UNHCR Should Lead the International Humanitarian Enterprise

Linked with our presentation of Thomas G. Weiss – USA.

By Thomas G. Weiss (1) (August 2002) – The author has been a participant in and observer of behavior and misbehavior by international institutions over the last three decades. As editor and author of some 30 books and over 100 published scholarly articles, I do not have a reputation for praising undeservedly the United Nations (UN) or members of its extended, and sometimes quite dysfunctional, “family.”

My unequivocal judgment is that the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is the most impressive operational unit of the system. The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to UNHCR in 1954 and 1981 is one indicator of achievement. As an individual, I make a contribution to UNHCR (and to UNICEF, another practical institution), and so my plea to donor governments to take them seriously should ring true.

The explanation is rather straightforward and simple-the institution is narrowly focused and almost totally oriented toward the delivery of assistance and protection. Since its creation in 1951 following early efforts to assist World War II refugees, the UNHCR has continually expanded as the challenge of refugees and refugee-like populations has broadened and as their numbers have increased. The focus upon protection, food, shelter, medical attention, and other types of relief to refugees provides a most concrete focus.

The organization’s global presence (offices in some 120 countries) partially explains why over 80 per cent of its 5,000 officials work on problems in the field and not in Geneva. The organization’s long-standing and key personnel policy is one of obligatory rotation away from headquarters to trouble spots. This has a downside-UNHCR reportedly has the highest divorce rate in the system. But the high-quality of services provided to clients and the first-hand familiarity with crisis conditions are a more important part of the instituion’s balance sheet.

Moreover, in any given year in the 1990s, UNHCR had at least 400 implementing partners that were non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The ability and willingness to sub-contract service to low-cost and dynamic service-providing NGOs is another sign of institutional self-confidence and professionalism.

Based on analyses of humanitarian disasters and recent international responses to them, my central plea would be to centralize the operational aspects of the UN’s emergency system. In effect, the argument is to consolidate the UN’s emergency efforts in UNHCR, which would become the “UN Humanitarian Organization for War Victims.” I am impatient but can overlook waste and overlap in development efforts. But inertia is far less palatable and action far more if turf-consciousness and petty institutional rivalries are present when so many lives are at stake.

Many observers dismiss them as the playthings of bureaucrats, but reforms and the rationales behind them have direct operational repercussions that, in turn, have a direct impact on the quality of assistance and protection provided to affected populations. As such, the failure of the 1997 reform to consolidate civilian humanitarian efforts under the aegis of UNHCR was a tragedy. (2) In spite of the crying need to make coherent the international presence-military and civilian, UN and NGO-in war zones, the lack of coordinated efforts remains the norm. The actual experience in such theaters as the Gulf, the Balkans, and Africa has made too little difference.

Merely mentioning the term “coordination” normally makes eyes glaze over. However, donors routinely see the results of poor coordination, which have become especially acute in the civil wars and complex emergencies of the last decade. Again, the logic of coordination when large numbers of lives are at stake would seem to take precedence over the usual litany of bureaucratic rationalizations.
Nonetheless, the “C” word in the UN system is virtually meaningless. It connotes neither centralization nor command but rather merely consensus in the best of cases. (3) Instead of leadership accompanied by authority with appropriate carrots and sticks, the best that war victims can expect is that agencies agree to coalesce around objectives and priorities. If meaningful collaboration and efficacious programming occur, they are voluntary and unpredictable. There is no structural guarantee of maximum utilization of limited resources.

The lack of coherence in the humanitarian arena is a microcosm of the UN system as a whole-although as mentioned above, this sector is a particularly tragic one. The Secretary-General is primus inter pares (first among equals), but the emphasis is on the latter part of the expression.

On the one hand, the most powerful components of the UN’s humanitarian network are part of the secretariat proper (that is, not specialized agencies). As such they report to the General Assembly (rather than to ECOSOC, the Economic and Social Council), and their executive heads are appointed by the UN Secretary-General.
On the other hand, the most senior officials of UNHCR, World Food Programme (WFP), UNICEF, and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) each manage annual budgets that approach the resources over which the Secretary-General himself has direct control. Autonomy, not integration or predictable collaboration, are the hallmarks of this feudal arrangement.

And donors talk out of both sides of their mouths. On the one hand, they complain about duplication and waste. On the other hand, they created and continue to support the present system.
Yet, more sensible and effective one could have resulted in 1997, one in which the UNHCR would have been in the driver’s seat. Many critics and practitioners are hardened and cynical. As there will never be a meaningful central authority, they argue, UN coordination mechanisms are better seen as distractions and hindrances rather than as helpful. Creative chaos is better than botched efforts at coherence that merely consume limited human and financial resources to no avail. Half-hearted self-regulation is better than poor regulation, and so one layer less rather than one layer more of bureaucracy is actually preferable.

However, this writer has not abandoned the hope that donors will see the necessity to get more from the system. For the humanitarian arena, fundamental change should be more feasible than for other arenas because the main players are all de jure part of the United Nations proper. There is no need to take on constitutional change of specialized agencies. As UNHCR has not only demonstrated its effectiveness but also is the only one of the big four that is exclusively devoted to aiding and protecting civilian war victims, it should be given direct responsibility for such an effort.

