Early View Article - Localising aid: Urban displacement, contested public authority and legitimacy in Jordan and Lebanon

Localising aid: Urban displacement, contested public authority and legitimacy in Jordan and Lebanon

Globally, tens of millions of forcibly displaced people live in informal urban neighbourhoods. Although critical sites for humanitarian and development intervention, municipal authorities may have only a limited presence. Especially in conflict and post-conflict settings, other non-state actors emerge to compete for public authority. While the localisation agenda of international donors seeks to better engage local governance actors, little is known about how aid donors take account of non-state public authority actors as they seek to achieve stability, state building, security and refugee resilience objectives. Accordingly, this study adopts a qualitative methodology to analyse how, why and to what effect donors conceive of and seek to address the legitimacy of state and non-state urban public authority actors in their response to urban displacement. Analysis of the Syrian refugee crisis in Jordan and Lebanon shows that municipalities remain the focus, as donors hold three key assumptions that inform their interventions. Adopting sophisticated tools for understanding non-state actors' pursuit of public authority, donor interventions seek to undergird, shift, work around, blank or ban their legitimacy-making practices. We conclude that while donors embrace empirical legitimacy approaches, development and humanitarian responses to urban protracted displacement in marginal urban neighbourhoods are restricted by powerful normative legitimacy approaches rooted in foreign policy objectives.

Policy Implications

  • In urban contexts where multiple governance actors compete for authority, a clearer approach is needed on whether and how to engage these various actors in order to reach the most vulnerable host and refugee populations.
  • Globally, tens of millions of displaced people live in urban informal neighbourhoods together with the local urban poor, making these critical sites for humanitarian and development intervention.
  • Non-state public authority actors can have significant roles in the everyday governance of urban informal neighbourhoods, particularly in conflict and post conflict settings. They may carry significant popular legitimacy and compete for authority with state bodies such as municipalities.
  • The ‘localisation agenda’ of the international community must broaden from supporting municipalities to enabling humanitarian and development organisations whether and how to engage urban non-state public authority actors.
  • Aid donors often seek to understand and influence the legitimacy of urban governance actors. They should foster greater dialogue with implementing partners to enable their careful engagement with multiple competing urban authorities, and promote mutual learning on this.
  • Donors should offer more practical guidance for implementing partners on how to operate with non-state public authorities that are deemed to exclude certain groups, and provide greater clarity on ‘red lines’ in the case of proscription policies.
  • Wholesale proscription policies of non-state public authority actors undermine humanitarian principles, impede abilities to reach vulnerable displaced populations, and may contradict donor development objectives.


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