Hard choices: a critical review of UNHCR’s community development approach in Nepal
by Robert Muggah May 2003

The UNHCR’s community development approach (CDA) consists of a disparate set of guidelines designed to strengthen the self-reliance of refugees during protracted refugee situations. It sees refugees as agents of their own development, and aims to prepare them for a durable solution to their plight. Key features include promoting democratic camp management and participatory decision-making, encouraging women’s involvement in camp life and expanded access to health care and education. But in the absence of basic standards or benchmarks, the CDA is being used by UNHCR’s implementing partners, as well as by specialised units within the agency itself, as an opportunity to advance rights-based development for its own sake.

This raises a number of concerns to do with the desired aims of the CDA, the accountability of UNHCR and its implementing partners, and the capacity of UNHCR to administer development while preserving its core mandate. Critics argue that the embrace of a more developmental approach has corroded what should be UNHCR’s main focus, namely legal protection and a more vocal and political engagement with governments that abrogate their legal obligations to refugees; in effect, the burden of responsibility has shifted from expelling countries and donor governments to UNHCR, its implementing partners and host states. In the light of these concerns, this article casts a critical eye over CDA as experienced in Bhutanese refugee camps in Nepal.

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The evolution of the CDA

Since the early 1990s, protracted refugee situations have become the rule rather than the exception. In Africa alone, millions of refugees have spent perhaps decades in camps with little or no prospect of returning to their home countries. In many cases, decades-old camps still operate with the same procedures and standards as when they were first established. The increasingly entrenched nature of these refugee situations has coincided with growing intolerance for them among donors, and debate over the merits of linking relief and developmental approaches to assistance. It has also come amid a drastic reduction in funding for UNHCR; on the eve of its fiftieth anniversary, for example, the agency was forced to borrow $40 million from its working capital to finance programmes. Since 1992, when contributions to UNHCR peaked at over $1,000m, there has been a steady decline; in 2000, contributions stood at around $700m. The agency is unable to fund its most basic protection and assistance work, especially in Africa.

The CDA emerged in response to these various pressures. Its stated objectives are fourfold:

  • to strengthen refugee initiative and participation in order to ensure ownership of all phases of a programme;
  • to reinforce the dignity and self-esteem of refugees;
  • to increase self-reliance; and
  • to increase the cost-effectiveness and sustainability of UNHCR’s work.

The guidelines that make up the CDA reflect progressive thinking in the development community, which has seen a shift away from a service-delivery culture to one that engages refugees in their own development and treats them as agents rather than subjects. UNHCR’s approach is, however, distinct from more conventional development thinking in one important respect. The CDA does not explicitly promote development as a cluster of indivisible human rights, but rather protects a number of core rights as a means to an end. Whereas development agencies aim to promote the development of vulnerable groups irrespective of their political situation, UNHCR’s objectives under the CDA are by definition limited to achieving a durable solution.

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This distinction is crucial, but it does not seem to be fully shared by UNHCR’s implementing partners, nor by specialised units within UNHCR itself, such as Gender, Children and Health. Rather, CDA is being used to advance rights-based development in its own right, with widely divergent standards and benchmarks, and without clear exit-plans. But while refugees in protracted situations no doubt warrant development, UNHCR is not a ‘development’ organisation; its primary mandate is to protect refugees in the short term, and to find durable solutions to their plight in the long term. As the case of Nepal demonstrates, the uncritical application of a rights-based approach can have unintended – and undesirable – consequences.

The CDA in practice: Bhutanese camps in Nepal

Nepal hosts seven Bhutanese refugee camps in the Jhapa district in the east of the country. The official refugee population stands at 101,300, mostly Bhutanese of Nepali origin, referred to as Lhotsampas. The first refugees arrived in 1991 following new citizenship regulations and a ‘Bhutanese programme’ which discriminated against minority groups such as the Lhotsampas. There was a further influx in 1992, and a small trickle has continued in the months and years since.

UNHCR and its implementing partners have been promoting CDA since the earliest days of the emergency, with startling results. Refugees enjoy a high degree of self-reliance and participation in the delivery of goods and services, as teachers, health workers and construction workers. There is a widespread commitment to democratic decision-making, gender equality and the rights of women; levels of primary, secondary and tertiary education are high – 75% literacy and almost 100% school enrolment – and levels of mortality and morbidity low in comparison with the Nepalese population. The primary and preventive health programme is believed to have contributed to a marked reduction in the birth rate, as well as reducing under-five mortality and malnutrition. Indeed, through a combination of outside help and their own resolve and dynamism, the refugee population’s development indices exceed those of virtually every other population group in South Asia. Considering the circumstances, this is an admirable achievement.

Perversely, however, the very development of the refugee population has made the prospect of a durable solution to the refugee problem less and less likely. The programmes and interventions by UNHCR and its implementing partners, which have sought to promote the rights of refugees to democratic decision-making, education and gender equality, have also strengthened the resistance of the Bhutanese regime to repatriation. For Bhutan, permanently settling a radicalised, pro-democratic and rights-literate population is an unwelcome prospect in a country that denies its own people the right to vote. Negotiations between the Bhutanese and Nepalese governments have yielded little, and three years after the establishment of a Joint Verification Committee (JVC), not a single repatriation has taken place.

