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Working group Iresearch

Transformations in local organisations, institutions and leadership 

Birgitte Refslund Sørensen

The Response Strategies project has broken new ground in identifying IDP response strategies. From this study and other ongoing research projects emerge a number of other themes which are important in the process from conflict to peace and about which we still have very little knowledge and understanding. One that I will be working on in the coming years is the role of local organisations and institutions in helping communities or households to cope with conflict-induced problems and to grasp new opportunities which present themselves.

Armed conflicts can affect local organisations in numerous ways. Some cease to exist as a result of displacement or lack of resources or because they are no longer relevant to people’s lives. Others continue to exist but adjust activities and responsibilities to suit the new circumstances. Some find that their role and influence are enhanced. War, displacement and new economic forces may give rise to new local organisations and institutions.

Humanitarian agencies have long been interested in building on, supporting and working through local organisations. Arguments in support of this strategy variously point to notions of ‘ownership’, ‘partnership’, ‘sustainability’ or ‘accountability’. In practice, humanitarian agencies usually either support and reinforce some existing organisations (while marginalising others) or they create new organisations or institutions after judging that existing local NGOs do not have the capacity or commitment to match the agencies’ expectations.

Such changes in the organisational and institutional landscape naturally affect what kinds of leadership emerges and how leaders relate to the population at large. Seen from a wider perspective, these processes enable us to get a glimpse of the kinds of future societies and political cultures that are emerging. For practitioners, the main concerns remain how to develop and implement sustainable projects and to identify suitable partners. For researchers the task is to understand societal development in its totality or at least from a broader and longer perspective.

Research into processes of social and political change in local organisations and institutions involves seeking answers to a variety of questions. What are their ‘ground rules’? Are they working toward unity or fragmentation? Are claims to authority made through means of force or distribution? Who do their leaders take as their role models – kings, rebels, entrepreneurs or administrators? Are they perceived and judged by the public in terms of charisma, insight, their ability to access and share resources or by their capacity to bring justice? Do organisations and leaders eventually work toward peace or new social and political conflicts?

We need to identify traditional and new organisations and institutions in different localities and document what kind of activities they assume responsibility for.  We need to explore how different organisations create and define their constituencies and the kinds of relationship or exchange between them. How are their presence and influence negotiated and legitimised? How do traditional and more recent forms of leadership and organisations relate to each other? Does one form marginalise the other? Do they agree upon a division of labour or are they forever locked in conflict?

On a more theoretical level the answers which will hopefully emerge may shed new light on the meaning of terms like ‘civil society’, ‘community’ and ‘politics’ in societies emerging from conflict.

Birgitte Sørensen is Associate Professor, Institute of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen. She is co-editor of Caught Between Borders: Response Strategies of the Internally Displaced. Email:


The response strategies of IDPs: questions to be asked

Cathrine Brun

Despite what we think there are huge gaps in our understanding and knowledge of the response strategies of IDPs. What are the gaps? What are the priorities? Where do we go next? How should we do research with IDPs?

Empirical experience from Sri Lanka’s protracted crisis of internal displacement provides some answers. My PhD project is about the Muslim IDPs who were expelled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 1990. After 11 years as IDPs they have slim prospects of return in the near future. I have been analysing how those involved with and affected by displacement are creating and recreating social organisation and relationships, livelihood strategies and sense of place.

In Sri Lanka and elsewhere there is little knowledge of either why internal displacement is often so protracted or how hosts are involved in and affected by internal displacement.

How does the meaning of the IDP category change for the people involved with displacement? What are the needs and rights of IDPs that should be acknowledged at different stages of their displacement? Now that researchers understand that people who are forced to move do not necessarily become powerless and lose their identities, why do we still know so little about how power relations and identities change, or do not change, due to displacement?

