There are decisions regarding who should get aid and who should not have consequences (Anderson 1999). The distributional impact of aid is one of the most critical parts of any humanitarian aid, primarily due to prioritisation and errors in exclusion and inclusion (Devereux et al. 2017). When aid targets some groups at the expense of other vulnerable groups, competition between them results (Anderson 1999). The article identified two broad dimensions of distributional impacts. The first dimension of distributional impact is between the refugees and the locals where poor locals feel that they have been forgotten (ACAPS - Assessment Capacities Project 2018). The second is an intra-host dimension of distributional impact in which socially visible locals get aid, while geographically distant and socially invisible hosts become marginalised or feel overlooked by the humanitarian agencies.
Humanitarian aid distributed among refugees is causing resentment from the part of severely affected host communities. Poorer hosts believe that refugees get most of the aid and plight of the locals do not receive attention, even though they are bearing the brunt of the influx (personal communication, 12 March 2020). Hosts, predominantly in Teknaf and Ukhiya, feel overlooked, although they live under continuous risk due to competition for the same labour market, the growing cost of living, and competition for natural resources. The arrival of the Rohingyas to Cox’s Bazar has raised the level of local poverty by around 52% (The World Bank 2019, p. 386). Many locals in Teknaf and Ukhiya lived in impoverished conditions even before the influx. Poorer hosts often view that refugees have better food safety than many of the disadvantaged hosts. Such an uneven distribution of refugee resources is an obstacle in the path to peaceful co-existence between the impoverished hosts and the refugees. The poorer hosts see legitimate relief aid distributed to refugees as an unmistakable sign of being overlooked. As Anderson (1999) wrote, “differential benefits from aid can reinforce intergroup tensions in conflict areas. When aid targets some groups at the expense of other vulnerable groups, competition between them results,” (p. 46). In addition to this, services created for refugees are not available to the locals. Furthermore, facilities are concentrated near refugee camps, rendering most of them unattainable for the locals.
The second dimension of the distributional problem is fueling intra-host tension, mostly linked to beneficiary selection. The conflicting understanding of beneficiary selection criteria is causing intra-host tension. As Anderson (2000) argued, “If beneficiary selection can worsen intergroup relations, it can also improve them” (p. 25). Hosts living around refugee camps came under aid distribution, but the poorer hosts living far from the refugee camps are the forgotten losers of the refugee influx, as they live in remote places far from the refugee camps. According to a UNHCR-commissioned unpublished baseline survey report, 75.54% of households surveyed in remote villages have never received any support from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) (Center for Natural Resource Studies-CNRS 2019). Aid organisations determine standards to identify who should come under the aid program. However, the beneficiary selection often does not reflect host communities’ ideas of social and economic gaps. The complexity associated with selection makes it relevant to focus on the conceptual aspect of the host community. UNHCR defines a host community as “the country of asylum and the local, regional and national governmental, social and economic structures within which refugees live” (UNHCR 2011). As a group, the host community is often considered as a homogeneous group. This broad definition of the host community does not reflect the full range of challenges that different host community segments face. As Chambers (1986) argued, “Hosts have tended to be a residual, thought of as a single entity summarised as 'host communities', 'the local people' or 'the surrounding population,” (p. 253). Such a generalised host community definition fails to recognise the host community’s different subgroups’ specific needs, particularly the marginal and severely affected host community members living far from the refugee settlements.
Humanitarian aid programs in Cox’s Bazar district, especially in Teknaf, where at least 144 international and local agencies are responding to emergency needs (Alsaafin, 2018), are found to be involved in overlapping and redundancy in resource distribution. Furthermore, the presence of many local and international aid agencies resulted in severe competition for funds and beneficiaries. Such a competition caused inadequate need assessments, the inclusion of non-eligible beneficiaries, and the omission of the aid programs’ eligible poorer hosts. Community representatives also voiced frustration and anger due to the overlapping of beneficiary selection and aid distribution (Community representatives’ meeting, 13 March 2020). Besides, some local public representative claimed that most aid agencies demonstrated tendencies to work in the villages near refugee camps. As a result, the local population living close to refugee settlement received repeated services from the multiple agencies, whereas adversely affected locals living far from the camps and road networks have not received necessary supports. Many agencies are bringing funds from donors, and they want to spend fund quickly and engage with the readily accessible beneficiaries without proper coordination, needs, and sustainability assessments (UNHCR official, personal communication, 12 March 2020). The pressure to show quick results and the impulse to secure funding are two common reasons behind this. Locals also expressed their concerns about divergent approaches and practices of different aid agencies.