The prospects for settlement within Nepal are only marginally better. The disproportionate assistance and generally better well-being of the refugees has generated tensions with the host population, and the Nepalese government is increasingly reluctant to allow refugees the option of local integration for fear of labour competition and tensions over land. Although the Nepalese government has provided protection for the refugees since 1991, they are not legally entitled to work, own land or engage in political activities.

Within the camps themselves, there are also signs that the lack of a solution to the refugee situation is having an increasingly corrosive effect. Participatory research and key informant interviewees revealed increases in alcoholism, child marriages, polygamy, prostitution and the trafficking of women; disappearances of handicapped children are on the rise, suicide rates have increased and levels of mental illness are unusually high. While the general welfare of refugees remains good in comparison with other refugee populations, and the problems emerging in the camps are also present in the host communities, their prevalence nonetheless illustrates a gradual social deterioration. Meanwhile, UNHCR’s programmes in Nepal have suffered deep budget cuts, falling from just over $5,000,000 in 1993 to a projected budget of $2,800,000 in 2002. As a result, UNHCR has tried to scale back its CDA activities, particularly in healthcare. This has met with fierce resistance from a well-educated and rights-aware refugee population, and there is growing dissatisfaction with the assistance provided by UNHCR and its implementing partners. Many leaders of the refugee community, as well as educated refugees, have left the camps, and there are clear signs of stress among those that remain.

Because UNHCR-Nepal has not set clear benchmarks or objectives for its care and maintenance activities, its implementing agencies have provided services and applied the CDA for its own sake. The UNHCR-Nepal operation has become, in effect, a development operation, but without a mandate for development. This has resulted in undeniable improvements in the health and well-being of the beneficiary population – yet at a cost. Developing the political rights of women and improving access to health and education have predictably led to heightened political activism and increased demands for constantly improving services. Perversely, the refugee population’s sustained access to development assistance and prolific campaigning for democracy have damaged prospects for a durable solution. The more democratically-inclined the refugees, the less likely it is that the Bhutanese government will allow their safe repatriation. Even if repatriation was a possibility, refugees with a strong desire to promote gender equality would find integration into Bhutan’s traditionally patriarchal society difficult. The wider Bhutanese population, let alone its government, shares few common values in this regard.

Setting the bar too high?

The CDA consists of a set of pragmatic and cost-saving guidelines for UNHCR and its implementing partners. In as much as these policies endeavour to promote self-reliance and refugees’ ownership of services and programmes, they also reflect the dominant rights-laden norms advanced by Western institutions, including the UN. It is impossible to refute the inherent value of education, healthcare, women’s empowerment and democratic decision-making, and many NGOs have applauded UNHCR’s espousal of a developmental approach to the care and maintenance of refugees in protracted situations. Where this approach is uncritically interpreted, and in the absence of clear or acceptable standards and benchmarks, the CDA may have unintended – and in some cases negative – consequences for refugees’ well-being, promoting dependency rather than reducing it, generating expectations that the cash-strapped UNHCR cannot hope to meet and undermining the prospects for safe and dignified return or permanent host-country settlement.

The CDA was conceived by UNHCR as a means of strengthening self-reliance and improving the ‘delivery’ of services in lieu of a durable solution. But instead, the bar has been set higher – if indeed it has been set at all. It is vital that the UNHCR recognises the distinction between means and ends. There is an urgent need for UNHCR and its partners to develop appropriate standards for CDA. At the very least, the organisation must move beyond basic emergency standards in protracted refugee situations towards minimum standards that strengthen self-reliance and empower refugees, but do not simultaneously undermine the prospects of achieving a durable solution.

Robert Muggahis on leave from the Small Arms Survey, a project of the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva. He is currently based at the Refugee Studies Centre (RSC) at Oxford University, and is a Global Security and Cooperation Fellow of the Social Science Research Council. He visited the Nepal refugee camps in June 2002. This article represents his own views, and not those of UNHCR or NGOs working in Jhapa, Nepal.

References and further reading

UNHCR, Refugee Emergencies: A Community-Based Approach (Geneva: UNHCR, 1996).

UNHCR, Assisting Disabled Refugees: A Community Based Approach (Geneva: UNHCR, 1996).

UNHCR, Urban Refugees: A Community Based Approach (Geneva: UNHCR, 1996).

UNCHR, Reinforcing a Community Development Approach, EC/51/SC/CRP.6 (Geneva: UNHCR, 2001).

UNHCR, Framework for UNHCR Involvement in Self-Reliance, Employment and Micro-Finance (Geneva: UNHCR, 1997).

UNHCR/Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, Respect Our Rights: Partnership for Equality (Geneva/New York: UNHCR/Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, 2001).

Michael Barnett, ‘UNHCR and the Ethics of Repatriation’, Forced Migration Review, no. 10, 2001.

M. Hutt, ‘Ethnic Nationalism, Refugees and Bhutan’, Journal of Refugee Studies, vol. 9, no. 4, 1996.

Hans-Otto Sano, ‘Development and Human Rights: The Necessary, but Partial Integration of Human Rights and Development’, Human Rights Quarterly, vol. 22, no. 3, 2001.

Emma Harris-Curtis, The Rights and Wrongs of a Rights-Based Approach to Development, report prepared for the INTRAC-NGO Research Programme, 2002.

Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (Oxford: OUP, 1999).

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