People displaced into urban areas due to war, persecution, or climatic crisis have claimed an increasingly prominent position in humanitarian operations and research. Through an examination of three African municipalities currently hosting displaced persons we study the cognitive, financial, and political incentives that work for and against a proactive response to displacement. We find that in cities where deprivation is widespread, effective engagement with municipal authorities demands a shift in approach. Rather than appeals to domestic or international protection principles, effective engagement with local authorities requires recognizing local authorities’ interests and incentives to develop strategies to align protection concerns with local political economic factors.


  • Use a systematic approach to assess and understand the priorities and incentives of local actors in Kampala, Nairobi and Johannesburg;
  • Asses who holds formal and de facto responsibility in urban areas for people of concern;
  • Understand the obstacles, abilities and incentives for local authorities in responding to people of concern;
  • Assess the “reformability” of local authorities;
  • Identify non-state actors who are (a) providing or obstructing opportunities for people of concern (b) working on behalf of people sharing similar interests with people of concern (c) are enlisted in providing services or pressing for positive change in local authorities


  • In most circumstances, people of concern are a low political priority for local authorities. While displaced people are often used as political tools, their protection is rarely at the forefront of the political agenda;
  • Unless there is a strong local constituency concerned with refugees’ rights and welfare, politicians have little political incentive to promote refugee rights;
  • Humanitarian actors need to find “back routes to rights” and social solidarity with locally legitimate actors—local officials, businesspeople, landlords, service providers—who have the power to bring about immediate positive change;
  • In engaging with local authorities, humanitarians should look for new opportunities for solidarity and appeals to interest. This may require a new spatial perspective so that the language resonates locally, intervention is locally legitimate and the approach is gradual and cautious; and
  • Effective engagement with local authorities demands a strong understanding of variations in institutional configuration, the language of urban development, and the politics surrounding diversity, poverty reduction, and immigration.


  • Temper the language of law and rights to expand protection and security. Where possible, expand protection in ways that do not analytically or legally distinguish between local residents and displaced persons;
  • Incorporate local government and sectoral experts into strategic planning and operations;
  • Develop programs that incentivize protection by officials by providing direct financial support to country systems that can verify that they are supporting POC;
  • Work to build solidarity with other groups including urban poor, health providers, unions and tradespeople, to push for inclusive reforms and improved service delivery;
  • Engage with intergovernmental structures such as local government finance systems to create funding mechanisms that encourage or enable improved local government performance;
  • Develop protection standards that are pegged to locally determined service delivery standards;
  • Develop donor funding strategies that do not demand only quantifiable service delivery outputs;
  • Support humanitarian assessments and interventions that consider ‘local’ populations and institutional capacities/ opportunities; and
  • Develop humanitarian funding initiatives that can support inclusive developmental local government.

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future