What is truly amazing is that this seemingly far-fetched proposal almost became reality in the reform of 1997, undertaken at the outset of Kofi Annan’s first term as Secretary-General. (4) However, at the eleventh hour donors supported the feudal lords (actually, feudal ladies) who argued that continuing the actual decentralized system was preferable to a modestly more centralized one. Civilians trapped in war zones continue to be the victims, certainly not UN bureaucrats.

An early draft of the document being prepared by a team under the direction of Maurice Strong at the request of the then newly-elected Secretary-General had, in fact, recommended that UNHCR be asked to assume all functions during a complex emergency. In effect, this amounted to becoming the “permanent lead agency” for assistance to war victims in addition to exercising its traditional protection responsibilities for refugees. This recommendation would have amounted to a pragmatic adaptation of the UNHCR’s efforts to illuminate the Balkan gloom, where it embraced the challenge of displacement writ large and addressed the care of refugees, returnees, internally displaced persons (IDPs), and those who had not moved at all.

The early draft effectively called for a specific, feasible improvement in the UN system. Although one case does not constitute a mold, the lessons from the former Yugoslavia actually replicated earlier experiences by UNHCR. In the former Yugoslavia, the UNHCR effectively and appropriately assumed the rescue role as a “UN Humanitarian Organization for Casualties of War,” along with its traditional role as protector of refugee rights.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata self-deprecatingly referred to herself as the “desk officer for the former Yugoslavia.” Her institution’s dominant role was facilitated because at that time no other UN agency was actually on the ground in order to contest the bureaucratic role assumed by UNHCR. The country breaking up was in Europe and had been a modest contributor to UN programs prior to the outbreak of war. Hence, it was not a recipient of UN assistance, and there was no real UN presence in the country.

The nomination of the UNHCR as the effective lead agency in advance of crises would have been more efficacious than relying upon what is now the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA, formerly DHA, the Department of Humanitarian Affairs). After the well recognized collective stumbling after the Gulf War by the UN system, I had been among those who supported the creation of DHA. (5) However, I ceased to support what evolved into a powerless and essentially budget-less entity with no field presence and no weight in the New York establishment.

We thus live with continuous improvisation as the modus operandi of the UN in the humanitarian arena, and everywhere else. It should be noted that the highly improbable option of consolidating emergency capacities within a new central UN authority was originally to have been proposed in an annex. This was, in the view of the drafting team, a desirable discussion topic for the longer term; but the annex was eliminated totally from the final version of the document. Short of such a sweeping change, victims during active wars would have been better served by relying on a committed lead agency with power and resources than on wishful thinking about coordination by consensus.

The UNHCR could and should have been recognized by donors as an accomplished “rule breaker” concerning humanitarian coordination at the coal-face in complex emergencies. Historical examples of similar actors include the Office of Emergency Operations in Africa (OEOA) that had been largely a success story in pooling the system’s resources to respond to drought in the mid-1980s because of the management abilities and clout of Bradford Morse and Maurice Strong. They, like Sir Robert Jackson earlier in the Bangladesh emergency of 1971, were powerful enough to break all the UN’s institutional rules that vitiate any meaningful attempts at operational coordination. And, most importantly, the rule-breakers were backed rather than undercut by donors.

The draft recommendation was discarded when three feudal “ladies” protested and donors listened. UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy and WFP Executive Director Catherine Bertini went public about their second thoughts in early June 1997, the month before the report was scheduled for publication. They were joined by a number of NGOs and in particular by the powerful voice of American ones through the consortium InterAction. Its president, Julia Taft (now an Assistant Administrator of UNDP after having been the director of the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance), also articulated profound disgruntlement about any possible new centralization that might impede NGO autonomy.

Five years after the so-called 1997 reform, and several crises later, the central challenge for international action in war zones remains the same as it was earlier: How do we get the various units of the so-called UN family, along with a host of NGO subcontractors, to function more effectively as a system rather than as a loose collection of independent actors with separate mandates, budgets, priorities, and programs? The well-known and central challenges of coordination remain: strategic planning; gathering data and managing information; resource mobilization; procedures to enhance accountability and professionalism; the orchestration of a better division of labor in the field; negotiations with host authorities; and, most importantly, leadership.

The only practical solution is more consolidation and centralization, with UN agencies, NGOs, and even the ICRC ceding some autonomy. Without such restructuring, we will continue with the charade that a multi-headed non-system can somehow function as if it were a centrally organized system. Only donors can insist upon this change.


(1) Thomas G. Weiss is Presidential Professor at The Graduate Center of The City University of New York and Director of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies, where he is also co-director of the United Nations Intellectual History Project and editor of Global Governance. In 2000-2001 he served as research director of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty.

(2) This story is told in depth in Thomas G. Weiss, “Humanitarian Shell Games: Whither UN Reform?” Security Dialogue 29, no. 1 (March 1998), pp. 9-23.

(3) This framing was inspired by a discussion by Antonio Donini, The Policies of Mercy: UN Coordination in Afghanistan, Mozambique, and Rwanda, Occasional Paper #22 (Providence, RI: Watson Institute, 1996), p. 14.

(4) This was eventually published as Kofi Annan, Renewing the United Nations: A Programme for Reform (New York: United Nations, 1997).

(5) Larry Minear, U.B.P. Chelliah, Jeff Crisp, John Mackinlay, and Thomas G. Weiss, United Nations Coordination of the Interntional Humanitarian Response to the Gulf Crisis, 1990-1992, Occasional Paper #13 (Providence: Watson Institute, 1992).

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