Can ‘development approaches’ in response to forced displacement work without a focus on refugee rights? In this post, Katharina Schmidt examines programmes, such as the Cash for Work (CfW) programme and humanitarian Water, Shelter and Hygiene (WASH) programmes, developed in Jordan following the Compact agreement of 2016. These programmes are designed to facilitate refugees’ independence from humanitarian aid, and yet Schmidt argues that these programmes do not always achieve their intended results and at times run counter to their proclaimed aims. Problematising these schemes from a refugee rights based perspective, Schmidt highlights the difficulties arising from refugees’ lack of rights in housing and employment in their host countries, an issue that Refugee Hosts’ PI Prof. Elena Fiddian-Qamiyeh also examines in her article highlighting employment and pension insecurities faced by Palestinian refugees employed by UNWRA in Lebanon. Additionally, Schmidt argues that a focus on ‘quantifiable results’ and development goals in the aid sector can result in humanitarian action becoming (or remaining) a ‘top down’ tool of policy objectives rather than ‘bottom up’ action responding to the needs of refugees and the communities in which they live. 

 This post was published on 25th July 2019

 If you find this piece of interest please visit our recommended reading and listening list at the end of this post. 

Developmentalising Humanitarian Space: Questioning the value of development approaches to protracted displacement

by Katharina Schmidt

With the Syrian war entering its ninth year, the protracted situation of refugees in neighbouring countries has revived old debates about how to make short-term humanitarian assistance sustainable. ‘Development approaches’ to displacement have once again gained popularity, particularly in Jordan after the Compact agreement in 2016. The policy was meant to pave the way towards refugees’ independence from humanitarian aid by allowing them access to formal jobs in low-paid sectors. As such, it also introduced a change in international aid efforts, entailing a push for programming focused on long-term developmental interventions.

However, ‘doing development’ for refugees is far from self-explanatory, if not contradictory. Long-lasting prospects of development intervention often run counter to Syrians’ precarious future outlooks in Jordan, where they are denied fundamental rights and access to integration or citizenship. When one international humanitarian organisation wanted to engage in sustainable approaches to its WASH (Water, Shelter and Hygiene) services in the northern city of Irbid, these tensions became evident. Instead of delivering fresh water, the organisation started to improve infrastructure in apartments rented by Syrian refugees. By contracting the local water company, it installed toilets, sinks or water tanks in households.

The challenge, however, was that refugees are not allowed to own property and often live on informal or without-rent contracts – and are thereby at the mercy of their Jordanian landlords. As one project manager says, the landlords often take advantage of refugee tenants and the improvements they attract to apartments, only to throw them out after the renovation is done. While agencies try to negotiate protection measures such as lease agreements, their influence is limited: “In the end it is really if the landlord wants to kick them out there is not much we can do”, says the aid worker. This illustrates that development requires rights – in this case, the right to own property – and that a lack of those rights cannot be simply ‘developed away’.

On other occasions, it is not refugees’ precarious legal status, but aid agencies’ project logics that limit beneficial long-term effects for refugees. In the so called Cash-for-Work (CfW) programmes that massively expanded after the Jordan Compact, refugees are employed by agencies for a minimum of 40 days to up to three months. They perform manual labour improving public infrastructure such as waste collection and the rehabilitation of dams in areas prone to flooding or afforestation measures. While CfW has developed as an alternative to cash assistance inside the camps, it is now, funded by German development cooperation, part of the international effort to enhance Syrian employment; and it is implemented on a large scale in host communities. As one humanitarian project manager explains, this scheme presents “the first step” in interlinking humanitarian and development responses: “You use Cfw which is considered more of a humanitarian type of intervention, in order to achieve more of a developmental goal, which is afforestation.”

As this illustrates, refugees are not the intended benefiters of the new ‘development’ approach. In the case of CfW, the approach does not ‘connect’ humanitarian assistance with development solutions for refugees, but supplements the former with development prospects for Jordan.

The programme’s logic of relying on short-term, rotating workers is justified by the need to reach as many people as possible. These logics need to be defended against the preferences of local communities. One CfW scheme in the waste management sector cooperates with local municipalities instead of international humanitarian agencies as implementers. One employee from the German development agency GIZ, that manages the bulk of CfW projects, explains,

“for the municipality it doesn’t make so much sense to hire people for only three months. It would make more sense to hire people for a longer period”.

The agency would then have to explain the project’s rationale – the aim to reach as many people as possible – a task deemed “not easy”.

In addition to the preference for assisting as many people as possible, rather than a preference for sustainable solutions for fewer people, there is also an increasing preference for, and reliance on, quantifiable targets. The Jordan Compact had the aim of creating 200,000 job opportunities for Syrians in the country. In the attempt to showcase the agreement as a success, donors request that agencies meet numerical targets – a recurrent complaint among aid workers. This results in them being more focused on counting the number of work permits or job placements, rather than trying to improve the notoriously poor working conditions in the sectors open to refugees.

As one livelihood manager puts it, the Compact made humanitarian agencies “much more of a tool of that policy objective”, which does not accommodate the needs of vulnerable refugees who are unable to engage in physical labour for diverse reasons. As such, it turned their community-driven approach upside down: “We are implementing from the top-down instead of bottom-up”, concluded the humanitarian. It seems that with its focus on numerical targets, the Compact actually increased humanitarians’ critical tendency of upward accountability towards donors and limited their capacity to respond to local refugee needs and community preferences.


If you found this piece of interest please visit the recommended readings and recordings below:

Adams, H. (2018) Syrian and Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon and the Emergent Realities of Return

Berg, M. and Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Hospitality and Hostility towards Migrants: Global Perspectives—An Introduction

Carpi, E. (2018) ‘Assessing Urban-Humanitarian Encounters in Northern Lebanon

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2019) ‘Looking Forward: Disasters at 40,’ Disasters, 43(S1): S36-S60 (Open Access here – the article critiques the framing of the 3RP as a ‘paradigm shift’, and traces the long history of development-humanitarian responses to displacement).

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2019) ‘The Changing Faces of UNRWA: From the Global to the Local,’ Journal of Humanitarian Affairs, 1 (1): 28-41. (Open Access here – the article examines the insecure employment and pension situations of Palestinian refugees employed by UNRWA against the backdrop of a preference for so-called ‘refugee self-reliance’ programmes)

Steinberg, A. (2019) Sustaining Protracted Displacements:  A brief history of labor policy for Jordan’s refugees.

Stonebridge, L. (2019) Refugee Hosts’ Co-I, Prof. Lyndsey Stonebridge, on Thinking Allowed – BBC Radio 4

Timberlake, F. (2019) Home-making and Home-taking:  Livings spaces for women refugees in Grande Synthe.

Turner, L. (2017) Who will re-settle single Syrian men?

Wafai, J. (2018) Al-Mustaqbal in the Space of Refuge

Wagner, A-C. (2018) “There are no missionaries here!” – How a local church took the lead in the refugee response in northern Jordan

Zbeidy, D. (2017)  Widowhood, Displacement and Friendships in Jordan

Featured image:  Viewing the city in motion, Jordan (c) E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2018


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