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.

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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.
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Korean Aid: from ‘Development Experience’ to ‘experience development’

I have recently changed jobs, leaving the ‘scary D.C. organization’ I was at for the more moral-hazard-free (haha) shores of the United Nations here in East Africa. I am working on implementing a project funded by KOICA, the Korean aid agency. The past few weeks have been a time of adjustment (to the new country, to work) and my first discovery of how Korean aid operates on the ground. It is too early to come to any conclusions, but safe to say that there are many interesting questions and doubts to follow up on. I look forward to doing this as I move along in my writing here.

So, the ‘new’ donors. Or the ‘once alienated, slowly being brought into the fold’ donors. Japan. Korea. Brazil. South Africa….others.

There is something fascinating about countries that have paid their dues to the World Banks and IMFs and then turned around to become worldwide donors, regional powerhouses, or even to add a brick or two to the mosaic of countries and agencies with their own little niche in the world of international cooperation.

The most fascinating element is probably how these countries use the knowledge and lessons, the know-how gained throughout their history in their development programmes. Some countries are more high-profile about it than others. Some countries prefer sticking to policy advising, others like very technical advice, others still prefer direct, on-the-ground action. But there is one thing in common with all ‘development experience’-related programmes from new donors: they are all new.

Take a country like Korea. I will spare you the story behind Korea’s economic development. But it was just in 2010 that Korea joined the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee, and it was just two years ago that its Knowledge Sharing Program got off the ground. Everything is still in planning. Here and there, scattered in Southeast Asia and Africa, one can find Korean-aid funded ‘pilot projects’ with grand visions of scaling-up once they get the ‘Korean development model’ down pat (good luck).

Because all of these initiatives are new (yes, you can also find older initiatives as well, the best example of which is Brazil’s social protection/school feeding know-how being exported), and because the road ahead is not paved, there is often a lack of clarity in how one gets from the experience of development to the packaging of an aid/development programme.

I used to be a big fan of discourse analysis, so if we order things by ‘frame’, we get something like this:

  1. The development itself. This is the string of policies, the events, people and decisions that drove economic growth and that produced whatever result we see. Needless to say, this is an ephemeral concept, and not really analyzable in and of itself, if not to make a simple statement: Korea’s GDP went from X to Y in A years.
  2. The perception of the development experience. How do countries order and understand the course of their economic and social, political and cultural history? How do they perceive the ‘success’ and ‘failures’ of policies after the fact?  To what do they attribute it? We can add to this one more dimension, that of ‘who’? Who perceives a policy as a success? The state? Civil society? Scholars within the country? This is in my mind one of the key points that will inform what road new donors’ aid (and especially Korean aid) goes down over the next decades.
  3. How these countries’ different actors make the leap between their understanding of how their country developed and their ‘aid philosophy’. To what are development successes attributed, and do related policies form part of the plan when the higher-ups decide where the money goes? Are there countries that retain one discourse about their own development and employ greatly differing or non-sequitur aid allocation strategies?  (The short answer, from what I know of Korean aid, is yes)
  4. The packaging of the development experience. That is, how aid-related ideas are perceived to travel in space and time. What is seen to travel well and what is not. There may also be an interesting variation by region (ie. Different policy advice, different programs etc. depending on the region the recipient country is in, and not depending so much on similarities in economic, political or social structure).
  5. The actuation of the development experience. The concrete policies and programs that come out of the ‘packaged development experience’ and their effects. The idea, when one hears talk about a ‘model’ (the ‘Korean model’, and so forth) is that repeating the same experiment will lead to fundamentally similar results. To my knowledge there has been very little literature looking closely at this question. (Should you know of any though, I would be happy to hear about it!)

Memories of Busan: HLF-4 and the Private Sector

A new paper by the Canadian Council for International Co-operation and the think-tank the North South Institute, as well as an insightful Oxfam blog post have inspired this look back at what Busan got wrong with the private sector, and how to fix it.

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In November of 2011 I received the opportunity to volunteer at the Busan High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness (HLF-4)…’s Global Civil Society Forum. It was a 3-day Forum bringing together the voices of civil society in preparation for the actual High Level Forum. Speaking English, French, Spanish and Korean with the participants, sitting in on plenary sessions, helping to translate the final document, or interpreting for a Guatemalan participant during his presentation were definitely some of the highlights for me.

Many different agenda were brought together in the plethora of plenary and splinter sessions, but two main ideas kept coming up. The first was the need to shift the aid paradigm to a discussion on ‘development effectiveness’ and not ‘aid effectiveness’. The second was born out of concern that further involvement of the private sector in bilateral aid could be dangerous to sustainable development and democratic ownership of the development process.

These concerns reflected an apprehension that the agenda set for the HLF, along with the blueprints for a ‘global partnership’ for aid and development were all really just an excuse for donor countries to justify ‘privatizing ODA (Official Development Assistance)’ and partnering with the private sector to offset their declining aid allocations.

