From Entitlement to Capabilities: Shifting the Narrative of Response to Displaced Populations in Urban Settings

Katarzyna Laskowski, Fordham University


The world is seeing an unprecedented forced movement of peoples as individuals flee their homes from the effects of “persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations.” (UNHCR, 2017, p. 2) At the same time, a majority of these displaced individuals are migrating to urban settings—a departure from the traditional humanitarian response context of the refugee camp. With existing market systems, dispersed and diverse populations, and multilayered vulnerabilities, urban areas present a complex interface of municipal actors to which the humanitarian sector is still adjusting. Although humanitarian organizations continue to provide goods and services as modalities of assistance, they have also expanded their toolbox to include Cash Transfer Programming (CTP). CTP is intended to serve as a vehicle of access for affected individuals to take control of their own recovery, but its one-dimensional understanding of needs can present limitations to its effectiveness. This study will focus on a case study of refugees and asylum seekers in New York City to explore whether the paradigm shift from entitlement theory towards a capabilities approach contributes to an improved understanding of the needs of displaced individuals in urban settings. The scope of this study will include refugees and asylum seekers, contexts of displacement, challenges to humanitarian response in urban settings, modalities of humanitarian assistance, and CTP. Theories explored will include those of migration, vulnerability, resilience, entitlement, and capabilities. The aim of this study is to bring displaced individuals back to the center of the conversation concerning how the humanitarian community can best meet their needs. Through in-depth interviews with refugees and asylum seekers in New York City, we can learn about their actual needs as opposed to their perceived needs defined by others. What emerges is a collective set of themes that parallels those outlined by the capabilities approach. This synchronicity reveals that the capabilities approach improves the efficacy of modalities of response, such as CTP, for it goes beyond what individuals possess and what resources they can access, to what they can actually do and who they can actually be.

Subject Area

Cultural anthropology|Urban planning

Recommended Citation

Laskowski, Katarzyna, "From Entitlement to Capabilities: Shifting the Narrative of Response to Displaced Populations in Urban Settings" (2018). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI10932661.