Forced Displacement Executive Summary

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John Halstead
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Forced Displacement Executive Summary and Giving Recommendation

This is a summary of our cause area report on Forced Displacement. The full report can be found here, and the giving recommendation based on this research is GiveDirectly's Refugee Programme

The problem

We are currently witnessing one of the worst forced displacement crises in recent memory. By the end of 2016, 65.6m people, almost 1% of the world population, were forcibly displaced as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations. This is predominantly a crisis of low and middle income countries. Since 1991, the vast majority of forced displacement has been caused by the same ten conflicts in the Middle-East, Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin American and Asia. Hosting responsibilities for displaced persons are unevenly shared, with the vast majority residing in the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Asia.

Forced displacement is an increasingly urban phenomenon: 50% of forcibly displaced people reside in urban centres and this percentage is expected to increase as low income countries urbanise. 76% of refugees, and 99% of internally displaced persons live outside camps.

Forcibly displaced people include:

  • Refugees – displaced people who have crossed a national border

  • Internally displaced persons – those who have not crossed a national border

  • Asylum seekers

  • Stateless persons

In 2016, there were an estimated 36m internally displaced persons and 17m refugees globally.

Key effects

Forced displacement imposes severe costs on those affected. Forcibly displaced people have typically experienced severe trauma in their country of origin. Consequently, they often suffer from serious psychosocial problems: over 30% of people living in conflict-affected regions suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Those forcibly displaced often have to leave much of their property behind when fleeing conflict, and have limited socioeconomic rights in host countries. Women face elevated levels of gender-based violence in, during, and after displacement.


The problem of forced displacement is large, pressing, and growing in scale. However, relative to other cause areas, we do not consider it a severely neglected area. We estimate that initiatives related to displacement received upwards of $20bn in 2015. In comparison, several global problems that likely constitute a greater overall burden on humanity (for example Malaria and vitamin A deficiency) receive less funding by an order of magnitude.

Identifying solutions

Assessing the impact of policy advocacy is much more time consuming than assessing the effectiveness of direct work. Consequently, in this report, due to time constraints, we restricted our search to charities doing direct work. The evidence on what works to improve the lives of forcibly displaced people is limited, likely because it is difficult to conduct rigorous impact evaluations in fragile and conflict-affected settings. Only a few interventions have been assessed using rigorous methods, and among those that have, many appear to have small effects.

Effective interventions: what works?

A review of the existing literature suggests that effective charities doing direct work are likely to do some or all of the following:

  • Work in low and middle income countries

  • Provide unconditional cash transfers

  • Provide layperson-led mental health services

  • Provide public health interventions with good evidence from other domains

  • Build the evidence-base on interventions targeting the forcibly displaced

  • Enable refugees to work legally in high income countries

Charity recommendation: GiveDirectly’s refugee programme

Guided by the above considerations, we searched through charities doing direct work on forced displacement, and narrowed down to a shortlist of four charities. GiveDirectly’s refugee programme stood out because it carries out an impactful programme well-supported by evidence, has an outstanding track record and team, and can productively absorb significantly more funds.

GiveDirectly has been delivering unconditional and unrestricted large cash transfers to the world’s poorest people since 2009, and is one of our recommended charities in the area of economic empowerment. In 2017 they started a refugee programme. The first projects focus on Uganda, home to around 1.5m refugees as of 2017, the most of any country in Africa, and the third most in the world. Most of these refugees have fled conflict, persecution and hunger in DRC, South Sudan and Burundi.

We believe that GiveDirectly is one of the most promising charities doing direct work in this area. Cash transfers are one a small number of interventions with some rigorous supporting evidence in the humanitarian context. GiveDirectly has consistently demonstrated the ability to deliver cash transfers in a highly efficient manner – with a pilot study among Ugandan refugees showing that 83% of every dollar donated went to recipients – while having a outstanding commitment to transparency and impact evaluation. We believe that their refugee programme could contribute significant insights to the field as a whole and inform effective strategies in other settings affects by forced displacement.

Direct impact

GiveDirectly is currently seeking funding for a scale-up targeting the entire refugee community in Kiryandongo, Uganda. In order to improve inter-community relations, the project will also target surrounding host community households. We believe that this project could productively absorb an additional $7.5m in the coming year. Each additional $1m would enable them to almost double the annual income of a further ~800 refugee households.


Even though there is good reason to believe that cash transfers are more cost-effective than transfers of in-kind goods (such as food and clothes), today it appears that much more humanitarian aid is given in the form of in-kind aid than cash. GiveDirectly’s large trial of cash transfers for refugees has the potential to change the approach taken by the whole humanitarian sector, influencing some portion of the humanitarian aid budget of more than $20bn.

While we are confident in the positive effects of GiveDirectly’s programme, we do think that programmes aiming to improve the health of the global poor are likely to be more impactful, largely due to the relative to neglectedness of global health. People wishing to learn more should see our research page at

John Halstead


John joined Founders Pledge in 2017 from a background in policy think tanks and academia. He has a doctorate in political philosophy from Oxford and taught philosophy at the Blavatnik School of Government in Oxford. Following that, he moved to the Global Priorities Project, working as a researcher on global catastrophic risk.