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Climate Traps and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)

By Anisha Samantara

In 2020, around 40.5 million new displacements were recorded across 149 countries[1], which was the highest ever seen in the last ten years. A closer look at the causes indicates a serious shift in trend from conflict and violence being a major cause to environmental disasters triggering three times more displacements than conflicts.

Around seven million people have been uprooted due to disasters but this figure might be even greater since disruptions from Covid-19 hindered actual data recordings[2]. Further, measures to curb covid-19 severely hampered humanitarian efforts across the globe especially for IDPs, making them more vulnerable to the impacts of covid-19 as the International Displacement Monitoring Centre’s Global Report on Internal Displacement, 2021 highlights.

The overlapping of conflicts and disasters puts IDPs in a web of inter-related dependencies and makes them prone to second and third displacements, thus, prolonging their vulnerabilities. Conflicts and disasters often collide in sub-Saharan Africa and give rise to new and constant displacements as seen in the case of floods (the highest ranking cause for displacements within disasters). Rainy seasons in countries[3] like South Sudan[4], Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Mali have been more prolonged resulting in incessant flooding of already conflict ridden and violence prone areas. This intersection with disasters and natural hazards increases vulnerabilities and creates climate traps in two key ways, first, by creating a second displacement amid already displaced populations and second, creating a new set of needs for IDPs that need to be addressed in more unique ways. It is essential to identify and understand these processes in order to create empowering capabilities and move beyond solely an aid-based approach to transformative applications.

Disaster Displacement: Evidence Vs Myth

Disaster displacement is a real phenomenon. What makes it difficult to capture and subsequently design policies to address it- are a range of myths and misconceptions[5] surrounding it. These misconceptions include, for example, the idea that disaster displacement is short-term and comes in cycles which can be addressed in the sphere of disaster management alone. When in reality, with time, disaster displacements become more protracted in nature. Another misunderstanding comes from assuming that small-scale events are not a serious concern, which of course is erroneous because small-scale disasters also have the capacity to destroy local livelihoods and threaten relative development of individuals affected by it. Lastly, a persistent misconception surrounding such displacements is that only people who are forced from their homes suffer negative impacts of displacement- this is not true as displacements uproot communities non-uniformly and aggravate anxieties and socio-economic losses even for people who remain in one place. Evidence[6] increasingly points towards a growing knowledge and understanding that displacement-impacts vary by age group, gender, disability and other characteristics which need to be addressed in more inclusive ways.

The Power of Capabilities and Community-Based Approaches

When it comes to climate emergencies and natural disasters, certain beliefs still remain very strongly in place, despite decades of building evidence against those perceptions. The most common one being- disasters are natural and something that can be prepared for but “not prevented”. However, it is equally important in planning and relief responses to address that (a) exposure and vulnerability of people and (b) assets (Peoples’ Capabilities, both economic and non-economic) play a crucial role. And ignoring this complexity leads to approaches that are short-sighted, unsustainable and limited to hazard management.

A key insight supported by researchers in the global south is that local communities inherently possess practices, knowledge and social capital to build and sustain important capabilities- for their growth and resilience. Sen’s (1999) Capability Approach[7] provides an intersecting framework to address some of these issues. It is rooted in the belief that individuals (here, IDPs) have freedoms and opportunities to live the life they “value”. From a normative point of view, this means that while evaluating the capabilities of displaced people, it is essential to consider what real freedoms and opportunities these people have access to for their well-being. Of course, these freedoms vary and are also closely tied to aspirations[8]. As its first principle, the capability approach advocates for freedom of an individual to make choices and use ‘conversion factors’ to transform those freedoms into ‘functionings’. Conversion factors are tied to the environment of the individual, therefore a constrained environment may limit the process towards achieving those functionings. Similarly, when supportive conversion factors are in place, this allows the individual to aspire to flourish, broaden their capability set and ultimately drive agency- which is the essence here, in building a participatory and representative process. This is the step towards justice and fundamental freedoms integral to peoples’ well-being. This universality and applicability of the principles of the capability approach make it relevant when discussing issues of marginalized communities and individuals anywhere in the world.

Re-conceptualising and re-thinking strategies for building resilience and reducing risks for IDPs

The convergence of conflict and disasters lays bare the scale of the situation for protecting IDPs and the urgent need to connect humanitarian, peacebuilding and sustainable development efforts to respond to displacement in a changing climate. There is robust evidence[9] to show we have entered the Anthropocene age [10], characterized by severe environmental and social imbalances- the effects of which we already see around us. From glacial retreat, permafrost melt, coastal erosion and floods to droughts and wildfires. These are a combination of both, slow-onset and unpredictable disasters, triggered and worsened by global temperatures rising and hence pointing to a “new dangerous normal”.

These factors have serious impacts on mobility patterns and displacement risks across the world. Data and evidence based understanding of vulnerable people and communities is the way to move forward. Having accurate and holistic data on who is vulnerable and the intensity of the displacement matters to a great extent if local and national governments along with NGOs and partners wish to build resilient pathways for IDPs. Data gaps need to be filled by ensuring data collection efforts complement each other and not overlap, while symmetry of data metrics will also help to make data interoperable[11]

Increasingly, there is recognition that non-conventional and more art-based methodologies become enablers in empowering communities in these fragile contexts. Seeing them as co-researchers and not merely participants in the policy and planning sphere calls for a lens shift in studying and engaging sensitive categories of population such as IDPs. When Community-based approaches intersect other creative and art-based approaches, they make for a very rich resource/knowledge creation that has its roots (bottom-up) in creative, dialogical and interactive methods for both participants and researchers[12]

Culturally responsive practices are underutilized and need to be expanded to foster critical thinking about inequalities and biases even on part of researchers and donor organisations. Which would mean, development strategies and changes are led by demands of the communities and not by funding agencies and donors. This is extremely relevant in participatory action research as well as collective action interventions (here interventions should be understood as a catalyst in transformative processes and not as western/global north rooted infantilizing philosophies in these contexts)

Further, profiling vulnerable people accurately is the first step in guaranteeing their needs and freedoms are properly addressed and documented. Displaced people have diverse needs and are often in disproportionate circumstances even within displaced communities, for instance, women, disabled people and gender minorities. Interventions will need to reflect these needs to make sure no one is left behind (in line with achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals, Agenda 2030).

References [1] IDMC, “Global Report on Internal Displacement (GRID)” 2021 [2] OCHA, “Global Humanitarian Response Plan Covid19: Final Progress Report” 2021 [3] OCHA, “Floods in Sudan - Situation Report” 2020 [4] UN News, “Flooding leaves South Sudan facing threat of “catastrophic” hunger levels” 2020 [5] IDMC, “Global Report on Internal Displacement (GRID)” 2021 [6] UN, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “Leaving no one behind: the imperative of inclusive development” 2016 [7] Sen, A. 1999. Development as Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Sen, A. 2009. The Idea of Justice. London: Allen Lane & Harvard University Press. [8] Appadurai, A. 2004. “The Capacity to Aspire.” In Culture and Public Action, edited by M. Walton and V. Rao, 59–84. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. [9] WHO, “The State of the World’s Climate” 2021; Smithsonian, “Hurricanes, Typhoons, And Cyclones” 2018 [10] UNDP, “Human Development Report 2020, The next frontier, Human development and the Anthropocene” 2020 [11] IDMC, “Global Report on Internal Displacement (GRID) 2019” 2019 [12] Walker, M., C. Martinez-Vargas, and F. Mkwananzi. 2020. “Participatory Action Research: Towards (Non-Ideal) Epistemic Justice in a University in South Africa.” Journal of Global Ethics 16 (1): 77–94.

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