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Deadly Data Gaps: How Lack of Information Harms Refugee Policy Making

Why doesn’t the humanitarian system have a way to collect real-time information about refugee populations, needs and aid? We speak to Galen Englund from the ONE Campaign about the data gaps and how they harm policy making for refugees.

Written by Charlotte Alfred Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Aid distribution in sanaa
Women collect aid in Sanaa, Yemen, last month. Hani Al-Ansi/dpa

The U.N. Refugee Agency recently released its annual estimate of the world’s displaced population: 65.6 million. This figure is primarily based on data provided by governments, each using their own definitions and data collection methods.

This leaves ample space for inconsistencies and data gaps. South Africa, for example, reported 463,900 asylum seekers in 2014, 1.1 million in 2015 and then just 218,300 last year. But the number of people had not fluctuated that wildly. What did change was how asylum seekers are counted.

National estimates can also obscure entire groups of people, like internally displaced groups that governments don’t want to acknowledge, notes Galen Englund, who analyzes humanitarian data at the ONE Campaign advocacy organization.

Over the past year, Englund has been digging into the data on refugees and displaced populations for the ONE Campaign. It was an uphill battle. He collected figures from 67 reports that used 356 differently worded metrics in order to identify the needs of displaced populations. “Frequently information is not there, or it’s siloed within organizations, or there’s too much bureaucratic red tape around it, or it just hasn’t been collected yet,” he said.

His research resulted in a displacement tracking platform called Movement, which compiles various U.N. data, and a briefing paper outlining displacement data gaps that concludes: “The information architecture of humanitarian aid is not fit for purpose.” We spoke to Englund about his findings.

Refugees Deeply: In the course of your research, what did you find to be the most troubling gaps in the availability of data on refugees and displaced populations?

Galen Englund: There’s several layers of massive data gaps that all coincide with each other. Probably the most troubling for me is not being able to understand at a granular level where refugees and displaced people are inside of countries, and the transition between when someone leaves their home and becomes displaced, and when they actually cross international borders and become refugees or asylum seekers. That’s an incredibly difficult transition to track, and one that there’s inadequate data on right now.

There’s also a great likelihood that a lot of people are missing in those figures, particularly internally displaced people. A lot of the data is not disaggregated. In some places you can’t tell, out of the number of refugees in a country, how many are women and how many are children. It’s very, very difficult to base a broader response without that level of data.

Another gap is that most humanitarian needs overviews collected by U.N. OCHA [Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] don’t reflect the number of refugees and displaced people vis–à–vis the broader populace of the country. Those numbers are so rough-hewn a lot of the time that if someone were to really scrutinize them, especially given the toxic political climate towards development and humanitarian aid right now, they may start to crumble a bit.

Refugees Deeply: How does not distinguishing between the needs of the general population and the displaced or refugee population harm policy making?

Englund: Part of the larger debate in the E.U. right now is on linking humanitarian and development aid to migration. That comes with all of its own political problems, but you also may not be making the best case for aid if you can’t show how many people might soon become displaced if you do not deliver certain aid at this moment.

Refugees Deeply: So while making the case for aid as a response to migration, if you can’t provide evidence of how that aid works, then you’re making policy in the dark?

Englund: Absolutely. Look at some of the E.U.-funded programs in Sudan at the moment that are targeting displaced populations from Eritrea, some of whom have been living there for 10 to 20 years. These E.U. aid policies are coming in supposedly to tackle migration, but the targeting and disbursement of that is really shoddy, because there’s not an understanding of other populations in need of humanitarian assistance.

Refugees Deeply: What about the quality of humanitarian data being collected? Where do you see bad quality data informing bad policies?

Englund: Let’s compare two different situations. In Syria, there is pretty good quality data on the ground because there’s a lot of funding that’s gone into Syria, particularly into better monitoring efforts. Generally, assistance in Syria is fairly well targeted and coordinated by U.N. OCHA. That allows for efficient delivery of aid despite an incredibly hostile environment.

If you look at aid provisioning in Yemen or South Sudan, the picture of who needs what and where they are is very disordered. On the policy side, that leads to problematic provisioning decisions, but also leads to broader political issues as well. Yemen has the largest number of people that will likely be displaced by conflict very soon, after Syria, and yet it’s getting minimal attention compared to Syria. I would love to be able to see predictive systems that could show, if you don’t try to stop the war in Yemen today, here’s where 17 million people might begin to flee.

Those sort of calculations are not possible without high-quality, granular data, and I think that has great impact on policy. In a charged environment, you have to create unimpeachable, data-driven arguments.

The long-term policy implications are that situations get ignored that otherwise might be paid a lot more attention if you could say, “These are the long-term implications if you don’t act today.” That means a lot of people die.

Refugees Deeply: On donor transparency, you mentioned that little progress has been made in over a year since the World Humanitarian Summit and the so-called Grand Bargain. What is standing in the way of progress?

Englund: Greater transparency does create more overheads, but I think the question is more of a political one. Most government donor organizations, to be candid, are afraid of the fact that too few projects are actually evaluated and fully tracked. There’s a fear that greater transparency would mean possibly exposing projects that aren’t performing as well as they ought to be. That’s a foolish fear, because greater transparency can lead to much more efficient systems.

The second reason is that a lot of humanitarian assistance is politically driven. A lot of flows to countries are based on political decisions and not necessarily ones based on need. Greater disclosure means that donors have to face up to that.

There were a lot of useful commitments that were made at the World Humanitarian Summit. I think as long as that political will continues – I know it’s faltering a bit at the moment – the onus is on civil society to continue to pressure donors.

There is legitimate concern for sensitive projects that are being funded in Turkey, Syria or South Sudan, where revealing more granular, sub-country data might actually harm the beneficiaries. My answer to that is you can aggregate up a few levels. You still disclose, but you don’t show exactly where something is.

Refugees Deeply: What are you hoping the Movement platform will achieve by bringing together this information on populations, funds and needs?

Englund: The main thing that we want people to come away with is that situations where the largest numbers of people in need are direly underfunded compared to other situations, particularly Yemen, South Sudan and even Nigeria.

Another key takeaway is showing that much of the world’s population of displaced people are living in the most fragile countries, next door or very close to their own. That’s an important point that’s often neglected.

The last point is that we can’t show a more nuanced picture with the existing data right now. We’re drawing attention to that data gap to say, “Here’s hopefully how we can bridge that, and people that are working on bridging it.”

Refugees Deeply: What will it take for the humanitarian and aid sector, as diverse and as unwieldy as it is, to really deal with the state of the information architecture that you describe?

Englund: There are good efforts going on, like OCHA Center for Humanitarian Data and the U.N.’s Expert Group on Refugee Statistics. There are some interesting pilots like 4Mi, backed by the Danish Refugee Council.

But inevitably, with the largest humanitarian organizations, you run into a lot of siloing between agencies competing for scant resources and a lot of institutional and bureaucratic blockades, despite the efforts of people who are attempting reform. On the U.N. side, I think you would need to see a strong push from the highest levels of leadership, ideally in partnership with private or government organizations that have a lot of tech know-how.

For the smaller humanitarian organizations, it will be continuing to develop better internal data practices through safeguarding data while disclosing as much as possible. On the governmental and funders side, they have to put money towards data gathering, technology, and high-quality monitoring and evaluation. Frequently, that piece is missing.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

NOTE: The ONE Campaign has previously sponsored content on News Deeply.

The opinions expressed and arguments employed herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the ONE Campaign.

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