As time goes on it is not necessarily the case that IDPs and hosts become more and more integrated. Evidence from Sri Lanka, where the IDP concept is well known, shows that perpetuating the categories of IDP and non-IDP (in order to access resources from different external actors) results in a static dichotomy which restricts local integration and normalisation of social relations. In some long-term cases of displacement, the length of the displacement may cause further tensions and the integration process may be reversed. There should be more research on the whole history of integration processes. We also need to know more about what happens in an area when humanitarian agencies withdraw but IDPs remain.

Since Chambers wrote in 1986 that the poor are the ‘hidden losers’ in crises of displacement there has been a rhetorical commitment to including the hosts in academic, policy and practical work. However, very little systematic research has been undertaken that actively studies and analyses the situation of the hosts other than as complementary background actors. More knowledge is needed on the role of the hosts in protracted cases of displacement. A more active and systematic involvement of the hosts, and a realisation that actors involved in displacement include both the people who flee, the people who stay behind and the hosts, are needed to get a more holistic understanding of crises of internal displacement.

Studies of the crises of internal displacement often tend to emphasise the civil war or other type of conflict causing the displacement but pay insufficient attention to social conflicts among IDPs or between IDPs and their hosts. How to make sense of such social conflicts in times of civil war is a challenge that requires closer connection with all parties to a conflict. We need to ask how well we as researchers and aid workers make sense of people’s explanations and rationale on both the causes of conflicts and of their involvement in them.

Cathrine Brun is completing a PhD at the Department of Geography, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). Email:


Some problems with conducting research on IDP livelihood strategies

Karen Jacobsen

Compared with studying refugees or other research populations, the task of defining what we mean by ‘IDP’ and counting their numbers is fraught with difficulty.

When does a displaced person cease to be considered displaced? If someone was displaced ten years ago, but is now integrated into the local community, should they still be considered an IDP? Should there be a cut-off point? In Angola, government policy is to classify people as ‘displaced’ for the first six months after which they are judged to be ‘integrated’ even if there has been no change in their circumstances. What criteria should we use to differentiate IDPs from other war-affected populations such as demobilised soldiers, their dependants and camp followers, returning refugees and street children? Is it possible, and should we, differentiate IDPs from the urban poor?

Amid these uncertainties, it is hard to reach agreement on a realistic estimate of IDP numbers. The kind of quantifiable data required by donors to formulate budgets, policy and programmes is lacking.

Compounding these difficulties are political and security-related constraints on reaching and talking to IDP communities. IDPs are often a sensitive issue for governments who may be unwilling to cooperate with information gathering. The Sudanese government has in the past prevented or frustrated efforts to collect data on displaced populations because the displaced are perceived as a political and security threat to the authorities. This attitude has made it difficult to obtain information about places of origin, location, numbers, nutritional status and duration of displacement. The government’s position has also created difficulties for local research organisations working on IDP issues. Some of the data in our chapter on Sudan in Caught Between Borders was gathered by a local Sudanese research organisation working in collaboration with the Feinstein International Famine Center at Tufts University. For security reasons, the name of this organisation could not be mentioned in the publication.

Governmental sensitivities about IDPs can also lead to disputed information on such issues as the number of displaced persons and their regional distribution. In Sudan there is a longstanding disagreement between the government and the UN and international NGOs over when displacement occurred, relief strategies and definitions of categories. These problems are exacerbated by weaknesses in national census data.

As researchers, advocates and policy makers, we need the following kinds of information in order to support IDP livelihoods:

  • better data on how many (and who) we are dealing with;
  • improved understanding of patterns of movement, and progressive impoverishment. (A widespread pattern is for rural people to move to local towns in search of security or food and then, when towns become unsafe, to migrate further afield, perhaps towards the capital, the numbers of those on the move growing as residents of small towns join the flow. In Sudan, Angola and many other war-affected countries we see a trend for people to move to already overcrowded government-controlled urban areas);
  • the extent of social and economic interaction with local communities. (What factors enable or obstruct the pursuit of livelihoods in the context of displacement?);
  • the priorities of IDPs and whether assistance strategies in official and unofficial settlement areas address them. (What other priorities can be identified beyond the need for health care, shelter, food, water and cash? In many poor and marginalised communities education for their children is often stated as the biggest need, one for which many people are prepared to make significant sacrifices.)
  • the impact of humanitarian assistance on patterns of displacement, including return movements. (What are the primary factors affecting the ability of IDPs to move? Is it fear of recurring conflict, landmines, insurgency movements, policies of governments and/or the prospects of maintaining existing livelihood and survival strategies?)


