The key to succeeding in international development is ensuring refugees and displaced people succeed. As we’ve seen time and again throughout history, outside powers and influences do not have all the answers for how a nation should rebuild itself. That should be up to its people.
An aid worker in Jordan recently shared the story of a Syrian man he met while distributing cash assistance in a refugee camp. This very dignified, older gentleman spoke fondly of his former life in Syria, managing a successful medical practice which he built alongside his brothers. He broke down in tears recalling his family and career in his hometown, a life impossible to reconcile with his current predicament. Now, instead of working to provide for his family, he is forced to accept handouts, having little more than the shirt on his back.
Within the refugee community, stories like this are all too common. Many have left happy, successful lives behind as conflict or crisis consumes what they’ve always known. For policy makers and experts, the plight of refugees is just that – a plight, a problem. A symptom of intractable war, refugees are mouths to feed, sick to treat, and families to shelter. To host countries, they are a threat to security and economy. To be sure, the challenges that are presented by large numbers of displaced people are real and great. But they are more than a problem to be dealt with. They are people. And they are the only hope for recovery. Refugees represent the essential fabric of their home societies. They are the mothers and fathers, teachers and business people, leaders and thinkers of today. And their children are the future, the next generation which will be responsible to lead their countries past a period of war. These women, men, and young people are determined to return and rebuild their homes, and the success of development efforts in post-war settings is directly tied to their success. What many see as a problem should instead be seen as potential!
Helping refugees and displaced people find future success in rebuilding their home countries starts with capably and competently assisting them now, during their time of displacement and in their immediate need.
Providing adequate shelter, and doing so at a high level for the duration of conflict, is essential if we are to realize efforts to provide displaced families with sustainability and success for the future. If a Syrian family in Lebanon is struggling to stay warm and healthy in the winter, without even a floor in their home, how can we expect the young children to have energy to progress in their education? If the monsoon rains are constantly rushing through and soaking everything in a Rohingyan woman’s shelter, how can she manage to attend the adult-education and sewing classes offered nearby?
Only when we get “the basics” right can we provide refugee children with proper education and enable men and women to fully participate in entrepreneurial and educational opportunities. To afford people a significant level of autonomy, self-determination, and dignity, we must do our part to help make every shelter more like a home. If people are no longer spending significant energy and stress due to their living conditions, they can focus their attention on entrepreneurship and forward-looking progress, taking on work and gaining experience that will help them start businesses and create opportunities upon returning home.
Of course, providing reliable, stable, clean, and secure accommodations, with quality food, safe water, and proper medical care are the basic services which international aid agencies have worked for decades to provide. But the world is facing unprecedented numbers of refugees and displaced people, and that number is only growing. As the numbers of displaced people increase, aid funding is stretched and donors move on to the next big crisis, leaving many organizations underfunded for the task at hand. Hundreds of thousands of people are living in conditions that would be considered poor, if not dangerous. And due to the long, protracted nature of the world’s current conflicts, it is not uncommon for some to stay many years, if not decades, in a camp setting. The longer they stay, the more likely they are to be overlooked and lost to poor health, poverty, the threat of violence and death.
It can be widely agreed upon that camps should not be seen as a “durable solution” for any refugees, but they should be the focus of prioritized investment in any conflict setting for as long as that conflict makes return impossible (1). Credible strategies to support refugees in their current situation, as well as collective efforts to secure long-term resettlement and return, must both be a priority. Donor nations and international aid organizations must adequately sustain refugee camps as a key part of their reconstruction and development strategy, just as they would any infrastructure, governance program, or military investment post-conflict. Refugees can and will play a vital role in revitalizing and rebuilding their home nations, but for now they are dependent on the international community to prioritize them and their holistic well-being to ensure they are ready to meet that challenge.
What may be seen as a problem by many should be seen as potential by the international community. But donor nations and international aid organizations must prioritize sustaining refugee camps as a key part of their reconstruction and development strategy, just as they would any infrastructure, governance program, or military investment post-conflict. Refugees can and should play a vital role in revitalizing and rebuilding their home nations, and it is incumbent upon the international community to prioritize them and their holistic well-being.
1. Martín, C. G. (2017). Rethinking the concept of a “durable solution”: Sahrawi refugee camps four decades on. Ethics & International Affairs, 31(1), 31-45. doi:http://dx.doi.org.proxyau.wrlc.org/10.1017/S0892679416000642
Written by Dayne Curry for Every Shelter – 07.16.2018 – Dayne has nearly a decade of experience managing rebuilding and development projects in Afghanistan. He holds a Master of Organizational Leadership Degree from University of Northwestern – St. Paul and is a candidate for Master of International Service with emphasis in International Development from American University in Washington, D.C.