Refugees Magazine Issue 97 (NGOs and UNHCR) - What they think of us
Refugees (97, III - 1994)
"UNHCR is, without doubt, the United Nations agency with whom we have the best working relations. NGOs and UNHCR have been working together for so many years. We know each other well. We have developed great know-how. We have accumulated much experience. BUT ... "
There is, in fact, a big "but" concerning UNHCR-NGO relations, according to Delmar Blasco, Executive Director of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA). Collaboration has evolved with the passing of time and the ever increasing number of refugee crises in the world, but not always as harmoniously as would have been desirable.
The complaints most often made about UNHCR by the voluntary agencies focus on bureaucracy and lack of communication.
"As a matter of fact," explains Gil Loescher, a specialist in refugee issues and UNHCR consultant for PARinAC, "the NGOs reproach UNHCR for its lack of openness, transparency and communication. Quite often, NGOs in the field do not know who to turn to when they want to make comments or suggestions."
The contact person for NGOs in the field is usually the person in charge of the implementation of UNHCR programmes. "However," says Loescher, "he is already overloaded with work and cannot give enough time to the NGOs."
Delmar Blasco believes that "working with NGOs calls for a certain state of mind. UNHCR staff do not always understand this. They are so used to dealing with government officials that they do not differentiate between them and the NGOs. They do not understand that the NGO approach is not the same. That does not mean it is necessarily better - even though this is very often the case. It is simply different. To avoid conflict, UNHCR should make sure it places people in the field who know how to negotiate with NGOs, who know and understand their role."
In order to make operations more effective, NGOs would like to be consulted sooner and more often. "For that," says Loescher, "the communications network should be improved, and information disseminated in appropriate languages. The NGOs complain, in fact, about UNHCR's hermetic language."
The litany of criticism frequently centres on UNHCR's bureaucratic practices. "To take a decision in UNHCR is always a difficult and painful exercise," Blasco said. "The officials fear the reactions of their boss or worry about their career.
"The piles of forms that have to be filled in is also overwhelming," he continued. "To fill them in takes too much time and energy, which means too much money. They are so incomprehensible that some people sign them without really knowing what they are about. Of course, it is necessary to take control measures to prevent abuse, but the system could be made less burdensome."
Funding is another bone of contention. Traditionally, governments have been UNHCR's principal donors while NGO funds came from private donations. However, sources have been shifting in recent years. Some NGOs are now partly financed by public funds. In addition, the increasing number of refugees, coupled with the decreasing resources of donor states suffering from economic recession, have obliged UNHCR to seek more private donations.
Through the PARinAC exercise, NGOs have been able to assess their grievances and UNHCR has, in turn, formulated certain responses.
With regard to funding, UNHCR and NGOs will intensify their collaboration in order to adopt strategies that will be complementary rather than competitive. These include, among other things, the possibility of making common appeals for funds.
To improve collaboration and coordination with NGOs, UNHCR has begun appointing liaison staff not only in the field, but also in the various regional bureaux at headquarters.
A manual, designed to give NGOs a clearer understanding of UNHCR's management of operations, should be available by the end of the year. A first draft has already been submitted to NGOs for comments. The final text will contain guidelines on various UNHCR procedures, including project submissions, sub-agreements, drafting of reports, project management, the UNHCR budgetary structure, and so forth.
"We are not questioning the goodwill of UNHCR," Blasco said. "UNHCR is receptive, understands the problems, and wants to do something. That's evident. But UNHCR is also part of a heavy machinery. How far can one go within the United Nations system? That remains to be seen."