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Uganda Summit Shows Why Aid Definitions Matter

As a growing amount of development aid is spent on the cost of hosting refugees domestically, the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee is working to clarify the rules on what counts as aid. The OECD’s Brenda Killen explains why this clarity is so important.

Written by Brenda Killen Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A refugee from South Sudan sorts the monthly food supply at Bidibidi refugee camp in Uganda on April 13, 2017.AFP/ISAAC KASAMANI

At the recent Ugandan Solidarity Summit, the Ugandan government and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) aimed to raise at least $2 billion to support the world’s fastest growing refugee population. In the end, donors pledged $358 million to meet the needs of nearly 1.2 million refugees in Uganda.

In stark contrast, this past year we saw $11.8 billion of development assistance allocated for hosting refugees in E.U. donor countries.

While it is unquestionably important to recognize efforts made to welcome refugees in developed countries, as we tallied up donor pledges at the Solidarity Summit I was reminded of how important it is not to lose sight of the fact that the majority of the world’s refugees remain in developing countries.

Many of these countries may not be aware that an aid rule, established in the 1980s, allows donors to allocate development assistance within their own borders to support refugees. Within this rule, costs of hosting refugees in donor countries have nearly quadrupled since 2012, reaching $15.4 billion in 2016.

The Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is currently working to clarify the reporting of these “in-donor refugee costs” and will meet on July 10 to try to reach agreement on the rules and definitions going forward.

We need more and better data on aid from donor countries, including what is being spent inside their own countries. Knowing who is spending what, where and how, provides a baseline for making better decisions on allocating aid. In this way, we can ensure quality development aid that is fit for purpose and directed to those who need it the most.

Why Uganda’s aid shortfall matters

While in Uganda for the Solidarity Summit, I visited the Nakivale settlement in Isingiro district. Established in 1960 and home to 11 percent of Uganda’s refugees, Nakivale seems like any other African village: red dirt roads, mud-daubed shelters with thatched roofs, a school, a church, a makeshift hair salon and small shops selling an assortment of items. Ugandans and refugees from Congo, Rwanda, Somalia and Burundi live and work side by side. It seems to exemplify the country’s progressive refugee-hosting model.

Uganda includes refugees in its Second National Development Plan (NDP II) through the Settlement Transformative Agenda (STA), which focuses on building the self-reliance of both host and refugee populations on the basis that social development, if planned correctly, can benefit both. Refugees have access to land and the 2006 Refugee Act guarantees them the right to work, as well as free access to education and health. Uganda is also one of the first countries in the world to pilot UNHCR’s new Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF). The CRRF provides a framework for responding to situations involving large-scale movements of refugees and favors long-term, sustainable solutions that link humanitarian action with development assistance.

Yet, despite its best efforts, Uganda finds itself overwhelmed. Drought in East Africa has strained existing water and food resources. There is only one tarmac road running through Nakivale district. Poor infrastructure limits access to markets and makes shipment of supplies difficult and expensive. There is only one secondary school so, although education is free for all in principle, most students who graduate from primary school cannot access further education.

In the north of the country, circumstances are even more difficult. The South Sudanese refugee population has more than tripled since 2015. The influx, which U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres called the “biggest exodus of refugees in Africa since the Rwandan genocide,” is putting Uganda under extreme pressure.

One message that came across loud and clear during my meetings in Kampala with U.N., civil society and government representatives is that the UNHCR’s CRRF pilot has to succeed. Uganda’s neighbors are paying close attention to developments in the country and success, or failure, will serve to define refugee policies across the region and beyond.

Success, however, is largely dependent on the support of the international community. We need to increase our capacity not only to invest in and leverage new capital for refugee-hosting countries, but also to ensure that we provide multi-year, untied aid. Furthermore, we need make efforts to provide more funding directly to national and local governments.

Yet, preliminary data released early this year showed that, despite an overall increase in aid, bilateral net aid to least developed countries like Uganda fell by 3.9 percent in real terms in 2016. Bilateral aid to sub-Saharan Africa also fell by 0.7 percent.

Defining the Boundaries of Development Assistance

Now is the time to recall the core purpose of official development assistance (ODA), which has the promotion of the economic development and welfare of developing countries as its main objective.

Over the years, the DAC has continuously refined the reporting rules to ensure fidelity to the definition and consistency among donors. Our ongoing discussions on the costs of hosting refugees in donor countries will allow us to maintain this careful delineation of what fits within the boundaries of ODA.

We have the opportunity to think about how we, as development donors, can best contribute to comprehensive solutions for refugees. I hope that we will take this opportunity and focus on finding new ways of working together across the development-humanitarian divide, and better responding to the needs of large-scale forcibly displaced populations globally.

When I arrived in Nakivale, I was welcomed by local officials with the statement: “We in Uganda believe that being a refugee is not a choice.” Being a refugee is not a choice, but showing solidarity with refugees and ensuring that development funds go to those most in need is.

The opinions expressed and arguments employed herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the OECD or its member countries or the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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