The Evolution of World Bank Group’s Role in Forced Displacement - Interview with Niels Harild, former manager of WBG’s Global Program on Forced Displacement (GPFD)

January 6, 2016

Mohamed Azakir / World Bank

Selina Jackson, Special Representative to the UN and the WTO, met with Niels Harild who created the WBG’s Global Program on Forced Displacement (GPFD). 

World Bank

Today I met Niels Harild who 6 years ago created the Global Program on Forced Displacement (GPFD) which he managed until he retired in September 2015. GPFD has laid the foundations and future direction for the World Bank Group's (WBG) approach to the agenda of forced displacement caused by conflict and human rights abuses. This covers refugees, internally displaced people (IDPs) and the affected host and return populations. I asked him a few questions on his experience and how he sees the WBG’s role in this important issue today.

SJ: Historically, what has been the WBG approach to addressing problems of conflict, refugees, IDPs and migration?

NH: First of all, conflict-induced forced displacement and migration are different. Conflict induced forced displacement has its own specific context, problems and solutions. This applies also when mixed with other types of migration.

In the past, the WBG did not approach the challenges of conflict-induced forced displacement systematically. Through the work I led in GPFD we brought the issue to country offices and to the attention of senior management. We managed to break through the misconception that forced displacement is strictly a humanitarian issue. There is now full recognition both within the WBG, and the international community, that forced displacement is a critical development issue with important social, economic, fiscal, political and security implications. We worked hard to ensure that the issue of forced displacement was recognized as a core WBG business. This is now reflected in the recent MENA strategy, the regional initiatives in Africa and the formalization of the partnership between the WBG and UNHCR at the President and High Commissioner level, as well as the key role that the WBG is playing in preparation for the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS).

SJ: How did you succeed in turning this around?

NH: By having a clear message and bringing together the evidence that forced displacement is a development challenge, by being persistent in the face of resistance and by not being afraid to challenge colleagues, bosses or client governments. By constantly looking for openings and opportunities with country teams and partners, GPFD staff were able to react instantly and maintain flexibility in the use of limited donor resources for essential analytical and operational work. The biggest obstacle was to achieve the necessary paradigm shift and change of mindset inside the Bank but also with client governments and partners.

SJ: What do you mean, “paradigm shift and mindset change”?

NH: The shift towards understanding that displacement is fundamentally a development issue with social, economic and fiscal implications. This requires a policy and mindset change from short-term thinking to a long term comprehensive approach. Life improvements for those living in protracted displacement and support for lasting solutions can only come about by addressing holistically: housing, livelihoods, service access, inclusion and governance.

SJ: What has changed? What is the role of the WBG in these issues now?

NH: What has changed is that more people are being displaced than ever and they stay displaced for longer periods. For example, none of the present crises in South Sudan, Ukraine, Central African Republic or Syria have any solution in sight. These crises, particularly the war in Syria, present clear and obvious linkages between the conflict, people movement, economics and security with simultaneous social, economic, fiscal, security, political and humanitarian impact. Solving this requires a comprehensive approach looking at all these issues together under one framework. The WBG has an important role to play by leading context analysis, economic impact assessments, policy dialogue and creating new financing approaches.

SJ: The refugee/migration issue in Europe has certainly caught the world's attention in recent months. But this is not a new issue. What has changed?

NH: Indeed the issue is not new and technically nothing has changed. But the unique geopolitical importance of the Syrian crisis and its scope has never been seen before. The challenge will be to find a holistic approach that deals with these crises at the source; for neighboring countries and countries further afield under one comprehensive long term framework where all parties concern are addressed.

SJ: Where do you see the role of development agencies vis-à-vis humanitarian agencies?

NH: For a comprehensive approach to work effectively, governments need to provide the political space and strong leadership. Humanitarian actors should focus on the short-term lifesaving needs with a clear exit strategy built in up front. Development actors should engage from the beginning and focus on the long-term development needs of the displaced and their host countries or return communities. A key part of this is the importance of a joint context assessment which can provide a joint platform for all actors to work from. Context is everything. The WBG led joint assessments of displacement in the Great Lakes and the Horn of Africa are good examples of how this can be done differently from the past.

