Interview of Maja Lazić, Deputy Head of the JDC, by Elisabeth Haslund about the work and ambitions of the innovative partnership – and on how data and analysis can concretely help improve the response to forced displacement.

Maja Lazić (right) with Ruth Ebeneza, a 21 year old Fitter Turner student at Don Bosco training center in Kakuma refugee camp.

Firstly, can you explain what the Joint Data Center is? 

“It’s a very unique construction with two international institutions, the World Bank and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, coming together in a hands-on partnership. It strictly focuses on improving the collection, analysis and use of socio-economic data and evidence on refugees and other forcibly displaced people. While the partnership between UNHCR and the World Bank started well before the Joint Data Center came into existence, this is a practical collaboration where we pool our technical and financial resources. We come together as one team, with half the staff from the World Bank and the other half from UNHCR sitting together in Copenhagen. In that way, we function like a satellite between the World Bank and UNHCR, working semi-independently yet closely integrated.”

What is the gap that the Joint Data Center aims to address? 

“There is sometimes this notion that refugees and internally displaced are in temporary situations, and that they will soon go home, but, very often, forced displacement is protracted. Some of the crises of the last 20-30 years – I’m thinking of Kenya, Sudan, Afghanistan and Somalia – here we have seen forced displacement continue for decades.

Very often the displaced people in these situations are statistically “invisible” because they are not represented in socio-economic data. Not only refugees who have fled their countries, but also internally displaced people, who flee inside their own countries and never cross an international border.

Having quality data on these populations and the local population among who they live, is key to understanding these situations, the vulnerabilities and the opportunities to improve the lives of refugees, internally displaced people and local populations.”


And how can this data in practice help the forcibly displaced? 

“It can help directly on the response side and in long-term development. Quality socio-economic data is a hard currency that informs programmes and policies of governments, development and humanitarian organizations, like UNHCR. It produces insights about how we can improve the lives of the forcibly displaced and local people in terms of health, education, welfare and protection. It can help avoid costly parallel development and humanitarian systems and increase these people’s self-reliance so that they can better take care of themselves and their families.

With data, we can understand and argue the cost and benefits of extending national systems and services to refugees and other forcibly displaced people, or what it will take to reach solutions to displacement.

Often refugees live outside national systems, surviving on humanitarian assistance or income from informal or illegal work. With the help of data and analysis, we can identify their skills and understand how their lives could improve, if they were allowed to contribute to society.

In Colombia, for example, the Government granted a small group of Venezuelans the right to work and access to basic services. Then they conducted a study on the effects of this. After they found that Colombia benefitted from their economic inclusion, the Government decided to grant permits to all Venezuelans who had fled their country and had arrived in Colombia.”


What is the advantage of combining the expertise from the World Bank and UNHCR?  

“UNHCR has proximity to the forcibly displaced populations. UNHCR has the frontline presence, the overview of these situations and the insights into the policies and frameworks that govern and protect the people affected by forced displacement. While on the World Bank side, they have the data and analysis expertise, and they are extremely good at applying that in the development context. When you put the knowledge, skills and expertise of the two institutions together, you have strong leadership and a practical approach.

The World Bank recently launched their annual World Development Report “Migration, refugees and societies”, and for the first time ever the theme included forced displacement, recognizing this as one of the challenges that need to be addressed in development work. This is hugely important.”

Refugees in Chad

Rebuilding lives through an integrated humanitarian and development response

Can you point to a concrete example and place where data has been used like this? 

“Chad is a very interesting example. In Chad they have included refugees in their national survey and statistics since 2018, before the Joint Data Center was established. In the phase of analysing the data, they asked for support from the World Bank and UNHCR to help them use the data to effectively combine development and humanitarian programs. Chad is one of the poorest countries in the world – around half of the population lives below the poverty line. In addition, they host over 1 million refugees and internally displaced who face similar challenges such as food insecurity. That is some 5 % of the total population in Chad. They wanted to explore how the ongoing development programmes and the humanitarian assistance coming into the country could be effectively combined.

Together with the World Bank and UNHCR, the Joint Data Center helped analyse the data from Chad. This resulted in policy and programme recommendations, such as removing barriers to freedom of movement for refugees and opening access for refugees to livelihoods, including agricultural projects. In that way, the data can inform government policy and development programs that can improve the situation for all.”

You have mentioned several times that data is gathered for both the refugees and their hosts – why is this important? 

“Comparable data helps understand the characteristics of a society. It tells us about socioeconomic differences and similarities of different population groups. It can help identify the most vulnerable and where to target humanitarian assistance. It can also inform development programmes that include all population groups.

This type of analysis can also support social cohesion. I have seen it go wrong in the past. The local population living adjacent to refugees, where humanitarian organizations are bringing in assistance, may also need assistance, but may not be included because they are not displaced.

