Issue 30 - Article 9

Supporting the process of settlement: lessons from Darfur

July 25, 2005
Graham Saunders, Catholic Relief Services

The conflict in Darfur has once again highlighted the challenge of meeting the shelter and settlement needs of large numbers of displaced households in an insecure and rapidly changing environment. Traditional settlement and shelter solutions in Darfur typically enabled these needs to be met, albeit with differing degrees of adequacy. The displacement of over 1.6 million households has disrupted social networks and the self-management of established settlements through which issues of livelihood security, personal safety and essential shelter and sanitation needs were addressed.

Displaced households have sought protection and support through a number of different approaches to temporary settlement, including self-settlement adjacent to existing communities in rural areas, hosting by domiciled households within towns and the temporary use of public land and facilities such as schools. However, the local authorities and relief agencies have focused on establishing large-scale camps on the perimeters of the towns. This is the generic response to mass displacement, designed to simplify service provision and management. It has led to an emphasis on predetermined shelter solutions, rather than support for the process of settlement – the more practically and politically challenging task of providing a variety of flexible responses reflecting the local context and complementing the creative coping strategies of affected households and host communities.

Drawing on experiences in West Darfur in particular, this article explores how the provision of assistance could better meet the settlement needs of internally displaced people (IDPs) by supporting the initiatives of displaced households themselves.

Patterns of self-settlement

In response to attacks by Arab militia on outlying and rural villages, displaced households have sought safety through settling in or adjacent to the larger towns or villages. Temporary settlements have been established on vacant land and within communal facilities such as school compounds. In the major towns, a significant proportion of the IDP population is hosted by domiciled residents (approximately 35% of the total number of IDPs in and around El Geneina, according to September 2004 figures). This has also been a key feature of the local response to meeting the immediate housing needs of displaced households. A number of displaced households have settled on small, vacant parcels of land in and around the towns, often with the tacit acceptance of immediate neighbours. The proximity to existing household clusters resulting from such settlement has enabled ready access to local resources and facilities, opportunities for small-scale livelihood activities, and possibilities for alternative temporary housing through local networking.

On the self-settled temporary sites on the outskirts of the towns, and in the collective sites established in school compounds within the towns, overcrowding has been commonplace, with a lack of sufficient sanitary facilities and inadequate shelter. However, typical household activities have been undertaken elsewhere, and many households do not occupy these dwellings for large periods of the day. Several households secured alternative sleeping arrangements for children and elderly family members. Small-scale market activities, or the grazing of livestock, have taken place elsewhere in the town or on its periphery. Many households reportedly erected shelters solely to make themselves eligible for relief distributions. Where households have been able to self-settle in a given area, related or formerly neighbouring families have managed to provide their own facilities, including the excavation and enclosure of a limited number of latrines and the construction of communal ovens. This has also enabled the neighbourhood community to manage other resources, for example firewood, and the attendant protection issues around the sourcing of this material in open areas.

Where space or resources within the host family have been limited, priority has been given to the vulnerable members of displaced households to ensure their safety and well-being. Although such hosting has placed additional demands on local services and facilities, the local authorities have been reluctant to allow assistance to be provided to host families, or to support the expansion of services in residential areas hosting displaced households due to concern that this would encourage permanent settlement by the IDPs. Similarly, households who have taken advantage of urban infill plots have typically not been included in distribution lists, and have been encouraged by the local authorities to relocate to ‘established’ temporary sites.

To address the problems of overcrowding and inadequate facilities, the local authorities and relief agencies have promoted relocation to new or expanded camps. Identifying available land for such decongestion sites has been an issue, with the local authorities favouring larger tracts of undeveloped land on the perimeter of the towns, or sites located at a distance from urban areas. Many displaced households viewed such sites as placing them at risk of further attack. The fact that farmers from neighbouring villages bring their animals in from the villages to the towns at night for safety lends credence to these fears.

A managed approach to the settling of displaced households is clearly required to ensure appropriate population densities, and access to and the provision of facilities. However, the planning process to date has not adequately reflected the preferences of the households themselves, or maximised opportunities to promote self-management by relocating communities. IDPs have been reluctant to move to such isolated sites, despite the ‘build it and they will come’ exhortations of some officials.


Meeting shelter priorities

Shelter assistance has focused on the construction of household shelters in planned camps, complemented by sanitary and communal facilities. This does not adequately reflect the support the displaced households require to meet their particular shelter needs. These needs vary according to where they are settled, the activities that need to be accommodated and their ability to access material resources and skills.

Smaller-scale clusters of IDPs could be supported where they have self-settled, subject to appropriate short-term land-use agreements in consultation with the neighbouring community, and appropriate replanning to allow for access and service upgrading and the provision of individual household space. Not all self-settled locations may be viable, due to high land values, land title constraints and planned development. The replanning may also require the relocation of households to reduce population densities. Any such arrangements and replanning could be determined by the respective IDP communities themselves, drawing upon existing self-management structures. This would allow for locally appropriate compromises on space provision (including covered living areas) per individual household subject to usage; the delineation and usage of common external areas; and the siting, design and maintenance of essential facilities, including water points, toilets and washing areas.

