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Memoranda of Understanding

Executive Committee Meetings

Memoranda of Understanding

15 August 1997



1. In the conclusion on the implementation of Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) resolution 1995/56 adopted in its forty-seven session, the Executive Committee:

"Underscores the importance of establishing Memoranda of Understanding with intergovernmental agencies, including at the level of field operations, as a mechanism to ensure that operations are effective, complementary and predictable; welcomes the recent conclusion of Memoranda of Understanding between UNHCR, UNICEF and UNFPA; urges UNHCR to continue its efforts to establish predictable operational relationships through the conclusion or enhancement of Memoranda of Understanding and other agreements with relevant partners, notably UNDP and WHO; and calls on the High Commissioner to report to the Standing Committee on lessons learnt from such inter-agency agreements." (A/AC/96/878, para. 24(g))

2. In the Report of the Secretary-General to ECOSOC in response to the same resolution (E/1997/98), attention was also given to the role of Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs). The report recognizes the importance of MOUs in avoiding duplication and minimizing gaps, enhancing predictability, and clarifying responsibilities on the basis of recognition of comparative advantages.1

3. The principal purpose of an MOU is to ensure that, for agreed areas of cooperation, interventions are predictable and automatic. This implies that the agencies concerned have the necessary operational and financial capacities to undertake the responsibilities set out in the MOU. In recent years, UNHCR has emphasized the development of action-oriented MOUs and there has been a pronounced move away from non-specific agreements which state little more than an intent to collaborate.

4. In response to the request of the Executive Committee, the present paper provides an update on UNHCR's efforts to ensure predictability in its operational partnerships through the establishment and/or revision of MOUs with key partners. It provides a brief analytical overview of the principal MOUs and examines the usefulness of these agreements as a coordination tool. It focuses particularly on the global agreements which UNHCR has signed with UNIFEM (1993), UNFPA (1995) and UNICEF (1996); the newly revised MOUs with WFP and WHO, which became effective in March 1997; the recently signed agreement with IOM (May 1997); and the framework for cooperation concluded with UNDP in April 1997. Where relevant, it also draws attention to country-specific agreements concluded within the overall framework of these global MOUs.


A. World Food Programme (WFP)

5. UNHCR and WFP have developed an especially close relationship in refugee food supply operations. This is due to the fact that food aid plays a key role in sustaining the lives of refugees, normally constituting two-thirds of overall relief inputs. The initial 1985 MOU between the two agencies has been regularly reviewed in the light of operational demands, new experience and the changing nature of relief operations. The MOU envisages a special Task Force for this purpose. The most recent review undertaken by this Task Force resulted in the signing of a revised MOU which came into effect at the end of March 1997.

6. Although the MOU in question has long been recognized as exemplary, it is remarkably different from others in terms of its specificity and operationality. The high level of operationality of the MOU is partly due to the fact that it focuses on one sector only, namely food. In addition, continuous implementation of the agreement worldwide has provided permanent feedback on operational experience. This has contributed to the development of the current revised MOU, which is indeed the most operational of its kind.

7. The objective of the agreement is the timely delivery of the right amount of food, and related non-food inputs. Through this, UNHCR and WFP seek to ensure the maintenance or restoration of a sound nutritional status amongst beneficiary groups. The agreement covers provision of food aid by WFP to refugees, returnees and, in specific situations, internally displaced persons, provided that certain conditions are met. Moreover, it establishes a cooperative and consultative basis for determining the numbers of beneficiaries to be assisted.

8. Under the agreement, WFP has the responsibility of resourcing and delivering the main food commodities to WFP-managed Extended Delivery Points (EDPs). UNHCR is responsible for the transportation of all WFP resourced food commodities from the EDPs to their final distribution point and for distributing all the food commodities to the beneficiaries. The implementing partner which undertakes the final distribution on behalf of UNHCR is jointly agreed upon with WFP and reports directly to both agencies. A tripartite agreement (UNHCR, implementing partner, WFP) sets out the modalities of distribution and reporting. UNHCR is responsible for regular nutritional surveys and maintaining, in consultation with WFP, an effective nutritional monitoring system.

