Sustainable Aid Policy for Refugees:
the adverse impacts of international humanitarian aid in Cox’s Bazar
IRTIFA ZAMAN | 26 MARCH 2023
An inevitable part of the over-politicisation of refugee crises around the world, is the proliferation of foreign and national humanitarian agencies which manage the aid funding provided to refugees. While aiming to do good, major issues emerge from the aid policies and contribute to further tension in refugee camps. For example, aid products are sold in local markets, displacing local products and merchants; local NGOs are neglected due to the authoritarian presence of the international ones; and inefficiencies in aid delivery cause unnecessary expenditure by foreign agencies on development projects in the host camp.
The situation in the Rohingya refugee camp created in the Cox’s Bazar district of Bangladesh after the 2017 influx is no exception. This article first discusses the disorganised aid policies used in the Rohingya refugee camp and later argues that product donations should only include commodities used by the refugees, to prevent issues associated with refugees re-selling in the local market. There are opportunities for local and international humanitarian agencies to work together simultaneously which would facilitate the development and recognise the relevant experience of the local actors in the presence of international bodies. Overall, the aid policy should be sustainable and beneficial, to avoid any negative consequences in the refugee camp.
A significant reason for the mismanagement of aid distribution in Cox’s Bazar refugee camp is lack of communication and poor information sharing among the hundreds of agencies there. As well, an imbalance between the participation of local humanitarian agencies and the international non-government organisations (INGOs) in this emergency response has created further tension. Local NGOs and humanitarian actors led the emergency response during the initial period of the crisis (around August-September 2017). International humanitarian organisations and the UN appeared in the camp and started conducting their activities much later but, after a while, took the leadership, disempowering the local agencies. Moreover, soon after their arrival, nearly three quarters of the staff working in INGOs are Bangladeshis who were once experienced employees of local organisations.
Now, the foreign agencies in Cox’s Bazar also have control of the resources and majority of funding. The bulk of the funding, 69 per cent, goes to U.N. agencies, INGOs receive 20 per cent and the Red Cross gets 7 per cent while national organisations receive a mere four per cent. Another debate rages around how the funds are spent by INGOs, with both the Bangladesh government and the local agencies having raised doubts over it. The government has accused international actors of spending “no more than 25 per cent of total aid for the refugees”. INGOs are also accused of overspending and spending inefficiencies in projects. For instance, a study led by Coastal Association for Social Transformation Trust (COAST), a local NGO, revealed that international actors spent five times more than the programme requirement.
Another common issue with global aid policy is that aid provided for refugees always finds a way to the local market. That is no different for the Rohingya refugee case. Funding from the US has reached nearly $USD1.9 billion, from the UK £GBP345 million and from the EU €226 million as well as donations from around the world. Plenty of products given to the refugees become surplus and many of the products remain unused as they are not familiar to or appropriate for the Rohingya refugees. These products are then sold in local markets or in the “relief market” at comparatively lower prices than a regular market rate, especially food. This is ultimately harmful for the local traders and merchants. These adverse impacts on the local economy in Bangladesh come in addition to the effects of the increased price of commodities after the flow of humanitarian workers in Cox’s Bazar, who often earn higher wages than locals.
The presence of INGOS and humanitarian workers operating in Cox’s Bazar in response to the Rohingya refugee crisis have been proven inefficient and harmful to local communities. Clashes between the local and international humanitarian workers, and the selling of aid products in the local market are both fundamental issues arising from current aid policy.
A few steps could help to address these issues:
An independent committee consisting of both local and international stakeholders should be established which would track incoming aid and distribute it among NGOs according to their capacity. The committee should also be responsible for ensuring information sharing. Participation of local actors must be ensured, if not 50% at least proportionate to their number.
Aid products provided for the refugees should be familiar to them. They should be identified based on need prior to purchase and delivery and the committee should be responsible for checking the sale of aid products in the market. Aid should be distributed evenly among the refugees to reduce the risk of having surplus supplies.
Multi-agency emergency response in refugee camps or conflict zones can result in intervention gaps and grave consequences for local communities. This is amplified by the lack of a formal body to hold INGOs accountable for the issues, such as their lack of efficiency in operations. Hence, it is important to found an independent committee for the proper utilisation of refugee humanitarian aid.
Irtifa Zaman has recently finished her MA International Relations at the University of Kent. Her thesis focused on differences of media frame covering the 2017 Rohingya Refugee Influx in Myanmar, Bangladesh, India and China. Her research interests include migration and statelessness, border politics, politicisation of migrant issues and refugee representation in media. Irtifa is willing to consider the comparative studies of media portrayal between the Ukrainian and Syrian refugees in Europe and its effect on host governments’ policies as her PhD topic. Originally a Bangladeshi, Irtifa did her BA in History from the University of Chittagong. Later she did her master’s in Contemporary History and World Affairs where she was the top student. Irtifa is currently working as a teaching assistant under the GSL Education. She has previously worked as an English-language teacher for underprivileged children through the UN Volunteers Programme.