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Feature: UNHCR procurement - Shopping for refugees' needs

Feature: UNHCR procurement - Shopping for refugees' needs

Axes, buckets, canned food, stoves and toothpaste jam the office of Max Funa, UNHCR's regional procurement officer for southern Africa, who keeps the supply chain going and makes sure the goods for refugees are up to UNHCR's strict standards.
10 November 2004
Unconventional office supplies for Max Funa, UNHCR's procurement officer for southern Africa, based in Pretoria.

PRETORIA, South Africa (UNHCR) - Max Funa's office is a shocking sight: A handsaw on the desk, jerry cans and buckets piled in a colourful tower in the corner, cans of food next to a stove and kitchenware. Not that anyone ever smelled cooking fumes wafting through his door at UNHCR Pretoria, just the scent of mint toothpaste and soap, bars of which rest on a pile of pamphlets about 4x4 vehicles.

There is a reason for this eclectic mess. Funa is UNHCR's regional procurement officer for southern Africa, the man who keeps the supply chain going and examines whether the offered commodities are in keeping with the agency's strict quality standards.

The goods purchased and distributed by UNHCR and other humanitarian organisations are as seldom in the limelight as the people distributing them at the end of the supply chain. But assistance would never reach the victims of humanitarian disasters, and offices of aid agencies could never be set up were it not for the procurement officers in charge of purchases and logistics.

Like all transactions that involve large amounts of money, UNHCR's procurement policy is also a political issue. The regions that host large refugee communities are often among the poorest in the world. They sacrifice a lot to accommodate the needs of refugees. Therefore, UNHCR gives priority to purchases in the areas of operations wherever possible.

"This is a way to say thank you to the host countries and give them something back," says Funa. Buying in the region is often cheaper and faster than shipping goods all over the globe. And both time and money are of the essence when it comes to humanitarian aid.

Before making any purchases, UNHCR will review its internal asset market and transfer goods from its stocks in six large warehouses in Copenhagen, Amman, Accra, Ngara, Dubai and Pretoria, or from other operations to the places where urgent needs arise.

Of course, prices have to be competitive. UNHCR has limited funds to meet the often unlimited needs, so the more expensive the goods, the fewer people can be assisted.

Usually the Supply Management Service in UNHCR's headquarters in Geneva takes care of international procurement, but the regional supply units of Accra, Nairobi, Beijing, Islamabad and Pretoria account for 25 percent of the overall procurement. Smaller amounts of money are spent on the field level or by implementing partners.

The main commodity groups procured by UNHCR in 2003 were shelter and domestic items (30 percent of the overall expense), vehicles/spare parts/fuel (20 percent) transport and logistics (16 percent), corporate services (15 percent), and telecommunications/computer equipment (13 percent).

Water/agriculture/engineering, office supplies and medical supplies took between 1 and 2 percent of the budget, while food accounted for only 1 percent of UNHCR's procurement. The agency purchases a few supplementary food items, while staple food, oil, pulses and other food items are provided by its sister agency, the World Food Programme. UNHCR only provides food items for camps with fewer than 5,000 individuals.

The grand total of international procurement by UNHCR in 2003 was $90.5 million. Out of this, $7.2 million was spent in Africa.

Procurements of such proportions require strict rules and control mechanisms to guarantee fair competition among bidders. On the refugee agency's website, potential suppliers can get all relevant information and learn where to register for the United Nations common supply database. Tenders are carried out by strict rules.

While I take notes of our conversation in Funa's office, he suddenly whips out a white plastic board with a handle. "Why don't you write on this?" he asks. I take it, somewhat puzzled, put it on my lap and continue scribbling.

"How does it feel to write on it? Is it comfortable?" He catches my confused frown. "Let me explain," he says. "I've been offered these boards as instant desks for refugee camp schools without furniture. Sometimes children are forced to sit on the ground during classes and I am told that it would be easier for them to write on these boards."

Thankfully, Funa lets me remain in my chair as we finish our interview. Quite comfortable, if I disregard the axe hovering menacingly between him and me on the table....

By Melita H. Sunjic
UNHCR South Africa