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?’.

Not so sure how ‘fundamental’ logframes are…


UN: ‘Haiti Needs Security Sector Reform’: Gee, thanks.


Image: Norway UN

The UN Security Council calls for timely elections and security sector reform in Haiti. The advice is good, but the UN and international community need to be doing a little more looking in the mirror too. Stabilizing Haiti has been a top priority in the wake of its 2004 coup (or simply ‘overthrow’ depending on who you listen to), and again after it was hit by the devastating earthquake, a little more than two years ago now.

‘Stabilizing’ means controlling the violence and insecurity prevalent in many of its cities and especially in Port-au-Prince. It also means protecting the most vulnerable populations and ensuring that Haitians have better opportunities, and access to [insert necessary thing here].

The UN’s mission to Haiti, MINUSTAH, has been active in the country for over 8 years (since 2004), and thanks to its work with the Haitian government, there have been some solid progress in increasing the security of the Haitian people.

Okay. International Crisis Group also argued that real improvements to security need to come from the Haitian government. Also okay.

But it’s hard. It’s hard to create a platform for economic and social development when you are flooded in opaque aid money. It’s hard to create proper precedents for rule of law and good regulatory relations between civilian government and the security sector, especially when the American army is controlling your airport.

So yes, the ball is in the Haitians’ court. But they need reliable, responsible and responsive international partners, beyond even MINUSTAH, with whom to collaborate. If not it’s right back where we were years ago.

Chris Blattman

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