s famous global income categories, measured in Gross National Income per capita are still used with such authority?

Several possible reasons stand out: 1-because GNI per capita and global income categories are widely understood and used categories, useful for communicating and coordinating with a multitude of international actors; 2-because these categories can be indicative of countries’ capacities to produce goods and services; 3-because many developing countries have embraced the terminology derived from these categories, with attaining the middle income category being seen as a significant achievement.

The Middle Income Angle
Much of the debate within international financial institutions, development agencies and global fora is focused on identifying the position and role of middle income countries in global development assistance architecture. Key considerations include whether to continue to allocate resources to middle income countries, whether or not to prioritize certain middle income countries in global aid and lending strategies, identifying the role of middle income countries as emerging donors and sources of development experience and expertise, as well as specifying the type of engagement that the international development world needs to take in middle income countries.

The conventional view espoused by the main development and lending organizations as well as some OECD donor countries is that rapidly narrowing poverty gaps and growing GDP in middle income countries, along with increased capacity to formulate and actuate viable development solutions means that a higher priority should be given to lower income countries in development assistance, and at the least that support to MICs should not come at the expense of support to other categories of countries, such as LDCs.

Middle income countries have better access than their lower income counterparts to funds through their tax bases or their ability to enter sovereign bond markets, mobilize more competent bureaucracies and provide additional support for expanded social safety nets, and therefore less in need of development assistance.

The critique to the conventional view suggests that while specific country needs and responses by the international community may change with a ‘graduation’ to middle income status, this does not necessarily mean that serious problems do not exist within MICs, or that less priority should be placed on all middle income countries.

Recent studies have noted that with 74 per cent of the world’s poor (living on under 1.25$ per day) now living in middle income countries, the only way to make significant gains in the struggle against global poverty is for international development cooperation to give special attention to poor people, not just poor countries.


Living the middle income dream at $ 2.25 a day

Moreover the growth in GNI that can push countries across the imaginary line to another income category is not necessarily a reflection of commensurate increases in the wellbeing of all of their population. Many countries have persisting inequality and ‘pockets of poverty’, often in underserved regions or among marginalized populations, which national governments are often unable or unwilling to address. In short GNI growth by itself is misleading, and efforts must be made to better represent the relative quality of growth in global-level discussions.

While the conventional view generally acknowledges a broad diversity in countries which cuts across income categories, it still makes reference to and accepts these categories as approximate indications of the overall wellbeing of a country. However the link between income and other areas of development is not always very clear, and discussions on a variety of development-related topics, including food security, run the risk of becoming misleading if they take their cue from income categorizations.


A great peek at the economic and social systems sides of the current Ebola outbreak

Scuba-diving and Presidential Aspirations in Djibouti


I am not making this up.

Djibouti’s Vision 2035 is some sort of long-term development strategy, which I’m sure incorporates a lot of analysis (well, whatever you can get with the data available over there), squeaky clean charts and glossy hard-copies. But it also has this gem, front and center (I added the red):

Djibouti Vision 2035

Aim of the vision

Djibouti aims to become the largest logistic hub in Africa, using 100% green energy. Also the country hopes to become the number two destination in the world for scuba diving after Sharm-el-Sheik.

Objectives of the vision

  • To address different challenges ahead and risks on the way within the country.
  • To fulfil aspirations of the President and his government.
  • To encourage Djiboutian citizens to take ownership of this vision themselves
  • Encouraging Djiboutians to achieve their own success
  • To join fast-paced and very competitive new world

OK now, a couple of questions/observations…

1. Why stop at number two in the world? You have until 2035 to pull this off you know

2. The president of Djibouti will certainly be a man, at least up through 2035

3. What happened to the aspirations of the people again? How hard is it to replace “the president and his cabinet” with “the people”?

Still not as bad as considering spending 10 billion to redesign all your cities to take the shape of animals.




This is What We Don’t Know

Another reminder of how much we don’t know about African countries for lack of proper data.

The challenges are fourfold: (1) national statistics offices have limited independence and unstable budgets, (2) misaligned incentives encourage the production of inaccurate data, (3) donor priorities dominate national priorities, and (4) access to and usability of data are limited. The Data for African Development Working Group’s recommendations for reaping the benefits of a data revolution in Africa fall into three categories: (1) fund more and fund differently, (2) build institutions that can produce accurate, unbiased data, and (3) prioritize the core attributes of data building blocks.

Chris Blattman

International development, economics, politics, and policy


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