Histories and spaces of Southern-led responses to displacement

How can we reconsider the role of ‘local’ actors in developing alternative modes of response to conflict induced displacement?  In this blog post Prof. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh highlights the need for the analyses of local responses to be more attentive to the longstanding history of diverse “local/Southern” actors and examines the ways in which Southern-led responses can work alongside, or explicitly challenge, Northern-led responses to displacement.

This blog was posted on the 16th of July, 2018. 

Histories and spaces of Southern-led responses to displacement

by Prof. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Principal Investigator, Southern Responses to Displacement Project. 


Far from passively waiting for externally provided assistance, regional organisations, states, communities, households, families and individuals across the world have been responding to displacement throughout history.

The case of refugees-hosting-refugees that I have been exploring in detail through Refugee Hosts – in particular the roles of established Palestinians in supporting refugees from Syria – can, in this regard, both be examined through the framework of ‘locally-provided aid’ (and therefore in relation to ‘the Localisation of Aid Agenda’) but also as one of a myriad of what I refer to as ‘Southern-led’ responses.

Recognizing the roles of diverse actors from and of the global South has of course been enhanced, and indeed ‘institutionalised’, via the ‘localisation of aid’ agenda that is at the core of the recent Refugee Hosts blog series. Indeed, we could argue that the ‘local’ in the localisation agenda primarily relates to non-Western actors (or what we can call actors from the ‘global South’), whether these are regional bodies (ie the Arab League or ASEAN), ‘local’ governments (ie Lebanon or Jordan) or municipal authorities (ie the mayor of a district in Beirut).

This short piece builds upon my earlier contribution to the series, here, to focus on the need for analyses of local responses to be attentive to the longstanding history of diverse “local/Southern” responses to displacement.

Alternative Readings and Responses

The international community’s support for “local” responders since the mid-2010s can be viewed as a key opportunity to recognise the extent to which Northern approaches are limited, while Southern-led initiatives can have major advantages. For instance, Wamsler and Lawson (2012) argue that “Northern cities could learn some valuable lessons from the rich range of comparatively more advanced local coping strategies used to face disaster risk in the Global South”. In turn, the UNDP’s ‘headline story’ of its 2013 Human Development Report, The Rise of the South, is: ‘The South needs the North, and increasingly the North needs the South’ (p. 2).

However, beyond incorporating local/Southern actors into the ‘international system’, or identifying the transferability of ‘lessons learned’ from the South to the North, I have argued here and in this new ERC-funded Southern Responses project, that we also have a prime opportunity to reconsider the role of ‘local’ (read: Southern) actors, in developing alternative modes of response which can at times work alongside or explicitly challenge ‘normative’ Northern-led responses (Fiddian-Qasmiyeh 2016).

There is of course a major paradox inherent in the localization of aid agenda: it aims to ‘support’ local responses precisely by institutionalizing them within the broader paradigm and parameters established by the ‘international system.’ In this context, we can view the localization of aid agenda as promoting a particular form of North-South relations, in which Northern states have recognized and are increasingly mobilising Southern actors to ‘share the burden’ (precisely through ‘shifting the burden’) in undertaking assistance and protection activities (Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2015; 2017a).

As I noted in my previous blog post, the mainstreaming of support for Southern-led initiatives by UN agencies and Northern states is especially paradoxical when situated within the context of ‘South–South Cooperation’ (SSC): the latter was purposefully developed in the era of decolonization as a necessary means to overcome the exploitative nature of North–South relations, and has historically been associated with the Non-Aligned Movement, and anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles (Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2015).

As such, I argue in my past and ongoing research (here and here) that a focus on Southern-led responses to displacement must transcend identifying and offering (certain forms of) support to specific actors from the global South.

Instead, it invites us to consider what role diverse modes of South-South Cooperation may play in terms of responding to displacement, and what role the principles of South-South cooperation might have in reconceptualising existing, and formulating new or hybrid forms of response, including responses that challenge structural inequalities.

It is this relationality between diverse actors between and across the global South, at all scales, levels and directionalities, and divergent principles, motivations and modes of action, which remain to be explored in detail. Amongst other things, this also requires a sensitivity to history and the question of time and space in responding to (protracted) displacement.

Histories and temporalities of Southern-led responses to displacement

The UNDP’s 2013 The Rise of the South Human Development Report noticeably fails to address South–South cooperation in the context of conflict-induced displacement, and yet Southern states have worked individually and together to develop regional initiatives to protect people affected by disasters, including displacement, throughout history.

There is, as I have explored in detail here and here, a long-history of Southern-led responses in contexts of disaster relief, including responses officially driven by the principles of South-South cooperation. These include Cuba’s longstanding involvement in supporting Central America and the Caribbean after hurricanes and cyclones for instance, with Cuba’s involvement explicitly positioned as a means to enhance the region’s ‘self-sufficiency’ and reduce dependence upon externally-provided assistance/protection.

