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Evaluation of UNHCR's Efforts on Behalf of Children and Adolescents

Executive Committee Meetings

Evaluation of UNHCR's Efforts on Behalf of Children and Adolescents

15 August 1997



1. The importance of more effectively addressing the needs of children and adolescents has become increasingly evident in recent years. Complex situations involving failed States and ethnic conflicts only too frequently mean that children and adolescents are targeted in armed conflict as well as involved as fighters.

2. To better address these issues UNHCR has created organizational focal points for refugee children, revised its guidelines and subsequently developed a number of policies and procedures aimed at improving the care provided. Despite these efforts, there is a growing awareness within relief organizations and among donors that substantially more is required of the international community.

3. The challenge of meeting the needs of children are apparent when considering the number of persons involved and the range of problems they are confronted with. Children and adolescents currently make up more than half of the displaced and war-affected populations with whom UNHCR is concerned. While their needs often overlap with those of adults, children and adolescents also encounter distinct protection and assistance problems which require particular attention and expertise.

4. As a consequence, the High Commissioner requested that an evaluation be carried out focusing on protection and community support for children and adolescents of concern to UNHCR. In order to marshal the required expertise, the evaluation was carried out by UNHCR's Inspection and Evaluation Service in partnership with the Senior Coordinator for Refugee Children and the International Save the Children Alliance. The aim of the exercise was to identify ways in which protection activities and community support efforts on behalf of children and adolescents could be improved.

5. In carrying out the evaluation, teams were formed that included staff from the UNHCR Evaluation Unit and the International Save the Children Alliance as well as a former UNHCR staff member and advisor to both UNHCR and UNICEF on issues relating to children. During the review, the team undertook missions to a number of West and East African countries, the former Yugoslavia, Central America, Central Asia and Sri Lanka. In addition, the team visited the headquarters of a number of key agencies, including UNICEF, the Department of Humanitarian Affairs (DHA), and UNDP in order to secure the views of essential partners.


6. The evaluation team concluded that despite positive examples of UNHCR's efforts to protect and assist children and adolescents, there are many situations in which the particular risks they face are not fully recognized or addressed. In numerous instances, policies and programmes could be improved through a better understanding of the populations and their strategies for coping.

7. In the final analysis children and adolescents are often the group most severely affected when the international community responds slowly or inadequately. Furthermore, if their needs are not sufficiently addressed, disaffected young people, without education or future prospects, will invariably prolong cycles of violence. It is, therefore, imperative that the Office reinforce, institutionalize and replicate the many positive efforts that have been made on behalf of children.

A. Protection

8. The review found that the problems of child soldiers, sexual violence, and exploitation are widespread. In all regions, children and adolescents are recruited or abducted to be fighters, and sexual abuse is common. In addition, field missions also observed a number of other serious problems specific to minors which are often inconsistently addressed. Among the most common problems identified are the absence of birth registration, harmful child labour and inadequate access to education and other basic services. Also noted were a number of serious issues related to evacuation and separation which were often at the root of other protection problems.

9. The evaluation team noted with concern that in many recent conflicts the distinction between civilians and combatants has become increasingly blurred. Civilians, minors in particular, have been frequently targeted, militarized and involved in perpetuating conflict. The former Yugoslavia and the Great Lakes region are recent examples of situations where discerning the victims from the aggressors has often been extremely difficult.

10. Although UNHCR staff continue to be seriously concerned about problems such as military recruitment and sexual violence, there is nevertheless often a feeling that there is little they can do to prevent such problems. Recently, however, a better understanding of these issues and means of addressing them have begun to emerge. In particular, advocacy and the innovative use of assistance have in many instances been successfully employed to improve security. Furthermore, by focusing greater attention on young refugees, UNHCR can emphasize to all parties the need for a neutral assistance programme.

11. The team concluded that a strong and well informed protection presence is needed to identify and address the specific problems faced by minors. To increase their effectiveness, staff members require a better understanding of operational approaches that can be used to protect children and adolescents. For example, targeting assistance packages to the most vulnerable family groups in an emergency can prevent separations. The early deployment of an adequate number of Protection Officers conversant with policies and approaches relating to minors can help identify and document separated minors. They can also make interim arrangements for separated minors and, where possible, reunite them with surviving family members. When combined with regional systems their effectiveness can be increased even further.

12. UNHCR's direct interventions are strategically important in addressing these protection issues, but alone they are not enough. It is essential that Governments, other international organizations, NGOs and affected populations are also engaged in preventing and responding to these problems. The team nonetheless concluded that it is imperative for UNHCR to assume the leadership role in advocating action, mobilizing resources, ensuring collaboration among other actors, as well as intervening directly when required.

B. Assistance

13. The material assistance and community services provided to children and adolescents also require greater attention. Shortcomings in education, for example, have been highlighted in a recent UNHCR evaluation. Only a quarter of UNHCR assisted minors, 6-17 years of age, attend school, and boys outnumber girls in school two to one. The evaluation argued that education and other structured activities need to be diversified and increased to meet the needs of different groups of minors. The evaluation highlighted the role that structured activities and education play in prevention and recovery. The team also stressed that in the longer term, strategic use of education, training and information campaigns to promote tolerance and conflict resolution among children and adolescents could help to facilitate durable solutions and consolidate peace.

14. While nutrition and health are generally seen as areas where the particular needs of children are adequately recognized, the team noted that there is much room for improvement. Most of the problems, however, revolve around systemic supply and food management issues. In most cases, solutions entail better assessments, increasing supplies and improving all aspects of food distribution systems. Although the team made a number of useful proposals, they recognize that substantial progress will require greater commitment by UNHCR, other United Nations agencies, and donors.