“Effective Use of Declining Aid Resources”

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Me (far right) translating for a Guatemalan delegate during a Busan Civil Society Forum session

The result, after several days of meetings, was the Busan Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation, a mouthful of a name. But for all its good language, the actual High Level Forum’s final document did not take civil society’s concerns very seriously. There is certainly progress in the discourse and focus of the international aid community. Busan did make some positive steps:

  1.  It put forward the idea of a global partnership for development
  2.  It embraced a discourse of ‘development effectiveness’ and ‘democratic governance’
  3. It emphasized several core values and rights placing people closer to the center of development processes.

It really failed to impress on certain other counts, though:

  1. It failed to speak specifics about the nature of the partnership it was supposed to build
  2. It did not reach a clear conclusion on the nature of BRICS and NIC involvement in the new aid architecture
  3. It pushed for increased private sector participation in development aid without sufficiently defining the parameters and expectations, the dangers and safeguards that need to go along with it. (The non-binding, sidelined Joint Statement (pdf) was a good first step)

This last point struck me as the most important at the time; the private sector is the bulk of most economies, the driver of growth and creator of wealth, but is also a potentially harmful partner in a development context. Moreover the shift to the private sector seemed to be more about donor country funds shrinking with the onslaught of the financial crisis, and less to do with a sudden discovery of how awesome private sector actors were.

Evaluating the Private Sector in Development Since Busan

So this Canadian Council for International Co-operation report on bilateral donor approaches to development cooperation is certainly edifying in this respect. It discusses how top OECD donors have incorporated (‘partnered’ with) the private sector into their bilateral aid programs, and what this has come to mean for development effectiveness, especially in a post-Busan context.

The paper looks at the type of private-sector partnership and promotion aid, and notes that it focuses mostly on macro-level interventions (the famous business-enabling environment), on firm-level projects, including public-private partnerships. The conclusions it reaches speak to the fears that were present at the Busan Civil Society Forum, namely that partnering with private sector actors in development, in its current form:

  • Tends to favor economic shifts driven from outside the beneficiary country
  • Tends to forgo local capacity building and offers little incentive for funding mechanisms to favor the domestic private sector
  • Tends to confound private and public results
  • Does not lend itself well to evaluation due to a lack of data and to the various mechanisms though which private-sector aid takes place

A notable point that came out of the research: despite many references to rights, to sustainability and to gender, it is not clear at all that these issues were given special consideration on the aggregate.

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Oxfam: “The World Bank’s private sector financing arm doesn’t know the environmental and social impacts of nearly half its portfolio”

Case in point: a recent audit released by the World Bank’s Compliance Advison/Ombudsman says that the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) is very poorly informed about the environmental and social impacts of its financial market lending portfolio. The logic of lending to financial markets is very clearly not coupled with principles of sustainable development, social or environmental impact.

Questions

Erinch Sahan at Oxfam asks an important question “can aid money be a meaningful driver of growth?” That is, can bilateral assistance, partnering with the private sector, become part of the solution?

On one hand I think that we have yet to see a country in which aid, in general, has become a meaningful and sustained driver of economic growth (never mind equitable distribution of wealth). What we do have are countries that have successfully used growth strategies to achieve (more or less) inclusive growth.

Partnering with the private sector certainly has its benefits. But one of the more serious side effects that it comports is to evacuate the donor country from the aid process (take a look at how European multilateral public-private partnership funding mechanisms like the Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund are structured- it’s just layer after layer!). In so doing, this tends to also evacuate the recipient (‘partner’) state from the processes of its own development. This was the big argument brought against the World Bank’s PPIAF, that it put pressure on governments to do business with international firms, and then to concede to often disastrous changes in the provision of social goods, like water or electricity.

So, we know the dangers. We can see the evolution of the involvement of private sector actors in bilateral aid (more of them, with ever more diverse mechanisms of action, centered on macro and firm-level interventions).

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The 2nd Seoul Civil Society Forum, one of the many Post-Busan evaluation conferences

Busan’s HLF-4 was one step on the road to consolidate and legitimate what evidently turned out to be an ad-hoc appeal to new sources of money, or new ‘partnerships’ to use the pretty term. It reached out to Chinese and other emerging economies’ capital, just as it did to companies, in order to buttress lagging ODA numbers. In its haste to create the semblance of unity in the form of a partnership, it gave no more than lip-service, non-enforceable, if-you-don’t-mind-sir recommendations on how to properly integrate these new sources of funding. And even those didn’t make it into the final document.

Before the Private Sector Party Jumps Off…

Okay, but what are the responses? What specific private sector funding mechanisms have worked and in what context? How can governments preserve policy coherence all while harnessing the financial power and access to financial markets that private sector partners can provide?

Answers to questions like these are needed, like, yesterday. Because for one, the Post-Busan Partnership Framework is proving to be a slow, slow process. Another reason is that new and emerging donors like South Korea are more and more eager to jump on the private sector bandwagon, but not as conscious of its pitfalls.

A year and a bit after Busan, I can’t help but regret that the Civil Society Forum’s voice was given so little weight.

Chris Blattman

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