Rethinking Coordination of Services to Refugees in Urban Areas

Managing the Crisis in Jordan and Lebanon

by Shelly Culbertson, Olga Oliker, Ben Baruch, Ilana Blum


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إعادة النظر في تنسيق الخدمات المقدّمة للاجئين في المناطق الحضرية: إدارة الأزمة في الأردن ولبنان

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Research Questions

  1. What are strengths and weaknesses of coordination to provide services to refugees in urban areas?
  2. How effective is the allocation of roles and funding for provision of services to refugees in these urban areas?
  3. What capacities do local entities have to provide resources? How does providing for additional people affect their workload, and the sustainable provision of services?
  4. How does a recently arrived refugee navigate finding needing services?
  5. How could capabilities of local entities be strengthened through support of national governments, international organizations, or donor governments?
  6. What innovative practices have proven to be effective in coordination of the refugee response?

This report focuses on identifying ways to improve coordination of international and national entities managing the Syrian refugee response in urban areas in Jordan and Lebanon, particularly in the legal, employment, shelter, water and sanitation, health, and education sectors.

This report makes several contributions to the existing literature on this topic. First, it assesses the management model of a complex emergency response in urban areas in middle-income countries; most existing literature about humanitarian responses focuses on camps in weak states. Second, it brings together views of a broad spectrum of stakeholders to provide a comprehensive, multidimensional analysis of management of the Syrian refugee crisis in Jordan and Lebanon in particular. Third, this study presents a new framework for planning, evaluating, and managing refugee crises in urban settings, both in the Syrian refugee crisis as well as other such situations going forward. Fourth, it provides concrete recommendations for how to better support the needs of Syrian urban refugees in Jordan and Lebanon and for how to rethink refugee-assistance coordination around the world for improved effectiveness in the future.

This study drew on multiple methods: a literature review; interviews in Jordan and Lebanon with officials from donor countries, UN agencies, host governments, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs); telephone interviews with international experts; and focus groups with refugees.

Key Findings

Refugee Settlement in Urban Areas Requires the International Assistance Community to Reassess Its Approach

  • In urban areas, many services to refugees rely less on aid agencies (such as the UN and international NGOs) and more on line ministries, municipal authorities, the private sector, and national civil society actors.
  • Refugees adapt best when they can become self-reliant, gain employment, and meet many of their own needs.
  • Because refugees are interspersed with local communities, the average duration of a protracted refugee crisis is 25 years. Local authorities are critical to any response, and humanitarian responses for refugees must be linked with host-country development plans.

Urban Refugee Situation in Jordan and Lebanon Borrowed from Models Not Applicable to New Circumstances

  • An internationally led refugee response in Jordan and Lebanon helped meet needs for many refugees early in the Syrian crisis. Yet, in both Jordan and Lebanon, these involved the establishment of an expensive and time-consuming coordination structure, which was based on approaches used in previous crises elsewhere.
  • The approach has been blamed for marginalizing the refugees themselves and raised questions regarding how effectively donor money is being spent. Meanwhile, many public services in Jordan and Lebanon are now deeply overburdened.


  • This study proposes a new model when planning and evaluating coordination of public services in refugee responses, based on decisions in five areas: short- versus medium-term planning, parallel versus integrated services, international versus national lead, funding to international entities versus funding to national entities, focus on refugees versus focus on host communities.
  • Improve donor coordination by creating a "contact group" for the Syrian refugee response led by the U.S. Department of State.
  • Embed a ten-year outlook in planning process for the refugee responses in Jordan and Lebanon.
  • Create a funding plan with ten-year vision.
  • Evaluate current plans and develop new plans in Jordan and Lebanon for each sector based on needs assessments, using the framework proposed in this report, and transferring responsibility to national entities as appropriate.
  • Invest in capacity of governments, municipalities, national civil society, and the private sectors to take greater roles.
  • Invest in government financial accountability systems.
  • Streamline the international coordination structures and funding channels in Jordan and Lebanon.
  • Establish and maintain clear UN agency roles and responsibilities.
  • Include refugees in coordination of the refugee response, and improve communication to refugees.
  • Roll out a municipality prioritization and coordination effort.
  • Engage the private sector in coordination in relevant areas.
  • Seek mutually beneficial opportunities that coordinate both refugee needs and host-country development goals in program design.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One


  • Chapter Two

    Evolving Models of Urban Refugee Responses

  • Chapter Three

    An Overview of Coordination in Jordan and Lebanon

  • Chapter Four


  • Appendix A

    Coordination in Six Sectors

  • Appendix B

    Interview and Focus-Group Protocols

This research was sponsored by the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration within the U.S. Department of State and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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