When I was working in Myanmar, it was very clear why the humanitarian organizations were attacked in Rakhine state in 2014. Here the assistance came into the camps for the internally displaced people who desperately needed it. But these camps were located in one of the poorest states in Myanmar, where the local population did not have much either. So, people in the camps got assistance, the locals did not, fueling an already extremely difficult and dangerous relationship.”

And can you provide an example on what socio-economic data is being gathered by the Joint Data Center? 

“In Ethiopia, we supported a survey of refugees and the local population, measuring their living standards and consumption.

I had the opportunity to follow the data collectors in Addis Ababa, as they surveyed households about how much money they earned, how they spent it, the kind of food they ate, how much they paid for it, what their skills were, if their children were in school, what they spent on school fees, what health issues they face, and more.

This is what I mean by socio-economic data. This kind of information helps to assess for example poverty levels, so that policy makers and development actors can improve their health, education and social protection systems and services, as well as their economic policy.”

How much of an interest in this type of data do you encounter?  

“We are seeing a lot of interest, for example in the Americas, particularly Colombia which I have already mentioned. Now, we see other countries in the region like Honduras, Peru, Brazil, El Salvador, be inspired by the Colombian approach. Some are using data to inform policies, others are starting to produce data of their own.

I also experienced a lot of interest among development partners when I was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo last year. In one project, we are collecting data on internally displaced people and the local population. I met with institutions such as the EU, the Swedish Development Agency, and the International Monetary Fund, who are all assisting the government with its development plans. When they heard about the data collection that we supported, they were immediately interested, as this data would allow them to determine how to expand their programmes to include the internally displaced. There is sometimes a notion that because internally displaced people are nationals, they are automatically included in national data but, for the most part, they are not.

This is exactly what we want. We are not collecting data to have it, but for the data to be used by governments, by development organizations and others. Right now, we are seeing increased attention on forced displacement by important development organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank and regional development banks. So, I do believe that the field has opened, and we need to capitalize on this.”

What is an important achievement by the Joint Data Center so far? 

“One of our objectives has been to strengthen the infrastructure of data collection on forcibly displaced people. We have invested expertise and funding to develop statistical standards for refugees and internally displaced people respectively over the last four years. And now, the highest global authority on statistics, the UN Statistical Commission, has approved recommended standards for gathering statistics on these people. This means that for the first time we have concrete recommendations that standardize how to collect data on these groups, and that is a big achievement.

These statistical standards were developed by the Expert Group on Refugee, IDP and Statelessness Statistics which includes national statistical offices from 57 countries in its membership, many of whom host refugees and internally displaced people. We are really seeing the train moving.”

Today, we cannot mention data without also touching upon data privacy and protection of data. How do you work with this at the Joint Data Center? 

“This is a fundamental issue for us. Here, the complementarity of the World Bank and UNHCR really comes into play. The World Bank has a micro data library which provides access to a huge body of data. In UNHCR, so much data has been collected, but not shared, precisely because of data protection and privacy concerns.

The Joint Data Center supported a collaboration between the World Bank and UNHCR to build a micro data library in UNHCR, and we helped UNHCR to establish the capacity and skills to curate, anonymize and protect the data, before making it available to the external world. Anonymization is key. This means processing the data to make it safe to share, and UNHCR employs the best practices in this area.”

Sajjad Malik, Director for UNHCR’s Division of Resilience and Solutions, and Maja Lazić, Deputy Head of World Bank-UNHCR Joint Data Center on Forced Displacement speak to Jackline at the minigrid in the Kalobeyei settlement in Kenya. The minigrid ensures solar-powered electricity to both homes and businesses in the community, serving both refugees and their local hosts. © UNHCR

What impact and outcome do you hope for next? 

“We have increased the amount of socio-economic data and analysis on forced displacement, although some gaps still remain. I would like to see governments, development and humanitarian organizations use the data and the evidence more, so that we can achieve better and more inclusive programmes and policies.

For the Joint Data Center, it means a stronger focus on communicating the data and encouraging its use, inviting more stakeholders to the table and creating more conversations between them and governments. This is not only the task for the Joint Data Center, but for all who believe in our mission.”

You have worked for UNHCR for many years, and in many different operations and emergency settings, looking back, could you have used the data you are working on now back then? 

“Oh yes, that was actually a strong motivation for applying for the job at the Joint Data Center. I’ve been in so many places and roles across the world with UNHCR, where I believe we could have had more influence on government policy and have strengthened collaboration between humanitarian and development organizations, if we have had the kind of data, that the Joint Data Center helps to produce now.

The Joint Data Center has been working on this for the last four years, but I wish that we had started twenty years ago. I truly believe that socio-economic data and analysis can help us create inclusive policies and drive solutions to displacement.”