Finally, we need to ask what kinds of livelihood interventions can realistically be aimed at IDPs. In many conflict-affected countries, IDPs are predominantly rural subsistence farmers forced off their land into nearby government-controlled towns and cities. How can the livelihoods of subsistence farmers or pastoralists be supported in urban areas?

Karen Jacobsen is Visiting Associate Professor at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University and Director of the Refugees and Forced Migration Program. Email:


Working group 1: research

Additional issues raised

The group noted that their group had the smallest number of participants. Does this reflect the apparent lack of interest on the part of practitioners/donors in research? Are researchers and practitioners not talking the same language?

Definitional problems continue to bedevil research. Is the ICRC’s ‘war-affected population’ a more accurate term than ‘IDP’? What do we call returned refugees who subsequently become displaced? What is the cut-off point for being an IDP? Is it helpful to maintain this identity long after displacement? Do IDP and non-IDP categories restrict integration?

Are the large numbers of people displaced by development projects and environmental change to be thought of as IDPs? In places such as India and Sri Lanka, where civil society is active and the Guiding Principles becoming increasingly well known, what is the role of researchers in highlighting the aspirations of people displaced by dams, mines, forestry projects or other development projects who might like the protection and publicity accorded by being recognised as IDPs?

When IDPs become mixed with the urban poor (as in Khartoum), can or should they be distinguished from the rest of the population who are perhaps just as much at risk? In an urban environment, can a rights-based approach identify and target those most in need?

Is the standard assumption that IDPs are conceptually linked with refugees necessarily helpful? Does it obscure the connections between IDPs and migrants?

Exact numbers of IDPs rarely seem to be of concern to researchers or practitioners. Researchers need to tackle the persistent tendency to bandy around spuriously-rounded up numbers of IDPs which are never verified. Thus the 1.4 million IDPs in Khartoum have assumed an iconic significance despite the lack of proof. Researchers must help get a better handle on numbers.

Researchers face serious practical problems in doing research. Those IDPs to whom researchers are allowed (by state and non-state actors) to talk are not likely to be the most representative. Researchers need to be more explicit about how reaching agreements with governments and non-state actors can seriously compromise research findings.

The group identified gaps in current knowledge, indicating the need for more empirical research. These include:

  • What are the pre-flight strategies – commonly from village to town to city- used by those fearing displacement?
  • Local community-IDP interactions: more needs to be learned about larger-scale ripple effects and tensions over land and other resources. Getting information about hosts is much harder than about the displaced but researchers can do more.
  • The impact of humanitarian assistance: in many contexts we do not know whether humanitarian assistance encourages or discourages the prospects of return. What is the impact on existing and new livelihood strategies?
  • What happens to displaced and local populations when external food assistance is suddenly curtailed by WFP or other agencies?
  • Are the common, invariably top-down, income-generation and micro-credit schemes for IDPs really practical? Do they reflect the reality that most IDPs are displaced farmers struggling to find livelihoods in urban environments? Are the needs of displaced pastoralists being met?
  • What is meant by self-reliance? What do the variety of agency definitions and concepts of self-reliance indicate about the sustainability of interventions?
  • Gender implications of displacement and return: what happens when women have been empowered and/or undertaken new responsibilities during displacement and have this threatened by the prospect or reality of return?
  • The geographical spread of IDP family/kin links, both nationally and transnationally, is rarely explored.
  • The consequences of international NGOs establishing local organisations in their own images: what is the effect of creating a new NGO class skilled in English, use of computers and writing proposals? How they do (co)exist with traditional leadership elites?


