Pioneering a Systemic Approach to Human Mobility and Development in the Arab States Region

البرنامج الإنمائي
5 min readSep 11, 2023

By Jennifer Colville, Kawtar Zerouali, Rawhi Afaghani, Martina Salini

Early this year, the UNDP Regional Hub in Amman delved into the complex landscape of human mobility in the Arab States region and pioneered a systemic approach to tackle the challenges and opportunities people on the move bring to their countries of origin, transit and destination. In this blog, we explore how the regional Innovation, Governance and Peacebuilding, Sub-Regional Response Facility for the Syria Crisis (SRF) Teams, and eight Country Offices (COs) used systems thinking and a portfolio approach to shape a shared vision to guide UNDP’s strategic efforts on human mobility in the region.

How is the Current Approach to Human Mobility “Stuck”?

The Arab States region has historically been experiencing significant and varied movement of people within and across its borders. The Arab States have served as a starting point, a passage, and a destination for both migrants and refugees, creating complex patterns of movement that influence development across the region. Various factors — economic, social, environmental, political — all contribute to shaping the regional human mobility landscape. These factors are often intertwined and challenging to disentangle, and development actors often struggle to adequately address them in a way that recognizes their interlinkages. Global discourses have long framed human mobility as a humanitarian challenge and a societal burden, rather than an opportunity for development, innovation, and adaptation. As a result, migrants, refugees, Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and their families are often left out of development solutions.

The Complexities of Human Mobility Require A Systemic Approach

The diverse and interconnected nature of the drivers of human mobility calls for a systems approach. Viewing the root causes and challenges of human mobility in isolation –thematically, geographically — proves inadequate to effectively address the complexities of this regional (and cross-regional) phenomenon. To understand the multifaceted nature of human mobility, it is essential to consider the interactions among the drivers of voluntary migration and forced displacement, e.g., are certain drivers reinforcing other factors, are they balancing out factors? Ignoring this complexity may lead to missed development opportunities and exacerbate challenges faced by migrants, refugees, IDPs, and host communities.

The Power of a Portfolio Approach

In February 2023, the Regional Hub in Amman initiated a Portfolio Sensemaking Journey, bringing together representatives from eight Country Offices in the Arab States region: Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, and Syria, each providing unique insights into human mobility patterns and policy frameworks. Applying UNDP’s Portfolio Sensemaking methodology to unpack this complex issue at the regional level, we were able to harness the collective knowledge and experiences of regional and global experts and CO colleagues to create a compelling offer to tackle the intricacies of human mobility from a development perspective.

Over a span of four months, the regional team hosted virtual workshops and design sessions that engaged CO and regional colleagues in a transformational, future-oriented journey. Emphasizing systems thinking and portfolio logic, participants delved into the multifaceted and interconnected challenges posed by human mobility. We explored various thematic areas related to human mobility, from governance and conflict prevention to gender, climate change, and resilience. The sensemaking process guided participants through a process of horizon scanning, involving desk research and interviews with “unusual suspects” on the topic of human mobility in their country contexts, which fed into key insights about the human mobility landscape in the region. For instance, interviews highlighted how both institutional barriers, such as international degree accreditation, as well as socio-cultural attitudes and stereotypes about people from different nationalities reinforced obstacles to social cohesion and integration.

This collaborative process laid the foundation for a co-created Statement of Intent and three envisioned Transformational Shifts, which are the backbone of the UNDP Regional Framework on Human Mobility. The Statement of Intent serves as the “north star,” providing us direction no matter our starting point. In contrast to the traditional framing of “Objectives,” the Statement of Intent is grounded in the complex realities of the present situation and defines a direction, rather than a destination, for transformational change, allowing for continual learning, discovery and adaptation along the way.

Unlocking Synergies and Impact

The culmination of the Portfolio Sensemaking Journey was a two-day in-person workshop during which participants presented their COs’ work on human mobility. Participants identified patterns and synergies across initiatives that could be enhanced, as well as latent capabilities and levers of change that could be strategically employed. CO colleagues took inspiration from the experiences of colleagues in other contexts to articulate insights (as patterns and interconnections across initiatives, what we call “Claims”) and to formulate new programmatic interventions to maximize the impact of their work (immediate actions UNDP can take to elevate its work in human mobility and development, what we call “Propositions”). Many COs also identified opportunities to work together, with the assistance of the Regional Hub, on cross-border issues related to human mobility. By aligning these Claims and Propositions with the shared vision set forth in the Statement of Intent, UNDP is poised to strategically enhance the coherence and impact of its work on human mobility across the region.

Guided by the Statement of Intent and as evidenced by the insights and actions that emerged from the sensemaking process, colleagues reframed the issue of human mobility: instead of viewing migration and displacement in isolation, we see them as part of a broader development context where addressing the complex challenges and opportunities of human mobility is vital to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). They also reframed human mobility as being a transformative force (rather than solely a security concern or socio-economic burden) that can contribute significantly to sustainable development.

The collaborative and systemic approach undertaken by the Regional Hub in Amman reflects our commitment to better understand the complexity of human mobility in the region and design a compelling offer for national partners managing the challenges and opportunities people on the move present. As this phase of the sensemaking journey concludes, colleagues have strengthened their capacities to better understand complex systems, adapt to changing realities, and gain deeper insights into underlying issues and dynamics. Additionally, the foundations have been set for future cross-country collaboration on human mobility and the development of a community of practice. This journey has not only informed the Regional Human Mobility Framework but also empowered COs to enhance their own Human Mobility portfolios. Stay tuned for more insights as we continue to explore the impacts of human mobility on development in the Arab States region and the importance of embracing a holistic approach for sustainable solutions.


Jennifer Colville, Strategic Innovation, Regional Team Lead

Kawtar Zerouali, Strategic Innovation, Regional Advisor

Rawhi Afaghani, Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding, Programme Advisor

Martina Salini, Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding, Programme Analyst



البرنامج الإنمائي

‏‏شعوب متمكنة، أمم صامدة -الحساب الرسمي لبرنامج الأمم المتحدة الإنمائي في المنطقة العربية. UNDP official account in the Arab States