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Verbatim record of Statement of Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to UNHCR headquarters staff, 24 January 1977

Speeches and statements

Verbatim record of Statement of Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to UNHCR headquarters staff, 24 January 1977

24 January 1977

I have in the past tried during these annual staff meetings to share with you some of the important developments which take place in the Office, in the United Nations, and in the areas where we have activities and programmes. When you have traditions of this kind, the subject matter also becomes rather traditional and therefore has a tendency to be rather repetitious. I must admit that sometimes, when I do this, I report to you rather in the way I report to the very large number of governing bodies which I have to report to - like the Executive Committee, the Economic and Social Council, and the General Assembly. It's absurd that I should go over this once again with colleagues, who really should know what the Office's record is and what it has been doing over the past year.

In a way, this tradition has the disadvantage of boring many of you, and certainly boring me. I find I have to repeat much of what I have already said and what one can find in documents. So, instead of rehashing what has taken place and giving you facts and figures and details which are available in the Executive Committee documents, in the summary records of the Third Committee of the General Assembly, I though that today, instead, we would look inwards a little bit and concentrate on what I hope will be a meaningful dialogue.

I believe in dialogue. Dialogue is something which should be mutually beneficial, and the dialogue that takes place between you and your representatives and the administration should also take place in this room today. I would, therefore, appreciate it very much if, during the few remarks that I intend to make now, those of you who wish to put questions or those of you who wish to comment simply on some of the things that I have touched upon would please prepare their points. I can assure you that whatever you wish to say will be most welcome.

It is important to remember that UNHCR is a special kind of outfit. The reason is because, in the twenty-six years of our activity, everything that we have done together is related intrinsically to the welfare of human beings. This is important to remember. Basically, what perhaps makes this great difference between UNHCR and other organizations, be they international organizations or other bodies, is that everything we do is related to our objective. I think it is no mere coincidence that the General Assembly in its wisdom decided in the 1950s that the High Commissioner should be elected by the General Assembly, not just appointed as so many members of the Secretariat are, and that therefore all the members of the United Nations should participate in the choice. Furthermore, in the Statute itself there is a very clear reference to the fact that UNHCR staff shall be chosen from persons devoted to the purposes of the Office.

It is easy to forget that we are all supposed to be devoted to the purposes of the Office. It might be useful to pause and to reflect on what this actually means. We might, at the same time, when we think of how we should be devoted to the purposes of the Office, reflect on what we are doing and why we are doing it, and basically analyse our position in the Office and our relationship to one another and to our work in this particular context.

I do not underestimate the problems that you face in your daily work or those of our colleagues in the field. As it is, I think that most of you do not underestimate the problems which the administration faces and which the High Commissioner himself faces.

I would be personally extremely unhappy if I felt that this Office was becoming a memo-producing factory. Here again, I am prompted to think of our relationship with our work and with our objectives. Basically, while you may think that you can solve problems by drafting lengthy memos, sending long cables or even making very long telephone calls, the drafting of lengthy notes is something which sooner or later is affected by the law of diminishing returns. At some point, if you or I spend a great deal of time sending extremely sophisticated and lengthy instructions to colleagues at headquarters or in the field, you spend more time thinking about the style of the memo, its drafting, whether it's good French or English, whether the argument is going to be persuasive enough, whether it's going to leave room for any dialogue, and you begin to weigh every word and every sentence and every comma. The memo itself becomes more important than the subject matter. The refugee themselves are not going to be helped, I submit, by this kind of bureaucracy. Let notes for the file be brief and to the point.

