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.

Special Economic Zones in Africa: What Lessons from China?

ChinafriqueThe government of Ethiopia announced earlier this month that the long-awaited and carefully planned Bole-Lemi Industrial zone (a Special Economic Zone, or SEZ) would finally be seeing light by the end of the fiscal year. The first government-lead economic zone of its kind in the country, it will cost an estimated 49 million USD to set up. And it looks like this is only the beginning; five more such zones are planned in the country. The trend is also visible a little to the south, in Tanzania and Kenya- also Nigeria. What could possibly be pushing this renewed interest in the Special Economic Zone, you ask? Because it’s not as though this is the first time (PDF-p.61) governments on the continent have warmed to the idea of SEZs. What makes the Ethiopian Minister of Industry so eager to tell the world that this new SEZ will be the “key for [their] industrialization”? Why the Chinese of course.

The Chinese?

Okay, so it’s not just the Chinese. But if you look at who is funding many of the new SEZs popping up in African countries, or if you look at the countries who are hosting conferences on SEZs, those who are in the boardrooms and Prime Minister’s Offices, providing the policy advice, giving the lessons learnt and helping to draw up the master plans, you’ll find a likely group of suspects: China, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan and Korea (to a slightly lesser extent).

You’ll find no shortage of people to explain to you why this is exciting, not the least of who work in the World Bank. And they are right: the twist on South-South cooperation that is this African SEZ development in partnership with Asia has some great benefits that were not there beforehand. Take China. Not only does it have the experience setting up over 100 SEZs in its own country, Chinese politicians are playing for keeps, showing how serious they are about producing actual sustainable results in the zones they manage (Oh yes: you see, in addition to helping states set up SEZs, China has already set up a number of its own SEZs on the continent, run mainly by Chinese capital interests). Plus the Chinese are in large part subsidizing the establishment of these zones, making them more accessible to governments who previously who not have ventured that far into exploring this type of economic tool.

The real gains from partnering with East Asia

But (I know you felt this coming) all is not cotton candy and unicorns. This opportunity of learning from the East Asian development experience in this particular area is a real one, but one must be oh so careful when going down this road. After thinking it over, I’ve come to the following conclusion: the greatest benefit from East Asian collaboration on SEZ development for African countries is not the money they get to make the Zone, and it’s not the capital they attract. It’s not even the vaunted technology transfers that always make the list of plusses. The greatest benefit is the actual technical advice, the capacity gains one gets from being with a partner on the ground and seeing how they go about doing things. It’s the gains in policy-formulation, in learning literally how you write up a new law, who the best person or company is to talk to about X subject, and so on. You don’t need to copy your partner 100%, but you need to see what they are doing, who they are talking to…

Of course, the potential is there for gains from SEZs for the economy which come from the SEZ itself- that’s after all one of the reasons it’s being built. Chief among these are more competitive industries (ideally able to compete in global markets i.e. to export), technology transfers, skills acquisition, technology transfers, and so on. The expected benefits are certainly there. But the more one looks at it, the more one sees that the value from these gains is pretty ephemeral compared to the possible value of the technical know-how and policy-savvy that I mentioned earlier. This is certainly not the main line of reasoning that one hears in the papers, however. The real value of the partnership is not where it initially appears to be.

‘Leading Dragons’ is not enough

Partnering with Asian countries, especially with China, often leads to the following line of reasoning. Since wage rates in China are climbing, one can anticipate a very substantial shift of manufacturing jobs out of the Middle Kingdom and into the backyard of lesser developed Southeast Asia and Africa. Establishing SEZs with Chinese cooperation is a means of making sure that African economies get their share of this so-called ‘Leading Dragon’ effect.

But this is dangerous thinking. For one, this phenomenon isn’t a sure thing; it’s contingent on rising wages in China, but no one is sure if wages for these unskilled manufacturing jobs will keep rising at the same rates- imagine a slowdown in wage increases which lasts for a good 10 years. Where is your massive influx of manufacturing jobs now? The second point is that even if this is the case, and the demand for labor in manufacturing industries (along with the requisite relocation of said industries) actually happens, African countries still find themselves in a race-to-the-bottom competition. Without concrete gains in productivity, without harnessing the technology, then all these economic opportunities are little more than passing fancies; one cannot drive a shift in economic structure on another country’s costs of labor.

As it is, many of these Chinese-backed export zones risk becoming enclaves of special economic activity and subsidies, in unfair competition with the host country’s other domestic industries. What is more, in many cases the leadership/managerial roles in running these zones are left exclusively to the partners- that is, out of African hands. Who will ensure that the technology transfers will happen properly, that skills will be acquired, and that in short, the venture does not just become another ill-fated economic experiment? As it stands, the Africans run the risk of missing the possible high-tide brought on by the Chinese.

