6 lessons on building resilience for displaced people in the Middle East and North Africa

Shekhar Anand Refugees and IDPs

Jude Powell and Shekhar Anand share the lessons learnt from Oxfam in the Middle East and North Africa on building the resilience for displaced people in the region.

By the end of 2017 over 68 million men, women and children had been forcibly displaced from their homes through conflict, violence and persecution. The protracted armed conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have displaced around 18 million people, with over 6 million of those being internally displaced within Syria alone.

Displacement overwhelmingly results in an increase in the vulnerabilities and risks faced by people, particularly women and girls.  Those affected are forced to live in camps or with host communities either in different countries or inside their own. Many are unable to return to their homes and it may take a long time for them to rebuild their lives or recover.

Humanitarian responses save lives, protect rights and safeguard livelihoods of displaced people, but building adaptive capacity is critical for an effective response and achieving long-term development goals.

Oxfam has learnt some important lessons about linking humanitarian and long term development through its experiences in the MENA region and here are some of the lessons learnt so far:

1) Adopt a gender sensitive approach

Vulnerabilities and risks for displaced people differs greatly between men and women, partly because of socially constructed gender norms and roles. Considering gendered vulnerabilities and focusing on the real needs, capacities and aspirations of women and girls in crisis must be at the core of any program.

2) Build a holistic understanding of the problem

Multi-disciplinary assessments build an understanding of how current systems are not working for displaced people. Programs need to identify risks and understand livelihood systems. In Syria we conducted assessments from a gender perspective to capture conflict and power issues in exceptionally difficult circumstances.

The assessments found that conditions were still not in place for the safe return of the most internally displaced persons (IDPs). There was still an urgent need for support on water, sanitation, hygiene, food security, shelter and protection. We also assessed the capacity of our local associates to be gender responsive when working directly with communities.  

Considering gendered vulnerabilities and focusing on the real needs, capacities and aspirations of women and girls in crisis must be at the core of any program. 

3) Addressing immediate needs and coping with shocks is essential

Displacement disrupts most facets of life, including culture, markets, education, and health. So affected communities need additional capacity to deal with these worsened situations.

The introduction of improved technology for collective vegetable production in Yemen has increased the capacity of farmers (half of which were women) by the simple use of greenhouses. These not only greatly reduce water loss and increases productivity, but have helped bring communities together. While we are yet to see its impact more widely, feedback from the community indicate the innovation and introduction of a new technology has helped equip them fight recurrent shocks.

4) Think longer-term while responding to a protracted crisis

Our programs in MENA have addressed both short-term and protracted displacement, but the long-term support requires collaboration amongst a wide range of actors, including humanitarian assistance and development.

Refugees from Western Sahara have been living in camps since 1976 due to an on-going dispute over the control of the Western Sahara Territory. The Oxfam program has applied both short-term and long-term approaches. By not only distributing much needed fruit and vegetables to complement basic food rations, it has also been supporting the setting up of local fruit, vegetable and fodder production farms. This aids business creation for youth, and tenaciously lobbying for lasting solutions to the crisis.

5) Capacity build for resilient development

Oxfam programs in Iraq invested in local economic recovery for displaced people to promote their employment and socio-economic reintegration. The program showed how using a community savings scheme can be instrumental in the recovery where such services are not available for poor and vulnerable people. The intervention helped to embed savings behaviour and social cohesion amongst the communities (of which 40% of participants were women), and has helped to improve their chances of receiving credit from Rotational Savings and Credit Associations (ROSCA).

6) Influence policy and link pilot projects with mainstream national programs

Strengthening the coordination with multiple stakeholders and improving the understanding and capacity of local authorities can facilitate the provision of public services. The Temporary Cash Assistance (TCA) project in Lebanon has helped families, particularly women headed households, to recover from recurrent shocks and stresses, through a targeted and coordinated cash transfer program. The project has linked up with the national social protection system which has a potential to create impact at scale.

Overall, we’ve learnt that conflict and fragility are the driving forces for displacement in MENA; these cannot be addressed only by focusing on income and livelihoods. The aid sector must support displaced communities to improve and build on existing capacities, to offer alternative livelihoods options, to reach the most marginalised and to bring communities together.

Programmes should complement national development planning, social safety net programmes and protect livelihoods and productive assets. They must learn from each other to ensure errors are avoided and to replicate successes.

For more information on these programs and contributing similar examples from other programs please visit our Oxfam in the Middle East contact page.

Read the case studies: 


Jack Jennings


Julia Steinberger