Sometimes we seem to live in a permanent crisis of enormous workloads, of new emergencies. We work extra hours, consequently one doesn't have time to pause and reflect on what the best solution might be to a given problem. If one spends just five minutes thinking about the problem before taking any action, the solution is likely to be much more durable and productive. Memos should not be produced without thinking out the arguments very carefully; meetings should not take place without all the issues having been examined, without having examined the options, without submitting alternatives, as it were, so that meetings can be shorter. If colleagues deal with their work in this way, if they go to meetings unprepared, I find that an enormous amount of time is wasted and at the end of the meeting one doesn't really have a much clearer idea of what in fact should be done about the problems discussed. Then you meet again. So let us try to pause and reflect, so as to understand our objectives. If I stress this, it's because some of us have felt that, by precipitous action, one sometimes gets into a situation of adopting ad hoc decisions, and such decisions, taken hurriedly, produce what can best be described as "policy by default". By rushing through things, you take a decision, sometimes not the right one, it is then implemented and things are simply not tackled, not dealt with. Then, by default, it becomes a precedent and you do the same thing again when you face a similar problem. As a result, the Office is slowly but surely dragged into a situation where it begins to assume important operational responsibilities. Sometimes we seem to be spreading ourselves too thin, simply because we do not examine very carefully what the options are before we launch into an action. Ad hoc decisions and "policy by default" lead to an inefficient and extremely expensive operation in the long run.

The things that we have to watch very carefully include the special operations and how we get into them. It's no secret to any of you that the special operations are beginning to take up a great deal of UNHCR's expertise and experience. In recent years the volume of activities and the level of inputs have grown enormously because of the special operations. In these operations, no real and adequate formula has yet been worked out; we try to act as best we can. Although we speak of ourselves as a kind of fire-brigade, we sometimes forge that even fire-brigades must have drills, must have training, to deal with fires. We have a proud record, which governments have acknowledged by giving us their support. However, we should be extremely careful at a time when the United Nations is looked upon with considerable suspicion by a number of major donors. It's a costly affair; there is a proliferation of appeals for humanitarian requirements. We should be very careful to examine and screen the requests that we receive, particularly for special operations and emergencies.

We have to do this because we are probably the only body in the United Nations that is continuing to grow. I'd like to recall some figures: in 1973 we had a level of income of 24 million dollars, and in 1976 we were close to 100 million. We have increased the staff in a very spectacular manner over the past three years, largely because of special operations. In 1976 we had 509 staff members; in 1977, on the manning table, we have 545. If we maintain this cash flow, if we maintain this growth because of special operations, we shall have to discharge our responsibilities much more carefully. If we do not, the time has come when the same governments that put a tight squeeze on some of the specialized agencies, that have even, as you may know, brought about the termination of a considerable number of staff in other agencies, will take the same kind of action in regard to UNHCR.

The governments cannot say to us, "There are no longer any humanitarian problems". Every day when you open your newspaper you see news of the victims of man-made disasters. They can say to some of the specialized agencies, "What you are doing is an example of duplication, overlapping and waste, and basically you're a kind of bureaucracy, you're self-perpetuating. This they cannot say to us today. But what they can say is, "You're not tackling the problems that we delegate to you with sufficient efficiency or economy, with efficient staff, management, good accountability, good monitoring, etc. And you're spreading yourselves too thin."

This is the tendency that could develop, notably in the Executive Committee. So we have to be extremely careful. We are looking into new formulas to update and to restructure. We have to do this much more imaginatively. There will be some restructuring. It would be premature to go into the details now, but changes are certainly called for. We have, as you know, already made considerable progress in new fields like procurement. This is very important when you see the quantity of materials and commodities we have been delivering in operations such as Cyprus, Thailand, Viet Nam, Laos, Lebanon and Algeria. We have also improved our monitoring and control.

Turning to concrete staff problems, which have been a matter of preoccupation: first of all, recruitment. UNHCR was, and to a great extent still is, a Western European club. It was quite natural, when the Office was created and the composition of the United Nations was entirely different, that the criteria for recruitment, including dedication and devotion to the cause of refugees, should have been something that Western Europe should have produced and provided for the Office. Today, as a result, we are increasingly trying to recruit more people from the Third World. There is still a very great imbalance. I sympathise with those of my colleagues who deal with recruitment, because, although we have placed advertisement in the African and the Latin American press and other areas of the Third World, to try to reach possible candidates, we have had only limited success. If we try to recruit through government channels, there is always the danger that governments will try to push candidates who may not necessarily be the type of person UNHCR is looking for. You know the problems the Secretary-General has faced in this respect. This one thing that must be avoided at all costs is to give the impression that, in a humanitarian organizations such as UNHCR, governments, ministers, ambassadors can somehow place their friends. The criteria must always be efficient service for refugees, not the granting of diplomatic privileges and facilities. We try to reach potential candidates, without using government channels, and it has not so far produced very spectacular results. Good people from the Third World are at a premium, not only in the United Nations system but indeed with their own governments. If they are good and have the necessary background, training and ability that we look for, we can be sure that their own governments are also looking for them.