A more constructive approach to the hosting of displaced households could reduce the demands on the existing infrastructure, better manage the planning implications of rapid population increase in urban centres, and capitalise to a greater extent on local coping mechanisms. The upgrading of existing services, for example by providing additional water points and toilets or extensions to school classrooms, could meet increasing demand and provide a permanent benefit to the whole community. Support could be provided to develop standardised short-term land use agreements, as well as appropriate planning services and procedures to better manage the absorption of additional households within the existing urban layout. Land use surveys, targeting individual parcels of vacant or underdeveloped land within urban areas, could also inform the short-term urban infill settlement of displaced households, in conjunction with the neighbouring or hosting community. This approach could be encouraged by modest infrastructure upgrading to increase the long-term viability and value of the land parcels in question.

Local markets have been functioning and many families have shown great ingenuity in adapting materials they have sourced themselves. An exploration of shelter assistance beyond the provision of direct material distributions could stimulate a broader variety of more innovative housing solutions. The provision of vouchers, redeemable with pre-selected local suppliers and skilled labour, could enable beneficiary households to complement their existing resources with self-selected materials, or indeed specialist labour. Cash payments could also be made available to enable renting, subject to eligibility criteria, appropriate rental terms and an understanding of the existing rental market, to minimise the disruption to existing hosting arrangements. The provision of basic construction guidance, using existing examples of good construction, access to simple tools, and community labour gangs to assist households unable to build, could complement the tailored supply of supplementary material assistance

A key concern of many displaced households has been to generate income, either from livestock, or through modest market activities. It is acknowledged that disruption to the livelihood activities of affected households has been a key objective of the militia and their supporters in fomenting the violence, and opportunities to support or re-establish such activities should be informed by the local context. However, initiatives of displaced households and the host communities to date are encouraging. Small kitchen gardens have appeared between temporary shelters, and improvised pens have been erected to accommodate animals. Privately-negotiated agreements between IDPs and local families have enabled grazing land on the periphery of the towns to be used on a temporary basis. Support for larger-scale access to, or rental of, land as a relief activity could be actively pursued.

A number of displaced individuals have established links with local traders to prepare or sell wares in camps. Criteria for selecting settlement locations could include ease of access to local markets and suppliers. Market surveys could be undertaken to better understand how relief assistance to IDPs could strengthen local economies, and where investment could best benefit displaced and domiciled households. The presence of a substantial number of new consumers could be viewed as an economic opportunity, and openings for new or expanded microenterprise activities could be identified. The local production of shelter materials and household items could be explored, to benefit displaced households and their host neighbours. Training in new production and construction skills could also be promoted, where there is interest. Opportunities to transfer existing skills between IDPs, where these skills may have been lost as a result of displacement and loss of life, could be encouraged. Microfinance could also be made available, based on recent experiences in providing such services in refugee camps, in West Africa in particular.


Promoting the process, not the product

In attempting to meet the many and varied needs of IDPs, greater recognition should be placed on settlement as a process, not simply the delivery of a defined product, such as shelter materials or a package of household items. Grouping IDPs in well-planned camps with materials for individual household shelters is an appropriate response where lack of land, security concerns and the need for the management of centralised resources prompt a preference for such an approach from the households themselves. However, as key sector guidelines emphasise, such camps should not be a default response. Through self-settlement, affected households have typically addressed the overlapping issues of personal safety, livelihood support, essential shelter and sanitation and social networking, as well as capitalising on available resources and relationships.

Displaced households and their hosts make compromises between location, personal safety concerns, space provision, access to services and the ability to generate their own resources. The provision of material, organisational and political support for these decisions could result in innovative, locally acceptable solutions. Promoting the process of settlement could include support for local planning procedures, the development of individual household land use agreements and the provision of technical assistance to local authorities and community groups to enable local settlement solutions. Whilst recognising that host communities are not necessarily homogenous, where appropriate they should also be included in the settlement process as potential providers of resources and creative settlement opportunities.

Focusing on the process of settlement, rather than on specific shelter outputs, would encourage a more holistic approach to meeting settlement challenges. This in turn would enable the development of more flexible interventions to address the many and varied settlement needs that exist, and better reflect the priorities and preferences of the affected population. Recognition that temporary settlements may remain for some time, given the deteriorating security situation, should also encourage greater consideration of, and support for, more sustainable, locally determined settlement approaches. The experience in Darfur highlights a real need, as well as an opportunity, to put this aspiration into practice.


Graham Saunders is Shelter and Settlements Technical Advisor for Catholic Relief Services. His email address is:


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