Publisher: The Interdependent, USA
Author: Pete Martin
Story date: 16/11/2011
When the U.N. High Commission for Refugees' Executive Committee met in Geneva last October to establish budgets for 2011, it slotted $34 million for the agency's office in Colombia—about 20 percent higher than it had budgeted the year before, since the country's displaced population had also grown by 125,000 people in 2010. The $34 million budget was always optimistic, but donations to UNHCR Colombia fell short by much more than the organization had hoped. A wave of humanitarian crises the world over stretched funds and aid budgets. Now ten months into the year, 2011's budget shortfall is coming into focus: the office will finish the year with about $17 million, half of what it had hoped for.
The office and, more importantly, the country are being hit hard. In September, UNHCR closed three of its 14 offices and field units in Colombia, significantly reducing its presence and activities—in a year when, by August, 76,000 new people had already been displaced by ongoing internal conflict.
Colombia is one of the world's longest-standing humanitarian crises and what U.N. agencies call a chronic situation, a name that reflects the difficulty it has in galvanizing funding. Long out of the headlines and less urgent than new political and natural crises, these long-term emergencies are often the first to suffer when budgets are tight. Unfortunately, however, this doesn't make the crisis in Colombia any less pressing. Although the worst of the country's conflict with guerrilla groups and drug cartels is over, similar groups are still active, and violence persists in numerous pockets throughout the country. A persistent drug trade, ongoing political battles, industrial developments, and unlucky natural disasters combined to make 2011 a difficult year for Colombia's most disadvantaged communities.
The consequences of de-funding this already difficult humanitarian situation were described in UNHCR Colombia's Global Appeal for 2011, a document prepared to help fundraise. A 20 to 40 percent funding shortfall would result in reductions to many of UNHCR's most important operations, the report predicted. Now, those feared cutbacks are underway—and by October they had already surpassed those detailed in the Global Appeal. Most visibly, in September the organization had to close a regional office in Barranquilla and a field unit in Berrancabermeja, both in the north of the country, as well as a field unit in San José de Guaviare, a southern town on the edge of the Amazon rainforest.
Each of these operations had monitored ongoing crises as violence displaced thousands along the country's twin Pacific and Atlantic coasts. "The revisions were for budget, because these are still priority areas," says Francesca Fontanini, the regional public information officer for UNHCR Colombia.
2011 has been among the most difficult years in recent memory for emergencies around the world. Natural disasters such as the tsunami that hit Japan in March, massive flooding in Southeast Asia, and a devastating ongoing famine in the Horn of Africa all demanded blockbuster aid responses. Social and political upheaval, most notably civil conflict in the Ivory Coast and the string of revolutionary uprisings across the Arab world, have also stretched humanitarians. The UN's Central Emergency Fund, a contingency pot of money for unexpected crises, was exhausted much earlier this year than it has been in past years, so UNHCR Colombia received a mere $930,000. Much more damaging, though, the vast majority of public and private funds raised for international relief causes in 2011 plummeted as dollars went to address the newest and most visible emergencies. Most of UNHCR Colombia's funding shortfall is a result of pledges from national governments that were never fulfilled.
"New crises like the ones in Ivory Coast and Somalia got, of course, more media and donor attention. We had to review our operations worldwide to dedicate more resources to these unexpected emergencies," says Fontanini.
On top of these humanitarian emergencies, donor budgets are simply strapped by difficult economic times. Many of the European governments on whom UNHCR usually relies for much of its funding have in recent months been dealing with a looming economic collapse in the euro zone, further limiting the resources they feel they can afford to send to address existing problems in countries like Colombia.
Under such conditions, Colombia's predicament has been a particularly hard sell. Many of the country's problems are no longer deemed emergencies, since Colombia is far safer and more prosperous than it was at its low point of violence and instability in the late 1980s and 1990s. Yet while the government has retaken the momentum from drug-trafficking organizations and improved security, particularly in the country's largest cities and towns, several conflicts are still ongoing in the country's border and coastal regions. Smaller cartels that more closely resemble gangs now lurk along many of the key drug-trafficking lanes of the country's coastline. Less visible and on a smaller scale, these conflicts nonetheless continue to add to the toll and make reconstructing lives difficult.
Even before this fresh violence, the scale of humanitarian needs in this country of 26 million was great. By the end of 2010, there were 3.7 million officially registered internally displaced persons in Colombia—second only to the number of IDPs in Sudan. Independent NGOs operating in Colombia believe the true number of IDPs in Colombia may be even greater, as high as 4.5 or 5 million. Many of these people were displaced years ago, but more are uprooted each year, including over 125,000 in 2010 and a similar number likely by the end of 2011.
Those displaced in recent years have been forced out of their homes by several factors. Armed groups continue to contest for the control of drug routes, often violently. Meanwhile, long-standing land ownership disputes have continued to push particularly indigenous and black-Colombian communities off their lands. Devastating floods also affected 2.4 million people in the last quarter of 2010 alone. And new industrial projects are also taking a toll. As security has improved in much of the country, foreign mining and petroleum companies, with the help of the national government, have begun large-scale mining and drilling projects to extract more of Colombia's vast mineral and fossil fuel wealth, displacing local populations in the process.
"Chronic IDP operations like the one in Colombia get less and less attention from donors. When there is media attention it is much easier to sell an operation," Fontanini says. One reason other emergencies have received more attention is a simple visual difference: unlike in so many African countries, she notes, "Here there are no camps."
As each month passes, fewer resources are available to aid Colombia's millions of IDPs. It's not only UNCHR that has been affected; the NGOs it collaborates with are similarly short-funded, meaning that neither the 20 NGOs nor the 12 international organizations that UNCHR works with can make up for the cutbacks. The Colombian government has energetically tried to fill the gap—it spent at least $1 million in response to the flooding at the end of 2010—but it too is unable to make up for shortfalls from other UNHCR donors.
Many local NGOs are also having to cut back, since some of their funding depends on UNHCR. "In the last few years, support is down about 50 percent from what it was," says Luís Andrade, senior advisor for Organización Nacional de Indígenas de Colombia (National Organization of Colombian Indigenous). "This is worrying because the situation—the violence, the displacement, and human rights abuses—still continues."
Even organizations that no longer actively work with UNHCR feel the effects of increased cutbacks. Until 2009, when UNHCR closed its office in the city of Bucaramanga, Fundación Mujer y Futuro (The Foundation for Women and the Future) worked with UNHCR to protect displaced women in several regions. Although the direct relationship ended then, the foundation hoped to receive continued funding from UNHCR, but has been disappointed. "The situation is critical. It's impossible to find the resources to do what we used to do with UNHCR," says Isabel Ortíz, the foundation's director.
And even organizations that do not rely on UNHCR for funding or direct support nonetheless fear any scaling back of its operations. Atle Solberg, the Colombia country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, said that is it too early to see an effect of UNHCR's September office closures, but that now, without the UNHCR office in Barranquilla, NRC has been left "largely alone in Santa Marta—in César and Guajira [departments on the northern Venezuelan border]—and we find that unfortunate of course, because there's so much to do." Solberg said he spoke with António Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, last December to convey how important a well-funded UNHCR is for the mission UNHCR and NRC share. "There are still significant gaps all over the country, and we look upon UNHCR as a key partner," Solberg says.
Refugees Global Press Review
Compiled by Media Relations and Public Information Service, UNHCR
For UNHCR Internal Distribution