We have to continue to look for people from the Third World.

The other point that I would like to mention is the problem of renovation, of trying to have a rotation by which some colleagues who have been in the Office a very long time allow some of their responsibilities to be taken over by younger colleagues from the Third World. Quite frequently, some of the colleagues who have served the Office for their whole career understandably desire to continue. Some of their friends in the Office - certainly sometimes the High Commissioner himself - wish very much to keep them, because they are wonderful people, because they have served the Office with the utmost devotion, and because, frankly, the retirement age is, I think, rather arbitrary. There are persons who at the age of 25 are quite incapable of producing anything at all, and there are others who at the age of 80 are absolutely remarkable. Deciding when people should leave, not only in UNHCR but in any organization, is extremely difficult. However, it is not for me to solve such a problem. This is something that the United Nations has decided, rightly or wrongly, and I think that basically my job is to make sure that, in principle, colleagues who have reached retirement age are not prolonged. This is not because I feel they are no longer in a position to contribute to our work, but because, once again, it is the same problem of "policy by default" and ad hoc decisions - if you do it once, you can do it ten times. Sometimes exceptions have been made, and I can assure you that I am prepared to explain every one of those decisions. But let me say that in 1977 I will try, in principle, not to extend colleagues, because this is the only way to renew the cadre and open up opportunities to Third-Worlders.

We have also tried agreed early termination. It has not always worked, because, understandably, of the pension reductions involved.

The other question that I must touch upon is that of information flow. We are working more and more in the field of special operations, which are by nature emergencies and therefore challenging, stimulating, exciting. Some feel, I think, that somehow they are not kept in the picture, that they don't know what's happening, that they're missing the fun. If people do feel this, we should find a way to remedy the situation. Obviously, it's difficult for colleagues to spend all their time explaining to others what is happening, but we should try to improve here also. The films that are available to you are certainly worth seeing. It's important that there should be regular meetings between the directors and chiefs with their staff - to inform them about what is happening in the Office, all the more since there is this trend of amalgamating the regular programme with special operations. The General Assembly decisions have narrowed the gap, as it were, between the traditional mandate refugee who is clearly within the terms of the Statute and the displaced person, even displaced within the boundaries of his own country. I am talking about assistance.

Let us try to have an improved information flow in 1977. We must also improve the possibilities within the Office for career development generally, to develop better knowledge of the work, and to increase the possibility of moving in the Office from one particular area of work to another - what is referred to as "in-training". This is very useful, as long as it doesn't take us away from the essential objective of our work, which is to help refugees.

We should try to help refugees before we help ourselves - but if we can do the two at the same time, then fine.

We suffer from a bad case of "headquarters-itis"; I don't want people to feel that one should always stay at headquarters. Every year when we meet, I say, "Please go to the field, please volunteer to go to the field." I realise that this is not always easy, but how can we consider that we are doing our duty towards refugees when we have one group staying here all the time and never moving, and the others out in the field? There has to be some kind of rotation.

How can we claim to understand the problems that exist in countries like Thailand, Viet Nam, Laos, Zambia or Mozambique, or the problems in the Tindouf region? How can one understand these problems by sitting at Headquarters? When I was in one of the refugee camps about 150 miles from Tindouf, which we covered in the desert, one of the press people who followed us around said, "What are your impressions now that you're here?" Classic question - to be answered in no more than ten seconds. I said, "Well, to come here is certainly completely different from reading files in Geneva." You can read files in Geneva about the problems of refugees - it's just printed words, really. If you go out there and you se the refugees for yourself, it changes your whole impression of what our work is all about. And I can assure you that this applies also to the General Service staff in the field. The secretaries who work in our field offices, sometimes in "hardship posts", have a much clearer idea of why they are typing a letter than some of the ones who work here in Geneva. If you're interested in trying to figure out what the Office is all about, go and find out in the field.

