Issue 36 - Article 10

The death-knell of '4R': rethinking durable solutions for displaced people

January 11, 2007
Robert Muggah, Graduate Institute of International Studies, University of Geneva, and Queen Elizabeth House, University of Oxford

The return and reintegration of refugees and, increasingly, internally displaced persons (IDPs), are major objectives of UNHCR. Along with strategic resettlement, these activities are often central to the achievement of so-called durable solutions, even if what constitutes ‘durable’ has proven frustratingly difficult to measure on the ground. There is uncertainty within the agency concerning the standards by which to judge whether a durable solution has been achieved – whether defined as a basket of entitlements that are commensurate with refugee or IDP status, the achievement of self-reliance by displaced people or parity between the displaced and locals. UNHCR’s Executive Committee recently issued a preliminary typology of benchmarks – including material, physical and legal security – though this raises still more tricky definitional questions.

UNHCR and its implementing partners have long experimented with ways to promote sustainable and cost-effective durable solutions. For example, in the 1970s the agency’s approaches ranged from area-based and rural integrated development to agricultural settlement schemes and improved camp management. By the 1980s, the agency subtly changed tact, alternately financing Quick Impact Projects (QIPs) to enhance social and economic infrastructure in hosting areas and Community Empowerment Projects (CEPs) that built human, rather than exclusively physical, capital. Owing in part to the enormous challenges facing the agency in ‘transition’ contexts, UNHCR has struggled to articulate a coherent approach that satisfies all stakeholders, especially refugees and IDPs, host governments, civil society and the private sector. A central concern throughout relates to ensuring the ‘protection’ of refugees and IDPs – principally through the promotion of ‘equal access’ to national protection mechanisms.

Recognising the limitations of its mandate and the multi-sector priorities accompanying post-conflict operations, UNHCR and its donors determined that ‘collaborative approach’ was the only feasible option to promoting durable return and reintegration. In 2003, then High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers introduced the concept of repatriation, reintegration, rehabilitation and reconstruction, colloquially known as the ‘4R approach’. From the beginning, 4R was described as an ‘overarching framework for institutional collaboration in the implementation of reintegration operations allowing flexibility for country specific situations … [aiming to] address effectively the mainstreaming of reintegration into national development plans and programmes’. Just as 4R represented a conceptual departure from previous efforts, it also promised a new means of tapping development funding from donor governments.

The 4R approach was expected to provide partners and hosting governments with a transparent mechanism to collectively identify objectives, capacities and challenges, and mobilise resources to achieve durable solutions. Agencies were (naively) expected to fall in line and cooperate. As a measure of their early commitment, UNHCR and other UN agencies, including UNDP and the World Bank, decided to pilot 4R in four countries, Sri Lanka, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Sierra Leone, in late 2003. But after a series of sour evaluations, ICVA reported that the ‘overarching framework for institutional collaboration in the implementation of reintegration had not been achieved’. The future of 4R was thrown into doubt.

The failure of 4R

While UNHCR has responded admirably to many crisis situations since the 1950s, the agency, and indeed the broader humanitarian system, has always struggled to ensure operational and bureaucratic coherence during its transition from ‘emergency’ to ‘early recovery’ and ‘developmental’ activities.

One of the major constraints to bridging the gap is structural – a function of the slow pace at which responsibilities between humanitarians and development actors are ‘handed over’. Other challenges relate to UNHCR’s reluctance to invest in ostensibly development activities in highly politicised environments, and its inability to critically examine and learn from past behaviour. But if 4R was deliberately crafted to smooth the transition and to ensure that the longer-term needs of displaced populations were not forgotten in the rush to promote return and close camps, it manifestly failed to work.

Experiences from the four pilot countries revealed the routine challenges of implementing meaningful reforms (or even inter-agency collaboration) within the UN system without requisite authority and incentives to promote them. For example, a confidential review found that the 4R concept, although while widely supported on the ground, required considerably more structure and direction than anticipated – particularly from UNHCR headquarters. Unfortunately, the concept failed to take root precisely because it lacked adequate institutional arrangements between agencies such as UNHCR and UNDP, as well as poor direction, insufficient resources, limited training for UN staff, and inadequate technical guidance in pilot countries.

Other obstacles to the implementation of 4R relate to the poor diagnosis and communication of priorities between agencies. UN and non-governmental agencies often fail to adequately anticipate the huge and resource-intensive challenges associated with ‘reabsorbing’ populations, much less the specific requirements of repatriation, reintegration, rehabilitation and reconstruction in ‘transition’ contexts. When the attendant challenges become overwhelming or funding sources begin drying up, agencies retreat to their own specific niche areas and shy away from cooperation. There is in fact a weak culture of collaboration and too few incentives to build constructive partnerships in a sustained way.