SJ: Who are the WBG’s partners in addressing the refugee problem?

NH: No one actor can do this alone. The WBG needs a strong partnership approach on this agenda, working closely with bilaterals, the UN - particularly UNHCR, NGOs, research institutions, the private sector and most importantly affected Governments. When facing large refugee influxes governments are not always clear on what they should do or what they want, they are simply overwhelmed. Often they are grappling with traditional short term approaches which may no longer be appropriate.

These governments may need the WBG to provide policy advice. In doing so the WBG can use its convening power to engage other international partners to secure one framework for high quality and timely analytics, policy dialogue, well formulated operations, their resourcing and implementation. The needs are formidable and once the right policies are in place and operations are designed, we need all financing sources activated including new lending tools, grants, along with inputs from the private sector and the security sector to project a real sense of “burden sharing.” All this needs to support the same policy framework which the WBG is well placed to help governments formulate.

SJ: What are the biggest challenges for the WBG going forward?

NH: Three things:

1) Work with governments to shift from short to long-term policies and approaches to forced displacement. The WBG should focus its energy on helping governments and their partners taking a long-term approach from the beginning. Governments need to have assessments of the economic, social and security consequences of different short and long-term policy options available to make the right policy choices.

2) Continue to strengthen the design of WBG sector programs and operations so they address and include the specific needs of the displaced and their affected host and return communities. No one wants to see forced displacement. But when it happens we should make the best of it rather than exclusively focus on all the negatives. We need a policy approach that works on turning refugee and IDP presence towards a more positive situation rather than only a burden. This is a difficult slow process but it must be done. There is growing evidence this approach is working. This will include embracing a new policy term of “temporary longer term economic integration” with return or other lasting solutions being the long-term goal.

3) Continue to deepen the collaboration with humanitarian actors, to be better informed to do its development work and to undertake joint policy dialogue. It is important the WBG focuses on its comparative advantages in this collaboration and resist the temptation to get involved in humanitarian work.

SJ: Where are the opportunities for the WBG going forward?

NH: Work on forced displacement is at a crucial moment, a tipping point. It is the right time to consolidate the paradigm shift towards full global recognition that the challenge of forced displacement is an integral part of the development agenda. The WBG has a key role to play in mainstreaming the issue; for example in how to operationalize the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), how to contribute to the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit (May, Istanbul) and other global and country-specific efforts such as the Solutions Alliance. I believe the international community and governments are looking to the WBG for leadership on economic impact assessments, policy advice, operations design and exploring different financing options to promote lasting solutions for the displaced, their hosts and return communities in the countries affected.

It is time for the WBG to work comprehensively on its tools and instruments and to scale up its efforts on forced displacement impacts in fragile and conflict affected situations whether in Low Income Countries or Middle Income Countries.

SJ: What are the biggest policy challenges for governments?

NH: I would say it is for governments to have the vision and understanding that most, if not all, forced displacement situations may become protracted before solutions are found, and so for them to have the political courage to make the necessary long-term policy decisions early in the crisis. That is not easy. The WBG can help governments to weigh up the different policy options by providing assessments of the social, economic and fiscal implications of present and future displacement policies.

If the policy framework stays in short-term humanitarian mode during protracted displacement this can lead to exclusion, poverty, degradation of self, possible radicalization and new conflict and violence as well as significant economic pressure on host countries. This can be alleviated by promoting the temporary self-reliance of those who are displaced and working on turning displaced people into an asset rather than a burden. Often this may require area-based and targeted investments to boost economic activity. This approach would often be in the longer-term economic and security self-interest of governments even if short-term politics may contradict this.

Above all we should not forget that this is about respect for other fellow human beings, our objective is to lift them out of poverty and exclusion and secure a decent meaningful and safe life for them while they are displaced and when they find a lasting solution. We need to utilize their productive capacity.