Recommendations for the IDP research community:

  • Encourage greater employment of local researchers.
  • Examine, where feasible, the scope for the use of the Internet to maintain cyber contact with local researchers when access is restricted by security concerns. Can discussion and protection be promoted via the Internet?
  •  Researchers working as consultants for agencies should not necessarily be constrained by the terms of reference often prepared by HQ-based managers. If they want to effectively inform programme interventions, researchers must ask what agencies really need to know, not just what they think they need to know. Researchers must challenge assumptions inherent in bureaucratic agendas.
  • Better mapping of the research environment, putting agencies and researchers into more regular contact, thus ending the all-too-common practice of agencies employing consultants who know little or nothing about the country to which they are sent.
  • Ensure that the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement are incorporated into all funding proposals.
  • Promote greater inter-disciplinary cooperation, particularly with political scientists and economists – both of whom are usually absent when IDP programmes are planned, managed or evaluated.
  • Take a sectoral approach to IDP programmes, not just considering individual interventions in isolation but also identifying common variables.


Researchers must learn to be more concise when presenting reports and recommendations.


Working group II – the humanitarian response

IDP response strategies and the humanitarian system

Nina M Birkeland

Within each IDP community there is a diverse set of actors and survival and response strategies. We need to further develop data collection methodology to learn about them. Among the many questions to consider are:

  • Is it possible to count IDPs? Who can and/or should be assisted? Just IDPs? What about the host population? What about those who have stayed behind? What issues are sensitive for the community? Why did they flee? Where did they come from?
  • How can we listen to IDPs? RRA (rapid rural appraisal) is one method, but not always the best. Will researchers hear different responses than humanitarian agencies?
  • How do we gather and act on local knowledge?
  • Are we aware of the short and long-term social impact of our actions as external actors?
  • What is the role of local NGOs in enabling access to IDPs?
  • Are we aware of security issues at different levels?


In researching the case study of Huambo in Angola presented in Caught Between Borders we asked such questions in order to better understand the experiences of the displaced. Though them we gained insight into the causes of their displacement, the strategies they choose and apply during flight and settlement and how they experience their identity as displaced.

Angola is ranked 160th out of 174 countries in the UN Human Development Index. Every third child dies before the age of five. Civil war has tormented the country for more than 25 years. Four million out of a population of approximately 12 million are internally displaced.

The ‘IDP’ identity is a social identity. It is important to note that those whom we label as displaced in Huambo have multiple axes of identities, such as woman, the elderly, Ovimbundu (ethnic group), Sambo (a tribe), peasant, head of family, Catholic and supporter of the MPLA (Angola’s ruling party). These axes have different importance at different times and ‘displaced’ forms only one axis of identity for those interviewed.

Although many IDPs have experienced several displacements they still regard their ‘displaced’ identify as a temporary one. For rural populations identity is often deeply embedded in land and agricultural practices. Even though the displaced in Huambo have not fled great distances, they rarely have the opportunity to use their former agricultural practices in their new location. As a result, they have little opportunity to practise their normal cultural activities.

When asked to identify the cause(s) of their displacement two explanations were given by IDPS: either guerra (war) or confusão (trouble). The interweaving of causes – multiple and interlinked – is evident. Even though forced displacement has been a central part of their daily lives it is not considered normal to flee. There is a clear local understanding that there is a significant difference in meaning between forced migration and other forms of voluntary relocation. The Huambo case illustrates that it is not the causes of the forced migration which give the displaced their identity but rather the situation in which forcibly displaced people find themselves. When we talk of ‘development-induced displacement’ or of ‘political’, economic’ or ‘environmental’ refugees, we impose a kind of differentiation that the displaced in Huambo do not themselves use or recognise. Both recent and long-term displaced identify themselves as temporarily displaced. Most have plans to return home as soon as possible. Further research is needed to find out more about the relevance of using the categories of ‘new’ and ‘old’ displaced.