Moving beyond 4R

UNHCR and the UN system as a whole should carefully rethink their approach and commitment to durable solutions. Humanitarian agencies alone are ill-equipped to contend with the complex requirements of political and socio-economic recovery – a point frequently made by successive High Commissioners. At the very least, UNHCR, together with UNDP and the World Bank, must clarify and define the scope of their contribution to durable solutions. They must also carefully consider the inter-relationships between their interventions and different categories of displaced people – whether spontaneous returnees and resettling groups, organised refugee returnees or IDP returnees. For example, there has long been a discrepancy between durable solutions proposed for refugees and IDPs, though recent activities in Afghanistan suggest that this is gradually being redressed.

Existing UNHCR guidelines on return and reintegration already contain the key elements to ensure a comprehensive durable solution. The ingredients are there. But UNHCR cannot go it alone. A key question is how to encourage others – including host governments, UN agencies, international financial institutions, NGOs and the private sector – to constructively engage and overcome inter-agency rivalry and the obstacles to collective action. Despite their best intentions, many agencies still regularly fail to harness the agency – the skills, enthusiasm and energy – of returning populations. UNHCR should support its partners in revising their approach to inter-agency collaboration on durable solutions for displaced populations. Together with the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), UNHCR and UNDP have started to explore ways to enhance collaboration and ensure greater accountability and predictability in responding to, and ideally preventing and resolving, humanitarian crises.

A recent positive development is the adoption of the so-called ‘cluster approach’. The ‘early recovery’ cluster, led by UNDP, is expected to improve programming in both disaster and conflict-related contexts. Meanwhile, UNHCR is responsible for the protection, emergency shelter and camp coordination and management clusters. Recent efforts to implement the cluster approach in Somalia nevertheless reveal the considerable gap between rhetoric and reality. However implemented, the next generation of durable solutions must be guided by a structured approach with clearly articulated agreements on precisely how return, reintegration, rehabilitation and reconstruction will take place, and a clear division of responsibilities.

The success of the new cluster approach will depend in large part on a coherent resource mobilisation strategy and realisation of pragmatic synergies between stakeholders. Despite recent progress in establishing transition mechanisms and flexible funding sources in post-conflict contexts, resources still need to be mobilised and disbursed more quickly. In recent repatriation, return and reintegration operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan, for example, UNHCR found that effective disbursements from international financial institutions could generate positive dividends. Efforts to promote predictable and responsive disbursement should be redoubled, particularly for UN agencies, NGOs and governments facing acute challenges in, for example, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Somalia, Sudan, Angola and Liberia.

Crucially, UNHCR could invest more in assisting governments to design proactive national ‘development frameworks’ to give greater credence to supporting safe and durable return and reintegration in the context of the transition. Governments must assume their responsibilities for such activities if genuinely comprehensive durable solutions are to take hold. The case of Afghanistan demonstrates how innovative policy frameworks and programming inspired opportunistic joint interventions by disparate actors. In Mozambique, with UNHCR’s support, the government was able to rapidly engage a wide range of actors in undertaking recovery and development programmes in key districts of return. Unless UNHCR and its partners are able to commit to multi-year funding, there are comparatively few incentives for host governments to ensure sustainability in service delivery to displaced populations. The World Bank’s ‘trust funds’ and pooled funding mechanisms could provide some useful precedents in this regard.

The 4R concept was quietly dropped from Antonio Guterres’ opening statement to the fifty-seventh Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Programme in late 2006. It is vital that UNHCR and others continue to move beyond the 4R label to the substance of durable solutions. Although the expression may have unintentionally confused and divided stakeholders, many of its underlying messages are sound and should be reinforced. What needs to be firmly recognised is that returning populations are key players in transition processes. It is thus in both the national and international interest to ensure that the repatriation, reintegration, rehabilitation and reconstruction of displaced populations is not advanced purely for political gain, but rather as a core element of the building of a more just social, political and economic order.

Robert Muggah is based at the Graduate Institute of International Studies (University of Geneva) and Queen Elizabeth House (University of Oxford). His email is: The author would like to thank Felipe Camargo (UNHCR), Erin Mooney (OCHA) and James Milner (University of Toronto) for their thoughtful comments on an early draft of this article.


ICVA, Implementing the Collaborative Response to Situations of Internal Displacement: Guidance for Inter-Agency Standing Committee (Geneva: ICVA).

T. Morris, ‘UNHCR, IDPs, and Clusters’, Forced Migration Review, 25.

UNHCR, ‘Opening Statement by Mr. Antonio Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’, Fifty-Seventh Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Programme, Geneva, 2 October 2006.

UNHCR, The State of the World’s Refugees (Oxford: OUP, 2006).

UNHCR, Consistent and Predictable Responses to IDPs: A Review of UNHCR’s Decision-Making Process (Geneva: EPAU, 2006).

UNHCR, Executive Committee Meeting of the General Assembly High Commissioner’s Programme, Doc.No.A/AC.96/998, Session 55, 24 September 2004.

UNHCR, Framework for Durable Solutions for Refugees and Persons of

Concern (Geneva: UNHCR, 2003).

UNHCR Sierra Leone, UNHCR Guidelines for Community Empowerment Projects, 2001.

UNHCR, UNHCR Guidelines for the Design and Implementation of QIPs

(Geneva: UNHCR, 1995).


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