Beneficiaries from the host communities have a severe lack of information. Beneficiaries from the hosts do not understand the different distributional criteria and why some people are assisted, and others are not. Such a situation is leading to suspicion of corruption and harming beneficiaries’ relationship with humanitarian agencies. Additionally, the absence of clear communication related to an exit strategy negatively impacts the host communities’ beneficiaries. Some beneficiaries complained about aid’s sudden disappearance, which placed them in deep trouble (beneficiary meeting, 18 March 2020).
Furthermore, in a multi-agency emergency response like the Rohingya crisis, lack of information sharing between different agencies has caused adverse distributional impact and inefficient crisis management. The organisational structure significantly controls the information-sharing mechanism, and agencies are reluctant to share information with other entities. It was observed that lack of information sharing between different humanitarian agencies is one of the key reasons behind negative distributional impacts, poor selection of beneficiaries, and overlap in aid distribution. Such overlapping is impacting social cohesion and contributing to increasing social inequality between different groups of host communities.
Substitute impact: shifting role of local actors and the issue of legitimacy
The Rohingya refugees have been entering Bangladesh since the 1970s to flee persecution in Myanmar (Crisp 2018). However, before the recent crisis, Bangladesh had not faced such an enormous and quickly unfolding displacement of refugees. At the beginning of the crisis, different local actors, such as host communities, faith-based groups, and local NGOs, provided essential support for the refugees with the local government’s support (Bowden 2018). The remarkable leadership role of local and national actors was visible in the crisis’ initial phase (Wake and Bryant 2018). The U.N. and other international agencies responded to the crisis much later. The latest humanitarian response to the Rohingya crisis has been the largest ever (UNHCR 2019). At the local level, the flow of foreign funding resulted in the change of leadership role. While the U.N. agencies and other international humanitarian organisations introduced much needed financial, logistical, and operation capacity, local actors feel that international agencies have not engaged local actors sufficiently and the decision-making and leadership role moved from local actors to the U.N. agencies and other international organisations (Bowden 2018).
Local humanitarian actors who have been working in the affected region for a long time accused international humanitarian actors of disempowering local actors, such as local NGOs, government bodies, local staff, and previously existed organisations (COAST 2019; The Daily Star 2020). Such a situation resulted in a strong response both from the local actors and the government. The Bangladeshi government accused humanitarian agencies of spending, “no more than 25 per cent of total aid for the refugees” (The Daily Star, 2019b). The similar allegation came from the local actors working in Cox’s Bazar. Coastal Association for Social Transformation Trust (COAST), a Cox’s Bazar-based NGO, conducted a study that claimed international humanitarian actors in Cox’s Bazar spend five times more than the program requirements (The Daily Star 2018). The division between local and international humanitarian actors became even more evident when local civil society organisations and NGOs formed an association named NGO Forum, a platform involving local actors in response to Inter-Sector Coordination Group (ISCG) (CCNF 2019). ISCG performs a coordination function between the Bangladesh government and various foreign NGOs (Banik 2018).
The criticisms against international humanitarian actors can be debated. However, it was evident from the fieldwork that organisations like UNHCR, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), and Northern humanitarian agencies act as the central bodies due to their authority and control over resources. In contrast, local humanitarian actors work as implementing partners to deliver help and protection to the refugees and host communities. Despite having their mandates, local humanitarian actors merely act as line implementing partners for international donor agencies and other U.N. bodies. Further, local civil society and NGO leadership claimed that local agencies have been working in the affected area for decades, but their skilled employees have been taken away by the U.N. and large international humanitarian agencies (Khan 2019).
As discussed above, the substitution effects have caused delegitimisation of the existing local structure, rendering local takeover even more challenging. The legitimisation effect takes place when humanitarian agencies authorise certain groups or organisations to use resources over others. The presence of humanitarian agencies resulted in the weakening of public service and withdrawal of the government as a service provider, causing the relocation of legitimacy and power to the international aid agencies. Protracted refugee crises continue for decades, and thus, humanitarian missions quickly become a permanent feature of the local social and political fabrics. The continuous presence of aid agencies in Cox’s Bazar rendered public service institutions ineffective and incapable of handling the crisis. The failure to deliver service to the host population has aggravated already fragile host-refugee interaction. The process of delocalisation is also evident in the fund allocation of Rohingya humanitarian response. According to a report, “the majority of funding (69 per cent) goes to U.N. agencies, followed by INGOs (20 per cent) and the Red Cross (7 per cent) and national organisations receive only four per cent” (Khan 2019). Such a disproportionate allocation of financial resources and the international aid agencies’ unwillingness to relegate greater say in financial resource allocation contradicts the pledge made at Grand Bargain (G.B.), Charter for Change (C4C), and Principles of Partnership.