However, while South-South cooperation (SSC) has been officially perceived as being central to development and responses to natural hazards, until recently SSC has often been perceived – in principle – to be incompatible with conflicts and conflict-induced displacement. This is, amongst other things, due to the South-South principles of non-interference and respecting state sovereignty (Fiddian-Qasmiyeh 2015), but also due to international organisations’ assumptions that South-South cooperation can only take place when ‘time’ is available, with humanitarian situations excluded almost a priori.

This is clearly reflected in the following quotation from a senior UNDP employee interviewed by Omata (2018) in an extract taken from the latter’s chapter in my and Daley’s forthcoming Handbook on South-South Relations:

Making South-South initiatives requires a long-term vision and strategic planning. Before making a deal, it involves numerous negotiations between involved actors and UNDP… I know UNHCR staff need to respond quickly to emergencies to save people’s life. These emergencies usually emerge in an unpredictable way. Such situations are not conducive to the modalities of South-South partnerships.

As such, while UNDP has an established track record of promoting South-South Cooperation (SSC) in the context of development, it has often been assumed by and about UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies that SSC is incompatible with ‘humanitarian’ work because SSC requires long-term planning, while UNHCR need to operate from one hour to the next.

Importantly, however, we know this is not the case overall, and diverse Southern actors – regional organisations, states, sub-national actors, communities and individuals – will continue to play key roles in responding both to different forms of disasters, including conflict-induced displacement.

Looking backwards and around us to move forward

With particular reference to human displacement, I would argue that South-South cooperation must be more meaningfully explored in existing, and new and emerging displacement situations precisely because conflict and displacement-related ‘crises’ are often predicted or even ‘announced’ weeks, months, years in advance, and of course precisely because displacement is increasingly protracted in nature.

UNHCR is indeed making (very slow) headway into institutionalizing modes of South-South cooperation, for instance through UNHCR’s promotion of the ‘solidarity resettlement scheme’ between the Middle East and specific solidary Latin American countries (Fiddian-Qasmiyeh 2015).

However, there is also a need to complement such approaches, by recognising the extent to which forward-looking initiatives developed under the remit of South-South cooperation have not only historically existed around the world, but have legacies that still echo to date.

For instance, from the 1970s to the present, Cuba’s international scholarship system has offered secondary and tertiary level education to refugee youth including Palestinians, Sahrawi, Namibians and South-Sudanese refugees (Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2015).  Amongst other things, this has meant that many Syrian and Palestinian students who trained in Cuba to become doctors and surgeons between 1970s-2000s have been providing medical assistance to people displaced within and from Syria, including Syrians, Palestinians, Kurds and Iraqis currently living in Lebanon and Jordan.

Responses to displacement from Syria, whether by states or local communities – including refugee communities – are deeply embedded within longstanding processes of Southern-led assistance, well before the birth of the ‘localisation of aid agenda’.

As such, as we continue to examine the so-called localisation of aid agenda, we must do so through lenses that are sensitive to time, place and directionalities of engagement, acknowledging the extent to which responses to displacement have always been ‘local’ and ‘localised’ irrespective of (or precisely against) the priorities of ‘the international community’.

Read more about the Southern Responses project, here.


The following blogs provide further information on localisation:

Dr Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh’s post:  ‘Localisation of Aid and Southern-led Responses to Displacement: Beyond instrumentalising local actors.’ examines a number of questions and concerns relating to the localization of aid agenda.

Dr Estella Carpi’s post ‘Localising Response to Humanitarian Need’ reflects on her participation at the conference “Localising Response to Humanitarian Need. The Role of religious and Faith-Based Organisations.” held in Sri Lanka in October, 2017 and examines how local faith based organisations and communities catalyse humanitarian action?

Dr Estella Carpi’s post ‘Does faith-based aid provision always localise aid?‘ discusses how reflecting on specific local contexts can support a more nuanced understanding of the localisation of aid.

Read other pieces published in Refugee Host’s localisation of aid series here.

References cited

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) “The Localisation of Aid and Southern Led Responses to Displacement” Refugee Hosts 

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2017a) “Keynote”ODI Disasters Conference, 14 September 2017, London. 

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2017)  ‘Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon face an uncertain 2017’, The Conversation, 3 January 2017

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2016) ‘Repressentations of Displacement in the Middle East,’ Public Culture, 28(3): 457-473, doi:10.1215/08992363-3511586.

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2016) ‘Refugee-Refugee Relations in Contexts of Overlapping Displacement,’ International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Spotlight On The Urban Refugee ‘Crisis’

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2015) South-South Educational Migration, Humanitarianism and Development: Views from Cuba, North Africa and the Middle East,Oxford: Routledge.

Omata (2018) in Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. and Daley, P. (eds) (forthcoming/2018) International Handbook of South-South Relations, Oxford: Routledge.

UNDP (2013) 2013 Human Development Report, “The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World”

Wamsler, C.  and Lawson, N. (2012) “Complementing institutional with localised strategies for climate change adaptation: a South–North comparison” Disasters 36(1).


Featured Photo:  “Future” mural painted on the outskirts of Baddawi camp, North Lebanon  (c) E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2018

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