Experiences of displacement are different from place to place. Clearly, being marginalised in Georgia is different than in Angola. We need to consider what are the social, cultural and economic changes that IDPs have to cope with. How can these differences be taken into consideration in the programming of humanitarian NGOs and agencies?

For those researching among the displaced in Huambo, it was important to note that most of the displaced in Huambo live outside camps and transit centres. The complex humanitarian emergency and forced displacement have become the norm for the population. As the state is so weak, it is the informal mechanisms among the displaced and NGOs that provide opportunities for survival both for the established and IDP populations.

The displaced are not passive victims but active agents able to formulate decisions and chose strategies. The displaced population living in camps and transit centres normally put into use both external assistance and self-help activities in their survival strategies. In most camps there is distribution of food (rarely sufficient either in terms of calories or variety), soap, blankets, cooking utensils and some medicines. Salt and clothing are provided but in insufficient quantities. External assistance is usually supplemented by the IDPs’ own produce or items bought through work and trade. In Huambo these include firewood collection, charcoal production, working for others, manufacture of natural fibre mats, trading of fruits, vegetables and staple foods, and farming of ‘own’ land.

The displaced employ many strategies for their protection. Individual stories of the displaced from the Sambo area now settled in the village of Vinte-e-Sete near Huambo reveal how people from the same area chose to flee at different times over a period of three to four months. Other protection decisions which the displaced had to make as actors included the direction in which to flee, the route to follow and whether to flee in groups or individually. Their decisions were based upon assessment of costs and benefits. It is, for example, faster to flee by road but this adds to the risk of robbery by both UNITA and government soldiers. In the decision-making process IDPs put to use previous personal experiences of flight and collective knowledge about forced displacement. From the interviews it is evident that different people made different choices of protection strategies when exposed to the same structural circumstances. A major problem is that many do not have the documents that would give them the opportunity to flee to the relatively safer areas along the coast or to the larger towns and cities in the region.

Since no IDP can be sure that external actors will provide assistance, self-help strategies are uppermost. Almost all assistance in the region is financed through emergency programmes lacking any long-term perspective. Other characteristics of self-help activities are that they are based on low capital investments, are easy to relocate if and when the displaced have to move on and that they provide an outcome on a daily basis. For the IDPs living outside camps the self-help activities are more or less the same, except that their own food production plays a more important role in the daily struggle for survival.

Almost all self-help strategies developed and used by the IDPs are oriented towards the short term. People need an outcome now, not in the future, even though a long-term perspective could be more profitable. The displaced know this themselves. Until such time as they can move away from the desperate struggle for survival to a situation where they can focus on developing sustainable livelihoods, however, short-term perspectives are likely to predominate.

Nina M Birkeland is a research fellow at the Department of Geography, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and assistant professor in Human Geography at Nord-Trøndelag University College. Email:


Improving the quality of humanitarian response

Ed Schenkenberg van Mierop

The stories in Caught between Borders perfectly illustrate how much – or, rather, how little – we actually know about how people who are forcibly displaced from their homes cope with their situation and what sort of mechanisms they develop in order to survive and rebuild their lives. The humanitarian community has to seriously re-think its policies and strategies in mounting a humanitarian response to the needs of IDPs and, indeed, other target populations.

I would propose the following four priority areas and initiatives as essential to improve the quality of humanitarian response.


While Caught between Borders highlights a number of important lessons on how IDPs develop strategies to respond to their displacement, this new awareness should not detract from the reality that humanitarian organisations do not have access in many of the country situations portrayed in the book. It must not be forgotten that in countries such as Burma, Burundi, Sri Lanka and Sudan government authorities do everything they can to obstruct international organisations from reaching IDPs. Access must be top of the agenda.


The recent missions of the Senior Network on Internal Displacement illustrate that the biggest gap in the response to IDPs is protection. Yet there is considerable confusion over what constitutes protection and how it relates to humanitarian assistance.