9. The MOU also stipulates that UNHCR and WFP will develop and maintain contingency plans for countries where this is deemed appropriate. Joint plans of action setting out the agreed objectives and implementation arrangements are to be developed and updated regularly at the country level. Furthermore, UNHCR is to ensure that WFP is closely associated with the planning and implementation of repatriation operations, and decisions on the use of WFP food will be taken jointly.

10. The MOU has proven its effectiveness in many situations, the crises in the Great Lakes region of Africa being one of them. Following the outbreak of conflict in eastern Zaire at the end of October 1996, a 24-hour Emergency Cell was established both in Rome and Geneva. At specific times each day, conference calls were made to coordinate the activities of each agency according to the framework laid out in the MOU. This helped both organizations to react in a timely and appropriate fashion to the challenges faced.

B. United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)

11. The MOU between UNHCR and UNICEF was signed in March 1996. The agreement delineates the roles of the two organizations and provides a framework for cooperation in activities with refugees, returnees, internally displaced persons and local populations in countries of asylum and origin. The agreement reflects UNHCR's responsibility for the international protection and welfare of refugees. With regard to returnees, it reflects UNICEF's responsibilities and role in countries of origin.

12. Within the framework described above, there is a strong UNICEF commitment to facilitate the reintegration of returnee children and families into national programmes, in particular educational programmes and those related to the monitoring of unaccompanied returnee children. Support to unaccompanied children is an area where options for the possible levels of collaboration range from sharing of information and assessing needs for further situation-specific guidelines, to UNICEF's taking responsibility for programmes, while recognizing that children of concern to UNHCR remain within the ambit of the High Commissioner's protection mandate.

13. The MOU encompasses different levels of operational response. While UNICEF takes full responsibility for providing measles vaccine, together with related equipment and supplies in new refugee situations, in activities related to the reintegration of returnees, the agreement does not prescribe specific operational activities. It rather lists possible levels of cooperation and sharing of responsibilities, often subject to a request from UNHCR and to modalities to be worked out in agreement between representatives of the two agencies. In these situations, joint planning and proposed initiatives can be the subject of a field-level MOU complementing the global one. This requires ongoing contact and systematic exchange of information, both at Headquarters' level and directly between professional staff in the field. Country specific agreements, operationalizing the global one, have been concluded in several countries including the Lao People's Democratic Republic, the United Republic of Tanzania, and Uganda. At the global level, the agreement provides for an ongoing review of policy in areas of common concern as well as of issues relating to implementation.

C. United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)

14. The MOU between UNHCR and UNFPA was signed in June 1995. The development of the MOU, was part of a wider initiative following the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development. This led to a process of familiarization between UNHCR and UNFPA, which culminated in a jointly organized Symposium on Reproductive Health (RH) in Refugee Situations. The UNFPA/UNHCR relationship has since expanded considerably, with close contact with the UNFPA Liaison Office in Geneva and within field operations.

15. The Agreement establishes an overall framework for collaboration and coordination between the two agencies in order to promote the delivery of quality reproductive health counselling and services to persons of concern to UNHCR. These activities are undertaken with full respect for the various religions, ethical values and cultural backgrounds of refugees, in conformity with universally recognized international human rights. The MOU describes the responsibilities of each institution, highlighting UNFPA's technical capacity and UNHCR's operational role. It also identifies specific areas of collaboration and coordination, such as combating sexual violence and targeting adolescents.

16. Since the signing of the MOU, UNFPA has funded reproductive health projects for refugees, returnees and internally displaced persons in 24 countries, and in 8 countries it is targeting the same groups as part of their national programme. The funding by UNFPA of a joint project to provide emergency reproductive health services in the former eastern Zaire in November 1996 was the first of its kind.

