Resettlement Isn’t Easy. Here Are Four Ways to Improve Outcomes for All Parties Involved

Effective resettlement programs often included titled household plots and livelihood programs for those being resettled.
Effective resettlement programs often included titled household plots and livelihood programs for those being resettled.

By Rebekah Beatrice Ramsay

Involuntary resettlement can improve the lives of the resettled while reducing poverty and delivering results for development projects

I recently visited the site of a proposed large-scale irrigation project in Asia. The project would bring much needed water to thousands of farmers living in the tail-end of a major canal. To make way for the project however, hundreds of landless families would be displaced from the canal embankment, where they have resided on public land for generations.

I sat with the project team to discuss the implication of resettling families and the significant resource investment required to do resettlement well. The project engineers were shocked. “Why do these families need so much support? Can’t they just receive money for their house and relocate elsewhere?” These questions are fair, and ones often received by social development specialists working to address the social impacts of infrastructure development.

Every year millions of families move to new locations around the world. If human migration is part and parcel of the human experience, why then is involuntary resettlement such a lengthy and expensive process, involving significant resources at the planning, preparation, relocation and rehabilitation stages?

To answer this question, it is helpful to remember that involuntary resettlement is generally an unanticipated and unwelcome disruption to community life. I was reminded of this recently while visiting an informal settlement earmarked for resettlement. There I met Vidya, an elderly landless woman struggling to sleep with the uncertainty she felt about her future. Vidya had joined her husband at the site some 40 years ago. There they had raised a family of five. Job insecurity, poor health, social stigma and their lack of assets prevented the family from securing their own land. Vidya’s husband had recently died.

Research shows that families typically lack the capacity and resources to successfully resettle when the choice to move is beyond their control. This is partially explained by the fact that vulnerable and marginalized populations are the ones most likely to be displaced. Without assistance, these families will struggle to find secure land, re-establish their homes, social networks and access to services and income generating opportunities.

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That being said, well-resourced resettlement as part of a development project can help reduce the risk of social conflict and project delays while enhancing the development impact of a project. Here are four ideas on how teams preparing a project can improve the implementation of involuntary resettlement so that affected people can actually benefit from their changed circumstances.

  • Integrate involuntary resettlement as a project component. If involuntary resettlement cannot be avoided, then good resettlement implementation can increase a project’s development rationale and outcome. Include resettlement as part of the project output, rather than an impact to be managed.
  • Provide affected people with options. Involuntary resettlement is imposed. The burden of this imposition can be reduced by providing families with entitlement options, so they gain more control over their life plans.
  • Link resettlement components to existing government and NGO schemes. Project teams can reduce the financial burden of resettlement by dovetailing activities with existing schemes, such as ‘land for landless’ schemes with annual targets. Government departments can work together to achieve shared priorities and performance targets.   
  • Consider involuntary resettlement implementation as an entry-point for innovation. Emerging community development methods can be applied in the resettlement context with great effect. The evidence-based Graduation Approach is one such example. The approach supports the ultra-poor to gain economic self-reliance; and would ideally support displaced families in post-relocation rehabilitation.  

Project teams can broaden the development impact of infrastructure projects by treating displaced people as project beneficiaries. This approach is being taken in the project that I visited, which focuses on climate change adaptation and involves government investment in the protection of communities by raising canal embankments to stop deadly flash flooding. At the same time, landless households occupying the canal embankment are gaining permanent housing and land titles under the project’s involuntary resettlement scheme. The project stands to benefit the broader flood-affected population and also improve the living standards of ultra-poor and landless families.

Involuntary resettlement is time-consuming and expensive. Implementation is an iterative process, involving constant feedback from affected persons and corresponding plan adaptation. In the project I visited, the resettlement preparation phase has taken years to complete. The project team responded to families’ concerns about the livability of resettlement sites, income generation opportunity, access to schools and health centers and how different ethnic, caste and religious groups will integrate at the new resettlement site. Once resettled, ongoing support is to be provided to families, assisting them to reestablish routines and build community life.

Involuntary resettlement is challenging but can be done in a way that improves the lives of the resettled while delivering broader gains in terms of poverty reduction and development.