Jon Unruh on Darfur and the Importance of Flexible Institutions for Managing Migration Tensions
When it comes to climate change and environmental change, “policies and laws can have a very productive contribution toward positive adaptation, or they can subvert that and constrain options,” says Jon Unruh, associate professor of human geography and international development at McGill University, in this week’s podcast.
Access to resources can be governed by many different kinds of systems. From statutory law to customary rights, and religious tenets to rule of the gun, they can be “fluid, chaotic, or very much defined,” says Unruh.
Understanding variations in resource governance is critical to understanding migration, in particular. As people exercise migration as an adaptation option, they change the way resources are used, he says. Strong examples of what works to peacefully facilitate such movement, and the freedom to experiment in response, are what local institutions need most to reduce the possibility of negative outcomes, such as conflict.
In arguing the benefits of flexible, local institutional capacity, Unruh highlighted the conflict in Darfur, where the Sudanese central government did away with local land administration and made resource conflicts “unnegotiable.”
Droughts over the last 40 years have led to major movements of people in western Sudan and eastern Chad. “What we've seen in the decades coming up to the war is that the institutional relationship between the nomads, the migrants, and those that received them was able to adapt, and absorb, and adjust rights to resources for both groups to accommodate the incoming migrants,” says Unruh. “By and large, the local institutions were able to handle this form of adaptation.”
But the Khartoum government, seeking in part to weaken local independence movements, undermined these Darfuri institutions and tried to replace them with appointed officials. The response was a “clumsy, non-elastic, predictable” set of statutory laws “in an adaptation scenario where you needed quick thinking, elasticity in rights.”
Even if the state has “very well-intentioned laws and institutions,” Unruh explains, “generally, they move too slow for what goes on on the ground.” Migrants and host communities are negotiating access to resources at the local level. Support for flexible, local-level innovation and experimentation is therefore more useful in preventing the worst results, like the violence that erupted in Darfur, than rigid top-down national policies.
Jon Unruh spoke at a private event at the Wilson Center on August 31, 2015.