D. World Health Organization (WHO)

17. The revised MOU between UNHCR and WHO, signed in March 1997, takes into account the experience gained since the signing of the first MOU in December 1987. It reflects an enhancement of WHO's role in field-level operations. The MOU provides for strengthened collaboration in a number of fields by more specifically outlining responsibilities assigned to each organization, highlighting UNHCR's operational role and WHO's mainly technical advisory capacity regarding health issues. It also institutionalizes the channels of communication and pinpoints comparative advantages of the two agencies in relation to the provision of effective and affordable health care services to refugees and internally displaced populations.

18. The agreement stipulated that UNHCR will consult and seek technical guidance from WHO on matters relating to the health care of refugees. It also provides for WHO support in negotiations on health care services with Governments and for coordination with WHO in efforts to integrate beneficiary health care activities with the national health services. To this effect, WHO will, where possible, expand its ongoing support and assistance to Governments, including for their programmes benefiting local host populations. In addition, WHO will provide technical support and short-term assistance at the request of UNHCR. UNHCR, to the extent possible and practical, will provide logistical and other support to WHO staff members concerned.

19. Cooperation between the two agencies has led to the introduction of a number of joint guidelines and protocols. WHO has also participated in assessment missions, in the identification and control of epidemics and in evaluation exercises of ongoing programmes in the Great Lakes region of Africa. It also stationed epidemiologists in several camps for Rwandan refugees.

E. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

20. The Memorandum of Understanding between UNDP and UNHCR, entitled Framework for Operational Cooperation between UNHCR and UNDP, was signed in April 1997, superseding the UNHCR/UNDP Cooperation with Regard to Development Activities Affecting Refugees and Returnees of November 1987.

21. The 1987 agreement was based on the premise that UNHCR would seek UNDP involvement when UNHCR projects had achieved their objectives and could be phased out in favour of long-term development. Given the changing operational requirements of humanitarian assistance and development, and the increased recognition of the need for humanitarian and developmental initiatives to proceed in parallel rather than sequentially, the two agencies decided to broaden the agreement. It now provides a framework, inter alia, for efforts to enhance early warning; to address the negative effect of large inflows of refugees on hosting areas; to promote reintegration and post conflict recovery; and to foster an early and smooth phase out of humanitarian assistance.

22. The MOU sets out the basic principles for cooperation. It aims to ensure, practical cooperation at the field-level that produces results to the benefit of the refugees and needy target populations. The framework is meant to provide a foundation for cooperation on which country offices can build situation-specific collaboration agreements and structures.

23. One example of a local MOU, is that signed between UNDP and UNHCR in Rwanda in March 1997, focusing on rehabilitation, reintegration of returnees and a timely phase out of humanitarian assistance. Although it was concluded just before the signing of the global MOU, it was a direct offspring of the process leading to the latter agreement.

F. United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM)

24. The MOU between UNHCR and UNIFEM was signed in November 1993. UNIFEM, given its expertise in promoting economic and political empowerment of women, was an obvious partner for UNHCR in targeting refugee and returnee women. The main objectives of the agreement are to provide gender training, exchange technical information, promote the knowledge and managerial capacity of organizations with regard to the provision of services to refugee women, and to encourage the integration of programmes for refugee and returnee women in national women-in-development plans.

25. The MOU is a broad framework, which has served as a point of reference in the planning of joint activities. UNHCR cooperates with UNIFEM in the maintenance of a gender disaggregated database, as well as in gender-awareness training for implementing partners, NGOs, United Nations agencies and government personnel. Raising of public awareness of the plight of female asylum-seekers, refugees and returnees and displaced women is another area where the two agencies have been cooperating in the framework of the MOU. To this effect they have, together with the Organization of African Unity, the Economic Commission for Africa, and the Ford Foundation, collaborated in the organization of the First Regional Conference on the Legal Status of Refugee and Internally Displaced Woman in Africa held August 1995, and the resulting publication Legal Status of Refugee and Internally Displaced Woman in Africa. The two agencies are increasingly cooperating on the theme of women in peace-building. There have, for example, been training activities in Burundi and Rwanda in conflict-resolution and peace-building. A joint inter-agency workshop is planned in November 1997 to document the best practices of women in peace-building.

