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Refugees Magazine Issue 97 (NGOs and UNHCR) - New challenges, new vision

Refugees Magazine Issue 97 (NGOs and UNHCR) - New challenges, new vision
Refugees (97, III - 1994)

1 September 1994
The Danish Refugee Council looks at the Partnership in Action process, which is aimed at bolstering the traditional relationship between UNHCR and NGOs.

The Danish Refugee Council looks at the Partnership in Action process, which is aimed at bolstering the traditional relationship between UNHCR and NGOs.

By Danish Refugee Council

The Partnership in Action (PARinAC) process, which culminated with the June 1994 conference in Oslo, is an example of how UNHCR and the NGOs have again reviewed their relationship in order to see if it responds adequately to the new challenges of today's refugee situation. It involves an honest critique of the partnership, an assessment of its strengths and weaknesses, and recommendations for new approaches.

The strengths and weaknesses in the UNHCR-NGO partnership are not always easy to determine since what is a weakness in one refugee situation may be a strength in another. Relations may also vary from place to place due to differences in attitude between individuals staffing UNHCR or NGO field offices.

There is, however, a certain consensus about the aspects of the partnership that have recently been proving problematic. Very briefly these may be summarized as follows:

Over the years, UNHCR, in responding to continually evolving refugee situations, as well as its fundamental task of refugee protection, has tended to concentrate on developing its operational capacity and structures for providing material assistance to refugees.

This trend in UNHCR towards constant growth in staff and budgets geared to assistance needs has been problematic in that it has made the organization heavier and at times less suited to performing its traditional role. In addition to meeting the increasing challenges of rapid response and disaster prevention, the organization's ability to fulfil the primary task of its mandate, that of refugee protection, may be jeopardized.

This is especially true of UNHCR's overall performance in Europe, where the lack of a proper strategy - such as a comprehensive plan of action and adequate responses to the many restrictive government measures aimed at refugees - has affected European NGOs' confidence in UNHCR's refugee protection efforts.

The NGOs, on the other hand, sometimes work in isolation, and try to protect their own turf. They also have a tendency to proliferate without always ensuring they do not overlap with each other or, conversely, that they are covering all the elements necessary for sustainable solutions.

Even though resources have grown sparser compared with the needs of the refugees, it took years before the NGOs began to coordinate efficiently and accept UNHCR as the focal point for cooperation - for example in Thailand and the Horn of Africa. Some NGOs seem to have difficulties in believing they can maintain their identity, fulfil the expectations of their constituencies and continue to raise more money if they cooperate actively with other agencies.

UNHCR-NGO cooperation is often governed by separate implementation agreements between UNHCR and many different NGOs. This can result in cumbersome administration and an incoherent approach to solving the particular problems raised by different refugee operations.

Given the increasing complexity of today's refugee crises and the sheer volume of humanitarian tasks facing international agencies and NGOs, PARinAC was not only timely but unavoidably necessary.

In general PARinAC fulfilled its aims. Constructive recommendations were made concerning UNHCR-NGO cooperation based on real partnership in all aspects of national, regional and international refugee protection and assistance.

UNHCR and the hundreds of NGO participants committed themselves to closer, more open collaboration in all phases of refugee programmes, from planning and training through implementation to evaluation. The underlying principles of transparency and accountability were stressed.

The continued success of PARinAC now depends on whether the new spirit and new forms of cooperation embedded in the Oslo recommendations are communicated to all corners of the UNHCR-NGO partnership, and whether they are received in the same spirit of cooperation in which they were born.

Already, NGO follow-up committees have been established with the aim of working out, together with UNHCR's regional offices, how to implement the Oslo recommendations, and further develop and sustain the closer relations that resulted from the regional PARinAC conferences that prededed Oslo.

The Oslo recommendations also inject fresh energy and ideas into existing initiatives and relations. Thus, a number of refugee councils and other NGOs have, over the last couple of years, been devising new approaches to traditional UNHCR-NGO structures of cooperation which would be more flexible and efficient, and meet the need to bridge gaps and grey areas in the continuum of refugee assistance.