Nowadays many humanitarian organisations, including NGOs, recognise protection-related activities as being a part of their work, for example in the form of advocacy. At the headquarters level, several initiatives have been taken by UNHCR, the ICRC and NGOs to discuss their respective roles in protection. At the same time, however, many field staff fear that incorporating human rights and protection elements in their work will put at risk their operational presence and will impact negatively upon negotiations for humanitarian access.

There is much that can be done. The Guiding Principles can serve as a checklist in assessing humanitarian needs. In the course of their work NGOs compile considerable practical data which can be used to formulate indicators to measure human rights violations. Another initiative which has been taken by some NGOs is to recruit specific staff to help operational colleagues to collect and analyse this information.

Rights-based approach and the Sphere Project

Perhaps similar to the protection debate is the present emphasis placed on developing a rights-based approach to responding to humanitarian needs. As Hugo Slim has observed, “rights dignify individuals, rather than patronising them, and victims of conflict become claimants of rights rather than objects of charity.” A rights-based approach grounds humanitarian action in a legal framework which sets out duties and responsibilities and which therefore also provides a framework within which actors can be held accountable.

One tool in developing a rights-based approach may be the Sphere Project.[i] Its Humanitarian Charter explains the basic notions and principles of humanitarian action and is followed by a set of minimum standards, indicators and guidance notes in five technical areas: food distribution, nutrition, shelter, water and sanitation, and healthcare. Sphere may be a helpful tool in assessing needs, planning, monitoring and evaluating response, advocacy and training. One standard consistently put forward by the Sphere Handbook is the involvement of the beneficiary population in programme design and operations. This principle is also crucial if humanitarian response is to build on and strengthen the capacity of the affected populations and local organisations.

Another interesting issue with regard to IDPs and Sphere is the apparent relation between the Guiding Principles and minimum standards in humanitarian assistance. Principle 18 and section IV of the Guiding Principles provide for a right for IDPs to receive certain forms of humanitarian assistance essential for human survival. In years to come Sphere may well be recognised as having set the standards on what constitutes such assistance.


NGOs hold the issue of accountability to be crucial in improving the international response to IDPs. In the UN system it seems that every actor can hide behind somebody else, thus passing the buck for failures to address the assistance and protection needs of IDPs. NGOs must continue to ensure that IDPs no longer fall through the cracks of the international system.

On another level, humanitarian organisations seem to have accepted the notion that they are not only accountable towards their donors, be it private or institutional, but also to the people they help to survive. Part of this concept of accountability is the relationship with local organisations and structures. As Mary B Anderson has observed, external aid always leads to inequalities and dependencies. However, if humanitarian aid is to do more good than harm, international organisations and NGOs must build their responses upon the capacities of the IDPs themselves, as well as on the capacities of local organisations and structures.

Ed Schenkenberg van Mierop is the Coordinator of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies – ICVA ( Email:

[i] See


Working group IIthe humanitarian response

Additional issues raised

One of the main issues discussed related to the image of IDPs as victims. What can be done to dispel this image and change our perspective? Is this a wider problem relating to most groups of people receiving assistance? How can we support IDPs in such a way that their own self-image is restored and they regain control over their lives?

To avoid stigmatising groups of people, it is important to focus on a rights-based approach, using human rights as the basis in planning and implementing humanitarian assistance. Such an approach allows us to see IDPs as rights holders, not victims. The Sphere Project[1] is an important initiative because it internalises this rights-based approach. The importance of involving IDPs in the design – as well as the implementation – of projects was underlined.

Categorising of groups and categorising of situations can sometimes make things worse. We categorise our target groups into IDPs, refugees, vulnerable groups and so on; and we categorise our response in terms such as emergency situation or development phase. Sometimes this leads us to miss some important issues.

How can we improve our response and develop field activities based on response strategies?

Information gathering and dissemination is of key importance. IDPs depend on survival mechanisms and their ability to adapt. We need to gain a better understanding of coping strategies among IDPs. We should develop greater awareness of how different groups and individuals are able to survive and use this information when planning assistance. We need to ask what previous structures existed for decision making and what IDP’s current procedures are. What are their inputs into the economy, their host families or host communities? We need to develop a methodology for information gathering and tools for understanding the communities in which we work. Agencies could develop a ‘toolbox’ of data collection methods and train local staff/local NGOs how to use and develop them.

