No Way Back? Adaptation and Urbanization of IDP Livelihoods in the Darfur Region of Sudan


  • Helen Young,

    1. Is professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University, and Research Director at the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University. Since 2004 she has led a research programme in Sudan focusing on livelihoods, environment and conflict with a wide range of national and international partners which has produced many published papers, reports and book chapters. Since 1998 she has been the co-editor of the journal Disasters. She can be contacted at e-mail:
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  • Karen Jacobsen

    1. Is associate professor of Research at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, Tufts University, and Research Director at the Feinstein International Center where she leads the Refugees and Forced Migration Program. Her current research focuses on urban refugees and IDPs, and on issues related to financial resilience in disaster- and conflict-affected areas. Her e-mail address is:
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Our thanks go to several researchers and assistants who contributed to this work, including Abdalmonim Khider Osman, Abdaljabbar Fadul, Babiker Badri, Anastasia Marshak, Elizabeth Bontrager, Joe Miskov and Emily Bruno. Special thanks to the Kebkabiya Charitable Society, MercyCorps and Oxfam GB, who supported the two field case studies and also to the UK Department for International Development, who funded the research. Thanks also to the Mellon Foundation and the Ford Foundation, for funding the first field trips. Finally, thank you to the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments. Any mistakes and misrepresentations are entirely the authors’ responsibility.


This article explores how people in conflict zones adapt their livelihoods after they migrate to urban areas. Drawing on case studies in two towns in the Darfur region of Sudan, the authors find that livelihood systems are in transition and have undergone fundamental changes resulting from displacement and the effects of conflict on dysfunctional and failing institutions. Urban migrants’ livelihood strategies evolve in a context of insecurity, distorted markets, lack of regulation and punitive rent-seeking regimes such as protection payments. Maladaptive livelihood strategies emerge in response to the need for food and income in the short term. New strategies also can increase societal inequities and marginalization, and over-exploit limited natural resources. Thus the ‘new’ livelihoods cannot be considered sustainable or equitable, or even able to provide food security in the short term. Locally appropriate and innovative approaches to support livelihoods are badly needed, but it is important to monitor and evaluate their impacts on livelihood groups, local economic recovery, environment and conflict.