The new ideas include a type of broker mechanism in the form of a "Consortium Clearing House." This would bring together NGOs and U.N. agencies with the aim of ensuring that, when a refugee crisis occurs, the right blend of people and organizations are in the right place at the right time. The Clearing House structure could include a board of representatives from UNHCR, UNDP, other U.N. agencies and international NGO bodies such as ICVA, as well as regional NGO structures.

UNHCR, which is often the lead agency in such situations, would then be able to draw on resources specifically tailored to the crisis in question. Such a consortium could help prevent unnecessary overlap between NGOs offering similar skills and, more importantly, ensure that vital sectors - water, health, sanitation, shelter - are not neglected simply because, as sometimes happens now, no NGO with the required expertise comes forward to offer its services. It could also help smooth out the transition from initial relief via development assistance to durable solutions.

While a similar process occurs now, it tends to be more haphazard, and its overall efficiency varies considerably from one crisis to the next. Earlier NGO participation in overall planning would help identify problems associated with and compensate for, say, a lack (or a glut) of local NGOs, or particularly difficult or little-known terrain.

An essential element of the "clearing" process would be a databank containing detailed information about organizations, experts and support staff, their specialized know-how and their availability, along the lines of the so-called "refugee relief map" suggested by UNHCR. Accumulated evaluation and experiences would also be fed back into the clearing house databank where, by adding to, or correcting, existing information, it would further improve the fertile mass of data that could then be tapped in a continual effort to improve performance.

The databank would not be limited to information from and about associated agencies and individuals or officially recognized NGOs, but would also include information on knowledgeable local people and agencies, and in some cases people who have themselves been refugees.

The model described above implies changes in traditional roles and would introduce new partners. The participation of agencies such as UNDP and the World Bank will hopefully ensure that refugee assistance may happen in a continuum without gaps and grey areas, and that work will continue long after UNHCR has phased out because of the limits imposed by its mandate and restricted funding.

In addition, UNHCR's problematic, direct involvement in operations might gradually be replaced by a more mediatory overall role coordinating, facilitating and monitoring operations. The actual running of the many and varied refugee operations involved would then be in the hands of local and regional NGOs.

For UNHCR, this model implies honouring the enormous and specialized field expertise that many NGOs possess and which they transfer and adapt when shifting operations from one region of the world to another, for example from Central America to Viet Nam, Cambodia or Mozambique. NGO staff often have broader and longer experience than UNHCR staff. On the other hand, the model also honours and makes better use of UNHCR's expertise in overall planning and conceptualization.

It also makes maximum use of the close contact that local and regional NGOs have with the refugees, and their ability to mobilize resources within the refugee and local communities.

Such an approach would show greater respect for the views and aspirations of the refugees themselves, which would be channelled through NGO staff who have direct daily contact with individual refugees.

This new vision would also imply the need for NGOs to honour UNHCR's responsibility for overall coordination, as well as requiring disciplined coordination among NGOs themselves. At times it would also mean having to accept the fact that some NGOs are better equipped than others to deal with particular refugee situations. It will facilitate indigenous NGOs' active participation in programme planning and implementation. This in turn will make UNHCR more inclined to work with them as partners, knowing that through the consortia system and databank, local NGOs can be supplemented with additional outside expertise. Similarly, this injection of expertise should encourage local NGOs to take part in controversial refugee problems, with obvious cultural and skill-transferal benefits for all involved. These local organizations will then be able gradually to join a worldwide network of experienced refugee-workers available to UNHCR.

This partnership initiative, devised by a group of NGOs and in many ways further encouraged by the PARinAC process, requires the recognition by the many and varied partners of their differences, in which - if the most appropriate permutations and combinations are used - lies their greatest strength.

It is important for us in any given refugee situation to identify those aspects of organizational and individual know-how which need to be further developed or strengthened, be it in local NGOs, in experienced international NGOs, or among planning experts, administrators, U.N. diplomats and UNHCR protection officers.

Refugee work is often so complex that no single organization can possibly master all its disciplines. Together we can achieve much more if we can complement and balance each other, in addition to mobilizing the resources which the refugees themselves possess. Such an attitude and approach should bring greater benefits to the people at whom all these efforts are aimed - the refugees and the displaced.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 97 (1994)