The East Asian Miracle- Ignored

The real value of these Africa-Asia SEZ cooperation initiatives is not, I said, where it initially appears to be. This is also because a very partial and partial (this play on words sound better in French: partiel and partial) account of how these Asian countries have used SEZs in their development seems to be privileged when it comes time to explain the role of these economic zones in East Asian countries’ development. These conferences on the subject that are held seem to drive past the larger development experience and come right down to the point: ‘How did China/Singapore succeed in establishing and managing its SEZs?’

But when you look, especially in the Chinese case, at the history, you find that it tells you more than what is being said today (it seems so at least). Case in point: Chinese establishment of SEZs was the result of and a response to gains in factor accumulation (mostly capital, some labor) as its economy enlarged, not the other way around. Now, it’s true that with 7-10 million people in Africa’s least developed economies entering the job market each year, there is a chance that smart, adaptive policies and the right type of capital inputs can bring about large economic expansion. But this isn’t really what the Chinese did, nor does it take the lesson that the Chinese example is giving.

Then there is the standard argument that the likes of Dani Rodrik have been giving against the export-led model of growth, which applies in part here too: for the East Asian Tigers, first came gains in productivity, then exports-oriented industrialization, not the other way around. Exports played a smaller role than often thought in the actual economic takeoff of the likes of Korea and Taiwan. Both these points come to the same (cautious) conclusions: 1) SEZs are the result, not the start, of a certain economic process, and have been effective in Asian countries which have already seen important gains in capital and labor inputs. 2) Economic zones have led to globally competitive domestic industries (mostly) after these industries have gained in productivity (usually through gradual competition with industrialized countries’ exports in the domestic market).

It is not clear at all that this same dynamic is taking place in East Africa. Rather, the SEZs appear to be treated as the solution in and of itself to the question of factor accumulation and total factor productivity.

The Most Important Factor

I attended a talk by Japanese professor (and industrial policy scholar) Kenichi Ohno last summer in Korea, and he said something which really gave me pause. He said that, in the process of advising the Prime Minister of Ethiopia’s office on how to set up Special Economic Zones, he received what he considered to be the best question, from some Ethiopian official. It was something like: ‘Can you show us an example of a well-written proposal? What should go in it? What does the Table of Contents look like?’

This was the best question because it was precisely with information like this, Ohno said, that the government would build the expertise necessary to successfully manage a Special Economic Zone. Once this know-how is transferred, no matter the partner -be it the Chinese, the Japanese, the Europeans, or other Africans- Ethiopia would have the tools necessary to achieve their goals- whatever those be. It struck me as a very true point. The know-how, the technical skills, the transfer of concrete experience goes miles beyond the ideology, the money, the ‘comprehensive development experience’ and the pitfalls of debates that inevitably turn to a meaningless merry-go-round of “developmental state or free market? Import substitution or export orientation?” etc.

It remains to be seen how well this know-how and these tools will be transferred and used by African countries, but this is without a doubt the richest experience that can be gleaned from these new SEZ partnerships.

United States Military Engagement in Africa: More Engagement, Less Military


Africom- via Newsone

I read a nice blog post at the Center for Global Development recently on US military engagement on the African continent, the main points of which can be summed up as follows:

“1.Africa is not a threat to the United States
2.Terrorism is a tactic, not an enemy
3.Unintended consequences cause serious harm [drones + militarized aid]
4.Stable, accountable states are ultimately the highest interest of the United States in Africa.”

The piece concludes:

I welcome US military engagement with African militaries in support of developing more professional, accountable African security forces that protect and defend their citizens rather than prey upon them. Ultimately, this contributes to stable, inclusive, and accountable states and best serves US interests in Africa, including with respect to counterterrorism.

Yes and No.

The counter-terrorism agenda in Africa is seriously harming the continent, never mind US relations with African countries. AFRICOM is facing tough times within the U.S.  Department of Defense itself, not to mention the tough resistance it is facing from other African states.

Engagement with African militaries in support of better security forces is most certainly needed, and if the United States is one country able to answer that need in a correct manner, then sure, why not. But the predatory nature of security forces on the continent, their inefficiency, lack of communication, accountability and outreach are all problems with their counterparts in what some call the broader security system and others call the security sector.

So if these problems are addressed solely by the Department of Defense, it is missing the systemic nature of many security issues. Rule of law, good governance and accountability within the military and police, but also within the justice system, informal policing bodies, local government and others are inextricably connected to security. To leave that to DoD, as it is being done, is just as much part of the problem.

The Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS) at the Department of Defense is one example of a more soft power approach to African security relations, which incorporates elements of human security in their outreach programs to African countries. All well and good, but its very military-centric approach means that there are very few non-‘traditional’ security sector actors (non-military, non-police, non-gendarmerie) at their workshops. The discussions they have and the recommendations they make are rather shallow, and have little resonance when it comes to questions of governance or human security.

But imagine if DoD research and engagement centers cooperated more, not with AFRICOM like they do, but with the State Department, with civil society actors on the U.S side, such as the National Democratic Institute to systematically engage African partners year after year on holistic security concerns… then maybe I would agree more with the author of this otherwise very on-point piece.

Why is Mali Different?

French troops landing in Bamako- Jerome Delay

French troops landing in Bamako- Jerome Delay

2013 should have heralded a long respite from armed international interventions. On one hand a United States eager to avoid a second Libya and in the middle of distracting fiscal battle. On the other hand a cash-strapped Europe reducing its footprint, even in  international aid. France itself snubbed the Central African Republic’s call for French help in staving off the advance of an armed group on its capital just two weeks ago. Armed military intervention should not have been anywhere near the top of the agenda.

This makes the French decision to intervene militarily in Mali last Friday, bombing key cities and lines to stop the advance of the Islamic militants all the more incomprehensible. The rest of the international community, though not absolutely enthusiastic, has pledged different amounts of military and intelligence support to the French’s Operation Serval, including troops from Nigeria and other African countries.

But why now, and why Mali? The following points are the main reasons that have been given by the media, politicians and experts over the last week to justify the sudden military intervention. Some, you’ll see, make (only slightly) more sense than others.

  1.  “We cannot allow the terrorists to gain a foothold!”

Map of the Malian conflict -The Atlantic

Map of the Malian conflict- The Atlantic

This is by far the most popular line of reasoning to come out on the news platforms and in the interviews.

The idea is that the principal threat posed by the armed extremist groups (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM, Ansar Edine and MUJAO) comes by virtue of their animosity towards the United States and Europe. Allowing the terrorists to ‘gain a foothold’ in the country is an enormous security risk for western countries. Says U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta: “We have a responsibility to make sure that al-Qaida does not establish a base of operations.”

Two things are worrisome about this reasoning.

The first is that political discourse on intervention in the Mali affair constructs a dichotomy in African conflicts. On one hand there are the ‘conflicts as usual’, which are supposedly homegrown rebellions stemming from either ethnic, religious or resource allocation disputes. Senegal, Guinea, Central African Republic and Côte d’Ivoire are a few examples. On the other hand, we are told, there are ‘new’ conflicts more worthy of interest on the part of western states because they are linked to terrorism and are fundamentally transnational in origin. The Malian conflict is not about Mali; it is about the ‘transnational terrorist threat.’

Violent religious extremism is significant, but it is not the entire story behind the conflict. There is the Touareg independence agenda, power struggles among the different armed factions in the north, the March 2012 coup d’état to consider. There is the economic aspect: several leaders of Ansar Dine and MUJAO are also heavily involved in the illegal gun, drug and cigarette trade routes passing through the country (the man behind the recent hostage crisis in Algeria, Mohktar Bel-Mohktar, is also known as ‘Mr. Malboro’ for his involvement in Sahel cigarette smuggling). There are political aspects: negotiations with the Malian government aiming at forming the ever popular gouvernement d’union nationale– otherwise known as the divvying-up of ministry positions and national wealth. This is not an entirely terrorist conflict, and treating it as such is a dangerous idea.

The second reason to worry about the ‘standard’ and ‘new’ African conflict dichotomy is that, even admitting that the conflict is primarily one of combating terrorism, it is unclear to what extent military intervention will contribute to solving matters. Paul Pillar wrote a very interesting piece to this effect recently, essentially saying that combating terrorism in geographical terms is a misunderstanding of how terrorism works.

We […] apply [flawed] thinking to terrorism, which is a tactic and not an empire, partly because of a general tendency to think in spatial terms. Habitual and loose use of the label “al-Qaeda” also reifies a single global terrorist organization that does not really exist, as distinct from collections of groups that have adopted the al-Qaeda name or pieces of its ideology. – Paul Pillar

To this argument one can add the so-called spillover effect. The transnational nature of the terrorist threat in Africa, we are told, means that the Malian conflict can spill over to neighboring countries as well, fomenting unrest across borders in a 21st Century twist on domino theory.

To this, we can answer that the spillover has already happened, and that a while ago. There is also the recent Algerian hostage incident. What’s more, sudden intervention on the part of France means that there is no time to make sure that the armed groups’ strategic retreat will not precipitate a spillover of some sort in Niger, Algeria or Mauritania. In trying to stem the spread of conflict, this French action may end up aiding it.

2.       “Mali is strategically located!”

