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Refugee Camps Management: Why Should Public Administration Act?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Khaldoun AbouAssi and Tina Nabatchi
January 5, 202
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As of mid-2021, more than 84 million people worldwide have been forcibly displaced, driven to flee their homes and leave everything behind with hope of finding safety and security. Of these, more than 26.6 million people are refugees and approximately 6.6 million live in refugee camps. With 20 newly displaced people every minute (30,000 displacements per day) and a projected 150-200 million climate change refugees by 2050, the problems and challenges of creating and coordinating effective multilateral humanitarian responses to the global refugee crisis only will grow. The need for effective multilateral responses in refugee camps is particularly urgent for both the individuals living in the camps and society as whole.

On the one hand, the humanitarian aspects of refugee camps are critical to the individuals living in them. Camps are established and managed by numerous actors who have tremendous impact and influence on refugees’ daily lives. They provide myriad services including housing, communications, security, access to food and non-food items, water and sanitation, education and healthcare. The quality of services and refugees’ experiences in these camps undoubtedly have strong effects on their physical and psychological wellbeing, which carry over and shape their experiences with resettlement and integration.

On the other hand, the quality of refugee camp management has broader impacts on society. The national and international security challenges and concerns emerging from camps are increasing, including threats to humanitarian workers’ safety, refugee radicalization and recruitment into terrorist and rebel movements, small arms proliferation, the spillover of civil conflict into neighboring counties and the persistence of failed states, among others. In these and many other ways, refugee camps can be dangerous sources of regional instability and international security.

It is clear that benevolence and compassion are needed, as is effective camp management. However, research is scant. Scholars from anthropology, sociology, geography, political science and other social science disciplines have explored the various aspects of refugee camps and the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees and other organizations have reported on the technical aspects of camp planning and construction (such as layout, water and sanitation systems). However, very little is known about how camps are managed and operated. How and by whom are services and activities delivered? How do actors collaborate and make decisions? How are refugees involved in camp processes and activities? These and similar camp management questions may be answered best by public administrators, but unfortunately, the field has avoided, or at best neglected, this issue.

This is regrettable. Public administration, which is concerned with the development and implementation of public programs and policies and service provision, is implicit to refugee camp management. The field has much to offer not only for understanding refugee camp management, but also for improving it. Public administration scholars and practitioners should pursue an active research agenda on refugee camp management for at least three reasons.

First, most public administration concepts and frameworks are developed and applied in permanent, relatively stable, state-based contexts. It is imperative to examine their applicability and functionality in highly complex and unstable situations, such as refugee camps, where host governments might not be in direct control, but rather where multiple actors work across numerous boundaries to provide critical services to some of the world’s most vulnerable people. Given that these camps are supposed to be temporary, how well do the underlying considerations in public administration hold in such a setting?

Second, camps are managed through complex, multi-organizational arrangements involving myriad international, national and local organizations that are largely autonomous, geographically distributed and heterogeneous in terms of their operating environments and cultures. These organizations must work together as a system to achieve common goals and objectives. Such a system is a fitting application for collaborative governance regimes.

Third, as public administration scholars, we are concerned with the delivery of services and giving the public a voice in shaping their own affairs. Refugees are at risk of being deprived of voice and agency when managing their own lives, potentially aggravating inequalities and injustices. How can service delivery be more effectively designed and delivered to meet refugees’ needs and be responsive to their concerns?

These and other issues are increasingly important given the growing number of displaced persons and recent political and security events worldwide, as well as the alarming consequences of climate change as it relates to displacement. Public administration should not be mute. The field has an important role to play in the lives of camp residents and the improvement of camp management. Camp management determines whether and how refugees’ basic needs—as well as economic, social and psychological needs—are met. But it is not just about delivering essential public services; it also is about shaping a context that supports human rights and social justice. These issues are at the heart of public administration and are increasingly urgent at a time when the number of refugees is growing, along with declining development assistance, the distancing of countries from state-based obligations toward refugees and factionalism, clientelism and sectarian strife.


Authors:

Khaldoun AbouAssi is associate professor of public administration and policy in the Department of Public Administration and Policy at American University. His primary research focuses on public and nonprofit management, examining organizational capacity, resources and inter-organizational relations. He can be reached at [email protected].

Tina Nabatchi is Joseph A. Strasser Endowed Professor in Public Administration and Director, Program for the Advancement of Research on Conflict and Collaboration at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University. Her research focuses on citizen participation, collaborative governance, conflict resolution and challenges in public administration. She can be reached at [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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