Why change, not charity, is needed to resolve the world's migration crisis

by Bina Desai | Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC)
Friday, 2 February 2018 14:15 GMT

South Sudanese refugee children walk to school within Kalobeyei Settlement outside the Kakuma refugee camp in Turkana county, northwest of Nairobi, Kenya February 1, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

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Displacement has profound economic as well as human impacts. It must be prevented to enable development.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) set up camp again in January in the Swiss mountain resort of Davos amid warnings of snowstorms and avalanches. Just a few days ahead of the event, WEF published its Global Risks report. Snowstorms and avalanches were hardly top of the list, but environmental factors more broadly were. Concern was also expressed that these would combine with inequality and social instability to drive large-scale forced migration – considered one of the key global risks of our times.

In this regard, 2018 is an important year. UN member states are set to agree on how to manage global flows of refugees and migrants. This year is also the 20th anniversary of a less conspicuous international framework, the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. It doesn’t get much attention, but the failure to reduce internal displacement is already feeding the flow of refugees and migrants around the world and will continue to do so in the years to come.

The problem with the current discussions is that they centre around crisis response. Long-term approaches are given lip-service, but not translated into practice. How does this fit with the UN secretary general’s prevention agenda? The short answer is, it doesn’t. And it shows. Despite 20 years of providing assistance and protection to the world’s displaced people, global figures continue to rise inexorably. International humanitarian aid hits a record high each year. While we might interpret this as a sign of global solidarity, most of all it is a symptom of perpetual crises and a reflection of our schizophrenic approach to development.

Growing financing gaps highlight the need for change, and pronouncements abound about “new ways of working” and “collective outcomes” in which humanitarian and development sectors work together toward the shared goals. None will work, however, unless the premise on which they rest changes fundamentally.

Displacement has to be understood as a “fault line” of development. When people are forced to flee their homes, unable to return or re-establish their lives elsewhere, development trajectories have taken a wrong path. And sustainable development remains a fantasy in countries with large numbers of internally displaced people.

Lobbying for greater aid budgets in such circumstances means surrendering to the status quo. It reduces humanitarian assistance to depoliticised interventions that do not question the context. Current approaches to internal displacement leave the value system that underpins dominant economic, social and political practice untouched.

The philosopher Slavoj Žižek identifies charity as a “practice of consumerist redemption”. He argues that in a society of social injustice, inequality and marginalisation, no charitable act - for which read humanitarian assistance - is justified unless it challenges that fabric. Writing against the backdrop of European fascism of the late 1930s, the German philosopher Theodor Adorno went further in saying that “there is no right life in the wrong”. In other words, there are no good deeds in a society based on bad values. His point is as valid today as it was then. In a world of growing inequality, conflict and disaster risk, humanitarian intervention cannot be justified if it merely responds to a crisis without addressing its causes.

Until prevention through conflict resolution and disaster risk reduction are brought to the fore, humanitarian action will be an unwitting accomplice in deprivation. Unless programmes and policies challenge and change the forces that generate disparity, inequality and the risk of displacement, they will be complicit in the creation of catastrophe and loss.  

At the heart of current intransigence lie political and economic priorities. There was much discussion of these priorities in Davos, but little if any attention was paid to forced displacement. This is to all of our cost. We spend billions trying to mitigate the human impact of displacement without addressing its causes. This results in lost productivity and economic potential, with fewer resources available for development. Until this fact is acknowledged, and resolving and preventing displacement is meaningfully included in the setting of national and global priorities, we will not make progress.

Bina Desai leads Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre’s policy and research agenda and is responsible for heading IDMC’s team of researchers, political analysts and advisors.