Rotation would also improve the relationship between the field and Headquarters; when our people in the field come back to Geneva and complain that really headquarters doesn't understand the first thing about their problems, it's largely because a good many of the people that they talk to have never been out there. If they have been in the field, they understand the urgency of reply to field queries, they know who is being mentioned, what problems are being discussed, and who is talked about. So their sense of values changes.

I recognize that this question is very much linked to post adjustments. A lot of people who would be prepared to go out to the field say, "I'm willing to go to a hardship post, but why should I, in addition, make this tremendous sacrifice of subjecting myself and my family to the very difficult material conditions with inadequate post adjustment making it extremely difficult for me to make both ends meet?" I realise that for colleagues who are in Bangkok, in Hanoi or in Vientiane, not to mention Buenos Aires, it is literally difficult to make both ends meet. This has been before the ACC; it's been before the International Civil Service Commission; it's on the agenda of the Commission for 1977. It has been discussed ad nauseam. And it hasn't produced satisfactory results. I have tried constantly to defend my staff, and sometimes I have even become rather unpopular with my colleagues in New York as a result, writing letters and so forth, and all to little avail, so far. Of course, one should not give up. We intend to follow this up, as much as we can, and if New York is really unable to deal with this we may have to try to deal with it on our own. Possibly the answer might lie in trying to decide that certain field posts are mission areas rather than traditional field posts, and that, as mission areas, people would be able to get the type of financial compensation that would make it easier for them to respond to a field assignment.

We have taken a number of concrete decisions. First of all, after a long and useful dialogue with the staff representatives, we have finally adopted the system of flexible working hours at the Headquarters. It is to begin on 1 February, on a Trial basis for six months. An instruction has been addressed to all services to explain the technical aspect of the system, and I just hope it will work. If not, after six months, we can review it and take a decision then.

Another matter which has been a subject of considerable debate in the question of the delays we face with the services here in Geneva. As you know, we have been very dependent upon United Nations servicing for things like contracts, salaries and so forth, and sometimes, largely because the UN services claim they are overworked and cannot face the enormous workload, we have had to accept long delays - contracts not being finalized, as a result of which salaries have not been paid - and this has led to a general malaise, for which I must say the Administration valiantly bears the brunt. Now, as a result, we are going to try to transfer a number of responsibilities to our own administration. This is going to be done on a trial basis, like flexible working hours, but we hope that it will help you with your daily problems.

Finally, the move to the new UNHCR premises. I remember that not so very long ago I said to some of you here that we had finally decided to move from the old Palais to the new building, and that as a result we would have better facilities and we would all be together. It turned out that, because of the enormous growth to which I have referred, this has not been possible. Although I am extremely suspicious of panaceas, I am reasonably convinced that, because of the extremely careful planning that is taking place, when we do move to what is known as the "old" ILO building near the lake, the problems we have all suffered from can be finally overcome. The reason is quite simple: in that building, which is not small, there will be only GATT and UNHCR. This means that we can all be under one roof; it means, I hope, that we shall not have to wait as long for the lifts as we do now. It means that we can be more independent, and it will be linked with some of the structural changes and internal reforms and improvement which I'm so keen to implement in 1977. I hope the move will take place around June.

In conclusion I would like, with your permission, to read a passage of a letter I have just received from Henry Kissinger on the occasion of his leaving the State Department. What he says is very much linked with what I tried to touch upon today. I quote:

"Of all our undertakings to build a more safe, co-operative and just world, I can think of none that has had more immediate tangible benefit for the well-being and dignity of individual human beings than your steady unsung efforts."

This is surely a great tribute to our collective effort - your efforts. It is something to reflect upon when we consider our place in the United Nations and the quality and meaning of our lives in UNHCR.