Existing and new information needs to be gathered and made accessible. This should be done in close cooperation with the research community. It is essential that we include local researchers. The need for an interdisciplinary approach is vital. It is hoped that the joint NRC-NTNU database on completed and ongoing IDP research which is about to be established, will begin to meet these needs

Another priority is to find better ways of combining protection and assistance. The UN and NGOs must also focus more on gaining access to those IDP populations that are out of reach of international humanitarian organisations because of security issues.

The importance of improved coordination between different UN organisations and international NGOs was underlined. This should be the responsibility of Humanitarian/Resident Coordinators and they should be trained to do so. An overall plan for assistance should be made in each country with set standards and specific monitoring responsibilities for different agencies clearly spelled out. Better mechanisms are also needed in terms of accountability. Working towards a single inter-agency assessment in humanitarian emergencies should be a long-term goal.



Working group IIIlistening

Addressing tensions and building appropriate support structures

Salvator Nkurunziza

In many cases, as outsiders, we may see the effects – though not necessarily the causes – of tensions that arise in the community. Tensions at both the family and the community level can manifest themselves in various ways, such as reduced participation by leaders (formal and non-formal) in meetings, increased female attendance at meetings and in aid distribution, gradual reduction in numbers of young people in the camps, conflict and harassment of women in the camps, attitude and behaviour disorders and trauma and, at the extreme end, attacks on humanitarian and relief staff.

Through Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) exercises, the following causes of such tensions in Burundi were identified:

i.  Disempowerment of community traditional leaders

The existing community structure views the humanitarian assistance structure as a threat to their traditional community leaders as it reduces, or removes, their social power and status. Silent boycott at the beginning and open conflict later on are manifestations of their coping mechanism to regain power and authority.

ii. Role reversals (gender and generation)

In many African communities, men and women are expected to fulfil certain roles and responsibilities. Women are responsible for domestic work and childcare whereas men are responsible for productive activities and protection of the family. In the case of relief response, it is normally the head of household (male) who has to be registered by the relief agency; therefore he will be the one to queue for food and non-food aid. In his community he is supposed to be seen as a provider but in this case he is the recipient; this is humiliating for him and the reversal of roles is socially unacceptable for both men and women.

It is the parents’ responsibility to feed, clothe and protect their children. In an emergency situation, however, parents can no longer play this role fully; in some cases, it may even be reversed as children take on the parental responsibility for getting an income for the whole family. Young men and women are often sent by their parents to find paid employment in cities.

iii. Shelter

Shelter provided in camps is usually too small to accommodate the whole family. Older children cannot share the small piece of sheeting with their parents and therefore either the father or the older children have to find alternative accommodation. In the process, parents lose their educational role and their control over the whole family unit.

iv. Traditional rituals and religious practices

The change in family life and situation also presents cultural challenges. In the new environment, families cannot carry out their traditional and religious rituals. At worst, displaced people may not able to conduct proper grieving and funeral ceremonies while they are in the camps. This generates great fear that the spirits of dead relatives will haunt them because they have not observed their traditions. 

What can be done to reduce tensions?

From the author’s experience, those working to reduce tension should be aware of tensions which may arise from displacement conditions and operational approaches implemented by humanitarian and relief organisations. Management structures at community/camp level, district/provincial level and national level should be set up. Displaced people should be involved in identification of tensions and alternative solutions and, above all, in decision making on issues which affect them.

Management structures

At the national level, management is primarily a question of policy, advocacy and coordination. Humanitarian assistance organisations need to set up coordination mechanisms that define roles and responsibilities, strategies and approaches, and appropriate interventions. This includes setting up structures that will enable them to listen to and involve the community.