15. The evaluation's findings consistently highlighted the inter-relationship between assistance and protection. Without education, structured activities, ample food and clothing and income-generating activities, problems of recruitment and exploitation are invariably present.

C. External Linkages

16. The evaluation underscored the importance of bringing more technical, human and financial resources to bear on the needs of children and adolescents. To do this, UNHCR must consistently and creatively find ways of collaborating and building linkages with Governments, international organizations, donor agencies and NGOs. The evaluation drew particular attention to the importance of coordination with UNICEF and NGOs such as the International Save the Children Alliance. For example, the team highlighted the usefulness of collaboration between UNICEF and UNHCR in the areas of joint advocacy, training and standard setting.

17. The team proposed that UNHCR develop more structured relationships with selected NGO partners in order to strengthen programmes that are of particular importance to children and adolescents. Partnership arrangements between UNHCR and NGOs could increase capacity and consistency in many areas. Partnerships could, for example, be developed in the areas of situational analysis, structured activities, education, prevention of family separation and family reunifications. Among the suggestions made to strengthen UNHCR's operational capacity are secondments of child and adolescent welfare and education specialists to UNHCR.

18. The evaluation stressed the importance of using situational analysis in developing programmes. Greater use of situation analysis rather than narrow needs assessment, would provide a better basis for conceptualizing programmes for children and adolescents within a strategic framework. Applying the analysis would help identify particular needs and capacities and would consider their relationships with the local population. It would also allow an integrated view of the demographic, socio-economic and cultural context, including sources of household livelihood and traditional welfare structures. Finally, the team emphasized that by more thoroughly analysing situations, UNHCR would be in a much better position to give serious and informed attention to the impact of what it does and chooses not to do.

D. Organizational Development

19. Within UNHCR, the problems specific to minors often receive inadequate attention. Many staff are unacquainted with UNHCR's operational policies and procedures regarding minors. Too frequently, the issue is seen as a concern of Social Services staff and is assigned to junior programme officers and United Nations volunteers who have limited influence. As a consequence, broad programme and protection issues are often inadequately addressed.

20. The evaluation concluded that substantial change would require the commitment and support of senior management. The team also argued that protection officers will require more familiarity with policies and guidelines as well as an understanding of concrete steps they can take to prevent problems. Many opportunities also exist to make better use of the Convention on the Rights of the Child for advocacy and in programme development. The Convention imposes standards on Governments, and its near universal ratification gives it even wider utility as a basis for advocacy than the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol.

21. Much greater recognition and attention must also be given to Community Services Officers and the important role they play in mobilizing community support. In many instances, community services personnel are not consistently deployed early enough or in adequate numbers. Problems are aggravated by the assignment of inexperienced officers or staff whose skills are more suited to a traditional social services role where attention is focused on individuals.

22. The evaluation team concluded that greater efforts should be made to recruit and deploy staff with relevant backgrounds. These efforts could be combined with initiatives to train and provide additional guidance to existing staff along with secondment arrangements with NGOs aimed at strengthening UNHCR's community services capacity.

23. The many guidelines on the protection and care of refugee children were criticized by the evaluation team as being overlapping. Furthermore, their combined volume is overwhelming. As a consequence, existing materials only serve as reference documents occasionally consulted by specialized staff. Much needed is a single set of programme development guidelines that integrate the most essential lessons of the various existing materials along with a concise operationally oriented checklist, encapsulating key policies and the action required.

24. Finally, the team proposed that implementation of UNHCR's policies on refugee children and adolescents should be properly monitored both at the level of programmes and individual performance. This could be addressed through incorporating performance objectives and indicators into the new Operation Management System (OMS). Through such a system, the impact of UNHCR activities on children could be assessed and used as an important measure of UNHCR's commitment to minors.


25. To address the many issues involved, the evaluation made a number of detailed and far-reaching recommendations that include the development of an integrated multi-year plan of action. The plan would incorporate the evaluation report's recommendations and include specific objectives and indicators for measuring implementation progress and impact. Among the issues addressed in the evaluation's many recommendations are:

(a) Measures to improve the protection of children and adolescents beginning with an initial focus on:

(i) recruitment;

(ii) sexual violence, exploitation and abuse; and

(iii) birth registration and identity documents.

(b) Suggestions regarding the activities and budget support required in the early stages of an emergency as well as the development of an activity kit;

(c) Initiatives to improve the nutritional status of children through better analysis of the demographic make-up of camps, household surveys to determine levels of need and improved food distribution systems;

(d) Increased efforts in identifying, protecting and caring for separated children and adolescents as well as steps to improve family reunification that include regional networks where there is displacement across borders;

(e) Steps to expand structured relationships with NGOs with child and adolescent expertise as well as to ensure that UNHCR deploys an adequate number of suitably qualified staff;

(f) Efforts to develop planning and management tools concerning children and adolescents as part of the new UNHCR Operations Management System, as well as the development of training modules and initiatives with the International Save the Children Alliance;

(g) Further discussions with UNICEF to identify specific steps that can be taken to realize the potential of the memoranda of understanding between the two agencies. Efforts should focus primarily on advocacy, standard setting and training.

26. Also recommended, were a number of practical, operationally oriented guidelines and materials that would ensure staff familiarity with policies and guidelines regarding children and adolescents, as well as the Convention on the Rights of the Child.