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Society, Politics & Law

Displacement And Development

Updated Tuesday 8th August 2006

Development projects hold a greater responsibility for displacement than headline-grabbing humanitarian crises, explains Giles Mohan

Giles Mohan Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: OU

People and things on the move

At the turn of the twenty-first century, many of the striking issues of poverty and development which reach an international audience involve displacement in one way or another.

Wars, famines and big dam developments are perhaps the most prominent examples, all of which leave many people dislocated, having had to leave their homes, neighbourhoods and perhaps even their countries in the search of safety.

Some of the more politically controversial work of international relief and development agencies has been concerned with addressing the immediate humanitarian needs of displaced communities and then, in the longer term, initiating development projects aimed at post-conflict reconstruction, for example, or famine prevention.

Often, though, it is the images of refugees and aid workers in emergency camps which capture the imagination (and the donations) of the global public.

While refugees across the world in recent years have been estimated at varying between 10 million and 17 million during the 1990s, and internally displaced people at between 10 million to 18 million during the 1980s and 1990s, the number of people estimated to have been resettled to make way for development initiatives has been put at around 100 million over the ten-year period from 1988.

At the same time as relief and development agencies are battling to respond to the complexities of political and environmental emergencies that cause displacement, and their longer-term consequences for poverty, many more people are arguably being displaced in the name of development.

One of the more prominent examples of development displacement is big dam construction. Perhaps you are familiar with some of the high profile public campaigns against dam developments, such as the Narmada Dam in India, against which prominent public figures, such as Arundhati Roy, have been lobbying. But there are others.

A range of development programmes has created many involuntary resettlers. Things like infrastructure construction for industrial estates, dams and reservoirs, highways, ports and airports, and urban transportation networks. Unlike refugees, people resettled as a result of development projects typically remain inside national borders.

Contrary to their stated aims these programmes generate forced displacements, which in turn create further impoverishment and hardship. It is not simply being displaced from one’s homeland that is a source of hardship; long-standing and hard-won livelihoods and social networks forged in particular places are disrupted by resettlement. And it is seldom those who are displaced who are expected to be the beneficiaries of the development in question.

Global flows

Even as the astonishing figures of people involuntarily displaced for various reasons seem to offer cause for alarm, there are many writers and popular commentators who see the present era of globalisation as intrinsically characterized by mobility and displacement. People, goods, cultural products, communications, ideas – these are all seen to be on the move, and in ways which are usually thought about as broadly positive.

Moreover, it is not only the displaced who experience displacement. For example, in post-colonial Britain notions of ‘Britishness’ and ‘Englishness’ have been transformed by the immigration of people from many different parts of the former empire. English people who have never moved anywhere are experiencing a sense of displacement as their identities and their cultural worlds are effectively hybridized.

So, we can think of ‘displacement’ quite broadly to refer not only to human displacement, but also to the movement of goods, activities and ideas around the world. Of course the two types of movement are related. Human migrations (whether forced removals or voluntary migrations) are closely related to the broader processes which enable the distribution and circulation of economic activities and cultural forms.

Somaliland refugees returning home Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission

Or trapped in place?

Even as you read this, you may have called to mind the often bitter political conflicts which surround debates over the rights of migrants or refugees to enter wealthier countries. ‘Mobility’ may be celebrated in the West as the basis of the contemporary global economy, but the movement of people across national borders, especially those of wealthier Western countries, is increasingly strictly controlled.

The consequences of all this movement are not always positive in terms of welfare or economic growth – some places lose out from globalization and inequalities across the globe are increasing. More than that, some people in some places do not have the opportunity to move – they may have little choice but to stay where they are.

Refugees in many conflict situations are actively encouraged or perhaps coerced to remain in the region of the conflict, and to return home, rather than seek exile status in other, wealthier countries or even to settle permanently in safer neighbouring states.

‘Fortress Europe’, defended against unwanted migration, is a stark reminder that some kinds of movements are not always possible even as many experiences of mobility or displacement are far from desirable. So, while the global political economy might seem to have become characterized by flows and displacements, there are also powerful forces at work which are re-emphasizing the importance of boundaries in economic and social life.

The meaning and practice of development

In the context of these different types of displacement, development and how we think about it have also had to change. Dramatic forced displacements are causing development and relief workers to question the significance of national borders and sovereignty.

At the same time the growing globalization of the economy and the transnationalization of social life are posing substantial challenges to existing development thinking and practice. Consider the case of humanitarian organizations, which are increasingly coming up against attempts to limit their actions across national borders, and who are consequently questioning restrictions on taking aid into nationally controlled territories.

The concerns and practices of humanitarian and aid workers are part of the challenges to the borders and divisions which characterize the existing form of global politics based on a system of nation-states.

Similarly, many national communities are spread across the world, forming diasporic networks and retaining close ties and national identifications, but who are not contained within the physical borders of the nation-state.


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