Internal displacement: the future of the Collaborative Response system
by October 2005

The international community has largely failed to effectively address the worldwide internal displacement crisis. In all, some 25 million people in 50 countries are affected by conflict-induced internal displacement. Most do not receive adequate humanitarian assistance from their governments, nor are they sufficiently protected from violence and human rights abuse. The Global IDP Project estimates that three out of every four IDPs, more than 18 million people, cannot count on the authorities in their country for the provision of adequate assistance. In addition to the direct violence that often accompanies displacement, IDPs appear to be significantly more vulnerable to malnutrition and disease than local residents or other war-affected people. They generally have no access to agricultural land, and only limited opportunities to earn money for food and medical care. Many IDPs are forced to live as second-class citizens, facing discrimination, restrictions on their freedom of movement and their political rights, and difficulties in accessing personal documents, social services and benefits.

This article examines some of the weaknesses of the current response to the IDP crisis, and explores possibilities for improvements. It argues that the current arrangement, known as Collaborative Response, albeit far from ideal, is the most viable in view of current political realities, and still has a great potential for ensuring a systematic and comprehensive international response to the protection and assistance needs of IDPs.

A weak response

National governments have the primary responsibility for protecting and assisting internally displaced people on their territory, but they often do not have the will or the capacity to fulfil this obligation. Since the early 1990s, the international community has taken on responsibility for addressing the plight of the displaced. However, the approach chosen by the UN system – known as ‘Collaborative Response’ – has been fraught with problems. The Collaborative Response system requires all relevant agencies present in an internal displacement situation to work together under the coordination of the UN resident and/or humanitarian coordinator to address the assistance and protection needs of IDPs in a systematic and comprehensive way. As focal point for IDP issues and chair of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC) has overall responsibility for ensuring that the system works.

There have been significant problems with the implementation of the Collaborative Response. The Global IDP Project’s Global Overview 2004 showed that, in 29 out of 49 countries, there was no UN strategy to address IDP issues. In the other 20 there was a more coordinated and systematic response, but this often existed only on paper. In 14 countries, the UN was not involved at all in providing targeted assistance to IDPs.

Reacting to growing concerns over the deficiencies of the international response, the UN and other organisations revised and expanded their IDP policy in September 2004. In addition, the Emergency Relief Coordinator, Jan Egeland, stepped up efforts to make internal displacement a priority within the UN system. He strengthened the UN’s Inter-Agency Internal Displacement Division, appointing a senior UNHCR official as its director and focusing its work on a few selected priority countries. UNHCR has also emphasised that it will intervene in IDP situations where these are ‘linked or similar to refugee/returnee situations, and where there is a need for intervention’. Given that the agency has been criticised for being ‘uncertain, inconsistent and unpredictable’ with regard to IDPs, this indicates an important change in policy, but still needs to be confirmed by the new High Commissioner.

Making the Collaborative Response work

At the same time, discussions have continued on possible alternatives to the Collaborative Response system. Proposals most often cited include creating a new IDP agency within the UN; formally expanding the mandate of UNHCR or another agency to cover IDPs; and designating a lead agency for each affected country.

While there are good reasons to be critical of the implementation of Collaborative Response, it would be premature to abandon it so soon after the adoption of the new inter-agency IDP policy package. Rather, serious efforts should be made to fix the system’s structural deficiencies. For all its problems, the Collaborative Response offers a number of advantages over alternative models. In particular, it allows the international community to:

  • respond flexibly to the different phases and situations of displacement;
  • mobilise the resources and expertise of a wide range of actors, ensuring that the multi-sectoral challenge of internal displacement is addressed in a multi-sectoral way; and
  • systematically involve non-governmental organisations in the international response.

Alternative models appear to be less viable. There is strong political resistance by a number of states (and some UN agencies) to creating a new agency or expanding the mandate of an existing one to cover all situations of internal displacement. Given the sovereignty issues that are at stake, this resistance is unlikely to be overcome in the near future. The sheer scope of the global internal displacement crisis goes far beyond the capacity and expertise of a single agency, and thus necessarily requires a broader inter-agency effort. This does not preclude nationwide, regional or sectoral lead agency arrangements, provided that the procedures agreed in the inter-agency IDP policy are adhered to. With the stronger involvement of UNHCR in IDP situations, such lead agency arrangements may become increasingly relevant.

To say that the Collaborative Response is the best system we have is not to argue that its weaknesses should not be addressed. To have a tangible impact on the ground, the following challenges need to be looked at urgently.

Improving accountability

Lack of accountability – one of the main weaknesses of the humanitarian response system in general – has a particularly negative impact on the functioning of the Collaborative Response. The inter-agency IDP policy clearly assigns responsibility for developing and implementing a comprehensive response to IDP situations to the UN’s in-country humanitarian coordinators or, where this position does not exist, to resident coordinators. However, many resident/humanitarian coordinators have not fully assumed this responsibility, or are not aware of it. Also, there are no specific reporting mechanisms in place with regard to implementing the IDP policy, and the general reporting line between humanitarian coordinators and the Emergency Relief Coordinator is often weak. As a result, there are generally no consequences for failure to comply with the policy.