G. International Organization for Migration (IOM)

26. In May 1997, IOM and UNHCR concluded an MOU aimed at governing the relations between the two institutions. The agreement provides a broad framework for achieving complementarity of activities worldwide.

27. The MOU, reflects the long-standing close relationship between the two agencies. It delineates respective responsibilities in relation to refugees, migrants, asylum seekers, returnees and internally displaced persons and outlines areas of cooperation. Possible foreseen areas of collaboration relate, inter alia, to prevention, contingency planning, institutional capacity-building, internally displaced persons, in-country processing for organized departure, voluntary repatriation and reintegration, and resettlement. The agreement also provides for joint information campaigns aimed at people of concern to both organizations.

28. The MOU is by design a broad framework for cooperation. The agreement is not, in itself, highly operational, and much of the UNHCR/IOM cooperation is governed by specific project agreements, but the MOU specifically recognizes that it can be extended through field-level letters of understanding. IOM and UNHCR will hold a meeting to review the MOU in mid-September 1997.


29. The MOUs briefly analyzed above, are similar where their general structure is concerned. They all make a reference to the mandates of each organization, define the scope of the activities covered and set out the responsibilities of both organizations in terms of beneficiary groups, geographical area or sectoral activities. Beneficiary groups, covered in the MOUs concluded by UNHCR, are refugees, returnees, internally displaced persons and, to a very limited extent, affected local host populations.

30. Apart from operational collaboration, activities typically addressed in MOUs include, joint contingency planning, joint needs assessments, development of standards and guidelines and sharing of information. Public information aspects and fund-raising issues, which can be of a joint or agency-specific nature, are also addressed.

31. MOUs differ, however, in terms of their specificity, operationality and scope. Whereas the MOU between UNHCR and WFP is highly operational, the agreement with UNFPA, for example, is of a general nature. The MOU between UNHCR and UNDP covers a wide range of sectors and establishes principles for cooperation, but is not in itself highly operational. As it aims to be a general framework, needing further operationalization, it specifically calls for the development of country-level MOUs of a highly operational nature. Another example is the agreement with UNICEF which is highly specific in some areas (the provision of measles vaccination), but provides a general framework in other sectors.

32. Despite these wide variations, the level of specificity and operationality of the MOUs is an indication of how far the agencies have gone in their collaboration beyond mere expressions of good intent. The recently concluded MOUs are much more specific than the past generation of MOUs, which tended to be pro forma documents characterized by generalities. In addition, the number of country-specific MOUs which have been concluded, complementing the global frameworks, are another indication of the progress made by agencies in forging coherent and predictable operational linkages.

33. Regular, joint reviews of operational experiences within the framework of a MOU, and measured against the objectives set out therein, provide an opportunity for evaluation of the performance by each partner. Such joint reviews, in turn, contribute to greater operationality of MOUs, though relevant refinements and revisions of the provisions of the MOU. The goal of such reviews is to enhance, where possible, the predictability and automaticity of respective interventions.

34. UNHCR's experience suggests that MOUs, complemented where necessary by country specific agreements, can make a significant contribution to ensuring a timely, effective and well coordinated operation. With the exception of the World Bank, where significantly strengthened cooperation agreements will shortly be the subject of a joint communication to staff from the President and the High Commissioner, the current MOUs already cover UNHCR's main operational intergovernmental partners. UNHCR and its partners will continue to keep the effectiveness and relevance of the provisions of the MOUs under review, both generally and against the experiences of specific operations.

1 E/1997/98, para 15.