The United States hiking up its military presence in Africa speaks to the growing (worrying) interest in the ‘strategically located’ African continent. This discourse is directly linked to the previous reasoning. ‘Terrorism cannot be allowed to wield influence on the continent’- and more precisely in the Horn of Africa and in West Africa.

The problem is ultimately that ‘strategically located’ is a judgment that comes from the country doing the intervening. What what is reflected in this word ‘strategic’ is nothing more than a country’s interests. As it happens the fight against terrorism has been labeled as in the interests of all countries. Soit. But the diagnosis of threat and the resulting action is still always at the discretion of the influential international players.

3.       “Mali was an exemplary democracy that needs to be saved!”

Having gone through a couple of relatively problem-free elections and having built up a peaceful and functioning political system, Mali was for a time heralded as one of the stable  and promising democracies of the region.

But the coup that ousted President Amadou Toumani Touré in March 2012 happened… March 2012- almost a year ago. Consolidating democratic rule in Mali since then has been very troublesome, not in the least because the northern territories are occupied by armed groups. Still, the type of rapid intervention we have seen in the past week may eventually restore government control over the physical territory, but it cannot guarantee the advancement of democracy. That role goes to the Malian people.

March 2012 Malian coup leader captain Sanogo

March 2012 Malian coup leader captain Sanogo- The Hindu

Incidentally the idea of saving Bamako from being taken by Islamic extremist groups, while a noble one, highlights the absolute arbitrary nature of interventions (in general but in this case) on the African continent. Just a couple of weeks ago the Central African Republic’s President François Bozizé launched a distress call to the international community, faced with a rapidly advancing front of armed rebellion. Sound familiar? (To be fair, the comparisons end about there, and experts I have talked to agree that there was practically no way that the unsavory Bozizé would have seen his capital collapse, protected as he was by an regional contingent of troops and his Chadian benefactors). The point remains that once you agree with interventions, you need to provide a logical answer to the question ‘in what case?’ This has yet to be done.

4.       “We need to stop the spread of Sharia law and human rights abuses!”

In my mind this point should be the most heard and the biggest source of attention. From the wanton destruction of religious building and cultural patrimony to the indiscriminate meting out of punishment for smoking or listening to music the Islamic extremists in the north of Mali have, for the time they have occupied the territory, tried to institute Islamic Sharia law on the populations under their control. The logic for intervention in this discourse comes from a ‘right to protect’ reasoning, saying that the Malian state and armed forces are not in any shape to handle the threat to the people (side note: did you know that the Malian army of only 7,000 troops counts 59 generals?), and therefore military intervention is necessary for their protection.

So yes to the goal, but still no to the rapid, precipitated military response from the French. There were plans for

Islamic fundamentalists destroying a tomb in Timbuktu

Islamic fundamentalists destroying a tomb in Timbuktu- National Post

intervention at the regional level, and while they adopted a rather slow calendar, it was going to be a concerted effort lead by neighboring countries. Rapid intervention, no matter how welcomed by the Malian government or people it is, creates the potential to increase insecurity in the country.

In short, Mali’s is not a different crisis, one that would justify the nature of the international intervention we have seen so far. In that it is a textbook case of many root problems of politics and conflict on the continent, Mali is not different.

Yes, interventions can be necessary. But I would like to see fewer interventions and more engagement. Mali is in a very complex situation, and heavy armed intervention can do more harm than good. Scrambling the fighter jets in time of crisis is a short-sighted solution to a problem that demands time, that demands advising, cooperation, consolidation of state capacities, security sector reform, reform in the aid regime and a host of other slow but sure(r) paths to peace. Engagement starts long before the guns are drawn, and I think that is the biggest failure of this whole affair.

Chris Blattman

International development, economics, politics, and policy


Governance: An international journal of policy, administration and institutions

Unused Entity

เซื่อในสิ่งที่เฮ็ด เฮ็ดในสิ่งที่เซื่อ

Konakry Express

L'Histoire est patiente, la Vérité têtue!


Advancing the rule and role of law in Africa


Traveling the World and Doing Good


A motley group of international aid bloggers, practitioners, and critics. Interested in impact, poverty, evidence, and throwing things off planes.


A site on limited government, development and free markets


Exploring the Winding Paths of Culture

Joe Studwell's blog

On the theme of development in East Asia, Britain, Italy, and the United States

The More Things Change

Translating French foreign policy ... and other musings

Monitoring & Evaluation & Learning

Weitzenegger's Knowledge Network

Sustainability in Crisis

Faith in sustainability

Bedside Readings

Humorous, thought provoking, brain teasing, factual and developmental

Lesley on Africa

African politics, security, and occasional travel tales

Bridges from Bamako

life in a budding West African metropolis