Every June 20, on World Refugee Day, the headlines invariably focus on numbers. But numbers are not the issue; only about 0.3 percent of the world’s population are refugees. The real challenge comes from unequal geographical concentration.
Most refugees will never come to the United States or Europe. Around 85 percent end up in low and middle-income countries like Lebanon, Pakistan and Uganda, and just 10 such countries host 60 percent of the world’s refugees. This means refugee protection is primarily a developing world issue, and there is a lack of global responsibility-sharing.
Refugees stay in these safe haven countries for decades. They live mainly in cities, where they are often not allowed to work in the formal economy, or in makeshift camps that lack opportunities. Fragile countries of origin prevent people from returning home, and safe-haven countries are often unwilling or unable to offer integration. Camps have become cities without jobs.
Belatedly, refugee assistance is being reconceived. There is a lesser-known progressive side to refugee policy in Kenya, where since the early 1990s, hundreds of thousands of refugees — mainly from Somalia and South Sudan — have been confined to two sets of camps, Dadaab and Kakuma; many have been denied the right to work and the freedom of movement. The new approach is best illustrated in Turkana County in northwest Kenya, home to the Kakuma camps. The governor, Josphat Nanok, has spoken of “the importance of remodeling Kakuma with its refugee and host population into an urban setting in an organized way … that will encourage investors to come in.”
Reflecting this, the Turkana government and the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) created a new refugee settlement from scratch in 2015 — the Kalobeyei settlement. The original architectural plans included a market and shared public services located between residential spaces for refugees and the indigenous Turkana hosts. The premise was to support refugee self-reliance and greater refugee-host interaction.
Although the mass influx of South Sudanese refugees soon after its creation created a need for some emergency assistance, it has retained a focus on a self-reliance model that contrasts with traditional aid. Unlike Kakuma, Kalobeyei has planned markets, a form of cash assistance built around its own currency, called Bamba Chakula (“get your food” in Swahili) and allocated plots of land (“kitchen gardens”) for subsistence agriculture. This month, UNHCR’s spokesperson explained: “There is the old part of Kakuma. And then there is the new part, called Kalobeyei. … It represents our new approach that is going global to refugee response.” From Jordan to Ethiopia, there is global progress to support refugees’ economic inclusion, but some features of Kalobeyei remain unique.
The model is remarkable because it is a designed refugee settlement, created to encourage socio-economic integration. But it also represents an opportunity to learn. Given that recently arriving South Sudanese refugees have been allocated to both Kalobeyei (more of a “self-reliance model”) and Kakuma (more of an “aid model”), it offers a rare opportunity to compare outcomes for refugees across the two different models. A forthcoming study by Oxford University and the World Food Program using data from 2,500 new refugees in the Kalobeyei and Kakuma camps will compare outcomes. Although it is early to draw conclusions, the comparison offers three insights.
First, self-reliance leads to better outcomes in terms of income, food security and consumption. Refugees in Kalobeyei earn incomes nearly double those of new refugees in Kakuma. They eat more meals and have greater food security. In part, this is due to the contrasting policy models. The monthly cash credit of $14 in Kalobeyei compared to $3-5 in Kakuma raises income and consumption. And although the “kitchen gardens” in Kalobeyei are small, they have a statistically significant correlation with higher food consumption and better food security.
Second, designed settlements do have inherent limitations. Kakuma’s “aid” model appears to lead to better outcomes than Kalobeyei for asset accumulation and participation in sports and community activities. One possible explanation is that these are areas that take time to develop at a communal level. Social engagement takes time to develop, and designed settlements may suffer from analogous challenges to designed cities like Brasilia, Canberra and Chandigarh.
Third, regional development is crucial. In reality, nearly all newly arrived refugees in both Kakuma and Kalobeyei are struggling economically: few newly arrived refugees have an income-generating activity and those who do mainly work as “incentive workers” for non-governmental organizations. Labor markets are almost nonexistent, and formal credit and savings institutions are limited. One of the main reasons behind this is that Turkana County is remote and poor. To create real economic change will require major investment in the entire economy of Turkana County. Here, business and donors have a macro-economic role to play.
Beyond Kenya, the Kalobeyei experiment has wider implications for the global refugee system. The United Nation’s so-called Global Compact on refugees represents the current big “reform” effort for the global refugee system. It is being branded as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to renew the refugee system. The latest draft text offers a series of laudable principles to which governments will commit, including to support self-reliance for refugees. But to be effective, the compact needs a theory of change.
The Kalobeyei experiment offers some clues about how progressive transformation can take place in even the most challenging countries. Local champions, like the governor of Turkana, are needed, and political engagement is necessary to unlock opportunities at the local and national level. However, humanitarian organizations too often continue to view their work as non-political relief.
Help is about bringing development, not just in the form of humanitarian relief. By focusing on jobs and education, refugees can restore autonomy and dignity while in exile. Once local host communities can share in the benefits of development assistance — through employment and services, for example — the provision of a safe haven for refugees can be recast as an opportunity rather than a burden. So empowered, refugees will be better placed to return home and contribute to the reconstruction of their homelands.
Development is not just about commitment; it is also about the technical capacity to identify effective development interventions. Refugees are not passive recipients of relief. They are actors who should help shape change. The key role for external actors is as investors helping to grow local economies.
During the transition from a failed model of paternalist relief to the new model of creating opportunities, we need to learn what works best. We need data, research and accountability so that the new system keeps improving. If we have that, there will always be grounds for optimism.
Alexander Betts is professor of forced migration and international affairs and a senior fellow of Brasenose College at the University of Oxford. Paul Collier is professor of economics and public policy at the Blavatnik School of Government and a professorial fellow of St. Antony’s College at the University of Oxford.