At the district/provincial level, management is more operational, involving needs assessment, capacity building, implementation and evaluation. The operational strategy should be a joint intervention involving all specialised humanitarian organisations to avoid duplication and conflicting approaches that might create confusion and tension at the community level.

At the affected community level, the operational team must recognise that displaced communities would already have their own organisational structures – formal and/or informal. Examples of traditional authority in Africa include the Bashingantahe in Burundi, Paramount Chiefs in West Africa and Gacaca in Rwanda. Instead of starting from scratch, therefore, the operational team should identify and build on the existing community leadership structures.

How do we set up management structures at the community level in camps for displaced people? During the assessment phase, the following questions should guide the assessment team:

  •          Are there any existing formal and/or informal structures?
  •          How have issues of gender and generation been considered vis-à-vis representation?
  •          Concerning geographical representation, are all communities/areas affected represented in the committee and are they involved in decision making?
  •          Are the most vulnerable displaced persons represented in the existing community management committee/structure and involved in decision making?
  •          What resources, capacities and skills do the existing structures have and what gaps are there that need to be fulfilled?
  •          What will be the role and responsibilities of the management committee?


Answers to the above questions could be sought via exercises such as mapping, Venn diagrams and SWOT (Strength, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis. These will help the affected communities and the assessment team, working together, to identify the gaps, resources and capacities of the communities and what is required of the humanitarian organisations.


Tensions arise from the conditions created by displacement and are reinforced by top-down interventions. Unless we make an effort to identify, work with and build on the capacities of existing structures, and thereby more effectively minimise tensions, humanitarian interventions will be less than effective in listening and responding to the needs of the displaced.

Salvator Nkurunziza used to be Programme Manager for ActionAid in Burundi and is currently studying for an MA at University College Dublin, Ireland. Email:


Listening to the displaced: a trainer’s experience

Suzana Paklar

Several factors need to be taken into consideration when planning and implementing a training programme.

Firstly, and most importantly, the element of change is crucial to understand if we are to implement effective strategies to address displaced people’s needs. Change may relate, for example, to people’s health status. Some people are traumatised by the events that caused them to flee; some have been abused and exploited during flight. They may be ill or exhausted. Or changes may have occurred in their social status, such as when professionals can no longer practise their profession. Moreover, traditional networks of support, such as family and community, have been destroyed, leaving some members (women, children, disabled) especially vulnerable. In general, changed circumstances often mean that people cannot do what they are used to or would want to. Sometimes these changes may affect what for us seem insignificant issues, such as food; for them, however, that can be of great importance.

Secondly, people react to events/experiences in accordance with what it means to them. In other words, reactions are result of cultural context, which may transform individual experience; the same signs and symptoms, for example, may mean different things in different social settings.

Thirdly, in times of disaster, the focus is on rapid delivery of goods and services for those in need. Important though this is, however, it is often undertaken with little or no reference to the capacity of the population to help itself and with no participation by the affected populations. Moreover, there is a lack of coordination, further diminishing the capacity of the displaced population as well as the possibility for host communities to contribute and benefit. This can ultimately undermine the coping mechanisms of the affected populations, denying them the dignity of self-reliance and creating long-term dependency.

Bearing the above in mind, as trainers we first try to identify both observable change and people’s perception of the change. At the level of needs, we try to include what people need as well as how they want it. In defining the overall approach, we start with what resources exist within the population and build on those.

In short, our approach to training is value-driven and based on participants’ analysis of what is most relevant and manageable in the light of their current capacities and resources. We recognise that training is a continual process and not something learned as the result of attending one or two workshops. Training needs to fit into a larger picture and process. We work with people to define that larger picture in order to determine how a training course can contribute to it.

Participation is a major factor in determining whether or not the project will be successful. Failure to involve people will ultimately lead to growing lethargy on the part of the population, increase in cost and decrease in communication.

Suzana Paklar works as a trainer in South East Asia and Europe for ICMC (International Catholic Migration Commission – Email:


Working group IIIlistening

Additional issues raised