Do No Harm in refugee response: extending to environment?
It is generally acknowledged that influx of displaced people into a new area can put tremendous pressure on common property resources, prompting adverse environmental and social impacts (Black 1994; Jacobsen 1997; Martin 2005). There are substantial pieces of evidence that large-scale refugee settlement results in environmental degradation, such as the reduction of agricultural and forest land and the depletion of water and other natural resources (Percival and Homer-Dixon 1998; Martin 2005). Homer-Dixon (1994) opined that “environmental change is only one of three main sources of the scarcity of renewable resources; the others are population growth and unequal social distribution of resources” (p. 280). According to Homer-Dixon (1999), in developing countries millions of people, “…tend to be much more dependent on environmental goods and services for their economic well-being; they often do not have the financial, material, and human capital resources to buffer themselves from the effects of environmental scarcities; and their economic and political institutions tend to be fragile and riven with discord” (p. 04). Martin (2005) viewed that struggle over limited natural resources may cause “hardening of group identities and providing a catalyst for hostility towards out-groups” (p. 332). The refugees living in a large settlement have a considerable connection with the environment of the surroundings. As Jacobsen (1997) opined, refugee camps’ settlement is arguably the most significant issue in shaping refugee settlement’s impact on the local environment. She further viewed that, in the absence of alternative income-generating activities, refugees exploit natural resources unsustainably.
As previously stated, a refugee settlement in Cox’s Bazar resulted in adverse environmental changes, including the reduction of agricultural and forest land and depletion of water and other natural resources. Poorer hosts depending on natural resources are not just adversely impacted due to refugees exploiting natural resources, but also due to different aid agencies’ relief operations and establishment of refugee camps. According to the local Agriculture Extension Department, at least 100 ha of cropland in Teknaf and Ukhiya were affected by the refugee situation between August 2017 and March 2018 (UNDP & U.N. Women 2018). Besides that, refugee settlements and humanitarian organisations used 76 ha of cultivable land to set up warehouses and offices (UNDP & U.N. Women 2018). Around 5000 acres of land have become unusable due to sandy soil rolling down from the mountain slopes, which humanitarian agencies have taken for refugee housing purposes (UNDP 2018). The same report stated that grazing lands have reduced. As a result, the number of cattle farms has decreased considerably, by 10–15%. All of these factors contributed to the economic woes of the local hosts dependent on the forests. The scarcity of fresh water for agricultural production has always been a significant concern for the farmers in the affected region. They are mostly reliant on surface water springs, such as hilly streams for irrigation. A report from Energy and Environment Technical Working Group (EETWG) of ISCG found that contamination now exists in more than fourth-fifths of these water sources, owing to Rohingyas’ sudden unplanned settlement (Energy and Environment Technical Working Group 2018).
Humanitarian agencies responding to an emergency refugee crisis harm the refugee hosting areas by excluding environmental consideration at the initial phase of the crisis, as we have seen in the context of Rohingya refugee response. The most severe damage to the environment happened in Cox’s Bazar in the initial phase of the influx when UNHCR constructed emergency relief camps. UNHCR constructed these refugee camps as a transit point or as temporary refugee camps. However, experience from the previous influx and other countries show that temporary refugee camps often become a permanent settlement (Oka 2011; Lui 2007). Several features can be identified from the response of humanitarian agencies to the environment. First, humanitarian aid agencies are less interested in environment management (Kibreab 1999). Environment and natural resource management take long-term planning and financing. The tendency to achieve results quickly sidelines the need for focusing on the environment (Whitaker 2002). Second, environmental policy component is absenting from the part of relief agencies. This can be defined as institutional disinterest to broaden mandate to include environmental concerns. Third, there is no agreement about who should be the custodian of environment and resource management, since UNHCR and other emergency response agencies do not integrate the environment into their emergency aid mechanism. Lastly, identifying refugees as a temporal group with the persistent need for emergency relief prevents refugee aid organisations from cultivating a long-term term plan integrating the environment and surrounding host community (Jacobsen 1997).