As IDP focal point within the UN system, the Emergency Relief Coordinator should be asked to report to the IASC on the progress made in implementing the September 2004 policy package. Similarly, resident and humanitarian coordinators should be required by their terms of reference to regularly report to the ERC on their efforts to develop and implement an IDP action plan. The action plan should be developed in consultation with NGOs, and should include clearly defined benchmarks against which progress can be measured. Donors should play a stronger role in monitoring the implementation of action plans.

Strengthening leadership and capacity

While resident/humanitarian coordinators are assigned a key role in the response system at the country level, they often are not fully aware of their IDP-related responsibilities, do not have the necessary background and capacity to carry out this function adequately, or are limited in their interest in IDP issues, in particular where IDP protection conflicts with their other responsibilities. In many emergencies, the resident coordinator, often the head of the UNDP country office, is designated humanitarian coordinator, although he or she may have little or no humanitarian background, and their agency agenda may not be consistent with assuming a proactive role with regard to IDP issues.

Steps should therefore be taken to ensure that only candidates with a strong humanitarian background are appointed to the position of humanitarian coordinator, and that all humanitarian and resident coordinators are properly trained and equipped to deal with IDP situations, during an emergency and in the post-emergency phase. As a rule, humanitarian coordinators should be supported by a long-term senior IDP adviser. It is for consideration whether emergency funds should be made available to enable humanitarian coordinators and country teams to respond quickly to emergency situations.

Enhancing agency commitment

Although agencies have formally signed up to the Collaborative Response, in practice commitment to genuine collaboration is often undermined by competition for influence, visibility and funding. In addition, agencies on the ground may not yet be fully aware of the September 2004 policy. Citing budgetary constraints and other obstacles, agencies are reluctant to take on IDP-related responsibilities not strictly falling under their core mandates. This introduces a measure of unpredictability into the process, and results in a pick-and-choose approach, leading to institutional deadlock, gaps and delays.

Agencies should formally integrate the new policy package into their internal policy and operational documents, and ensure that all relevant field personnel are familiar with the policy. Relevant agencies should clarify their policies with regard to their involvement in addressing situations of internal displacement so as to ensure predictability in their responses.

Mobilising donor support

Although most donor governments have committed themselves publicly to the Collaborative Response, several donors are reluctant to put their full weight behind it. Donors rarely provide political backing for coordination mechanisms, or hold agencies accountable for uncooperative behaviour. As a recent evaluation documented, donors even undermine coordination efforts through some of their funding practices. Inconsistent messages from donors to agencies with regard to the level of involvement on IDP issues has a similarly negative effect, as demonstrated by the example of UNHCR.

All donors should develop policy documents highlighting the vulnerabilities and specific protection and assistance needs many IDPs have. Such policies should also include a clear commitment to supporting IDP-related coordination mechanisms. Donors should ensure that these commitments are actually translated into political backing for cooperation at the global and country level, including by using their influence as members of agencies’ governing boards.


Over the past few years, a considerable amount of time and resources have been invested in analysing the international response to internal displacement and developing means to improve it, including the new inter-agency policy package. The UN system should now be given a chance to implement the policy package, which has the potential to make a real difference in the field. However, considering the devastating effects of the international community’s failure to adequately respond to the worldwide internal displacement crisis, the necessary improvements need to go beyond cosmetic changes to remedy the structural deficiencies still crippling the response system. To be successful, this requires a full commitment by all actors involved.

Jens-Hagen Eschenbächeris Head of the Monitoring and Advocacy Department of the Global IDP Project, Norwegian Refugee Council. His email address is:

References and further reading

Protect or Neglect – Towards a More Effective United Nations Approach to the Protection of Internally Displaced Persons, Brookings-SAIS Project on Internal Displacement, UN Inter-Agency Internal Displacement Division, November 2004.

IDP Response Matrix – Methodology, Data, Analysis and Issues for Consideration, IDP Unit, 24 October 2002.

Internal Displacement: A Global Overview of Trends and Developments in 2004, Global IDP Project, Geneva, 2005.

Implementing the Collaborative Response to Situations of Internal Displacement, Guidance to UN Humanitarian Coordinators and/or Resident Coordinators and Country Teams, IASC, September 2004.

Consistent and Predictable Responses to IDPs: A Review of UNHCR’s Decision-Making Processes, UNHCR, March 2005.

The Global Response to Internal Displacement: Alternatives to the Collaborative Approach, Refugees International, December 2004.
Support to Internally Displaced Persons, Learning from Evaluations, summary version, SIDA, 2005.