Refugees Magazine Issue 97 (NGOs and UNHCR) - NGOs: our right arm

From Rwanda to Afghanistan to Guatemala, non-governmental organizations are everywhere UNHCR operates. Without them, UNHCR would be totally impotent.

From Rwanda to Afghanistan to Guatemala, non-governmental organizations are everywhere UNHCR operates. Without them, UNHCR would be totally impotent.

By Christiane Berthiaume

They are UNHCR's right arm, often working behind the scenes in remote and dangerous places with little or no fanfare. Without them, UNHCR would be totally impotent.

From Rwanda to Afghanistan, from Bosnia to Liberia, from Guatemala to Georgia, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are everywhere UNHCR operates. They are the ones who turn UNHCR plans into action in all the different areas of refugee assistance. In recognition of their invaluable work on behalf of refugees, UNHCR's Nansen Medal was awarded to an NGO, Médecins Sans Frontières, in 1993.

In refugee camps, NGOs distribute food, clothing, blankets and tents. They care for the sick, bandage the wounded, set up hospitals and schools, dig latrines and drill wells. In crisis situations, they are often the only channel of information to the rest of the world.

Elsewhere, NGOs help refugees to secure the right of asylum, to find jobs and housing, to place their children in schools, to integrate in their new societies. They also help UNHCR to promote asylum standards and fair treatment of refugees.

Hundreds of thousands of NGO workers are involved directly or indirectly in alleviating the suffering of refugees. They include large international organizations such as Médecins Sans Frontières, CARE, Oxfam, Caritas, Save the Children and the International Rescue Committee, as well as smaller local agencies like National Red Cross and Red Crescent Committees.

UNHCR works in close collaboration with some 300 such organizations throughout the world. They account for more than one-quarter of UNHCR's budget - or over $300 million last year.

NGO partners around the world
By sector of activity as of April 1994
SectorsAfricaAsia & OceaniaEurope & North AmericaLatin America*Swaname
Food26131114
Transport and Logistics461621714
Domestic needs
Household support
321592711
Water (non-agricultural)22959
Sanitation219513
Health - Nutrition552882921
Shelter
Other infrastructure
28141119
Community services3217181210
Education422742116
Crop production24155
Livestock- Animal husbandry332
Fisheries22
Forestry522
Income generation26432111
Legal assistance
Protection
131217192
Agency operational support452453032
* Southwest Asia, North Africa, Middle East.

UNHCR's relationship with NGOs can be likened to that of an architect with sub-contractors. "UNHCR itself does not have the hundreds of doctors needed to care for refugees from places like Somalia, Rwanda or Liberia, who flee in droves and end up wounded, sick and starving in poor neighbouring countries," said Santiago Romero-Perez, UNHCR's NGO Coordinator.

"And we don't have the fleets of trucks required to transport food and aid to refugee camps in remote areas. We don't have sufficient staff to distribute the food either, and we've never planned to do it ourselves. We have to rely on specialized humanitarian aid organizations."

The NGO role in UNHCR operations goes well beyond assistance. NGOs that are well-established in the field, for example, are a valuable source of information in a brewing emergency. "Very often, they will be the first to inform us, the only ones on the spot to defend the refugee cause before governments," noted Dessalegn Chefeke, the director of UNHCR's Regional Bureau for the Americas and the Caribbean. "Religious groups, village priests and local NGOs on the spot are the ones who first receive the refugees," he said. "Therefore, it is they who are in the best position to inform us of conditions and problems, so that we can send in a well-briefed relief team."

The NGOs also play a valuable preventive role, sounding the alarm when floods of refugees appear on the horizon. Repeated violations of human rights, signs of a poor crop or an upsurge of ethnic violence are early warnings that the NGOs are often the first to detect.

In the emergency phase of a refugee crisis, their quick intervention often saves many lives. Because of their size and flexibility, NGOs can react immediately and supply essential relief.

Thanks to the presence of the non-governmental organizations who were already working in Tanzania on 28 April of this year, scores of lives were saved among the 250,000 Rwandese refugees who crossed the border within 24 hours to escape the massacres. At the time, this was the biggest and fastest movement of refugees in the history of UNHCR.

The UNHCR relief personnel who were on site to attend to the needs of the refugees who had fled from Burundi in October 1993, in the wake of an abortive coup, would never have been able to cope alone with such a disaster.

NGOs are UNHCR's antennae. "UNHCR cannot be everywhere," admits Ivor C. Jackson, former assistant director of UNHCR's Division of International Protection. "NGOs are the ones to set off the alarm. They draw our attention to the case of a refugee who requires protection in a given country, which in turn enables us to act on his behalf before the government authorities."

As a lobby group, NGOs also play a significant role. "NGOs push governments to adopt more generous refugee policies," says Chefeke. "Their actions, press campaigns and hunger strikes compelled the U.S. government to review its position on Haitian boat-people and to stop systematic deportations. They are also the ones who act on behalf of UNHCR before the governments to secure the release of additional funds for UNHCR programmes. They are a tremendous support to us."

UNHCR's partnership with NGOs dates back decades. In fact, NGOs were instrumental in the establishment of UNHCR. At the beginning of the century, following the massive migrations triggered by the Balkan wars in 1912, it was the NGOs who demanded that an international organization be set up to protect and assist refugees.

Along with the Russian Revolution and the failed counterrevolution in 1917 came the largest exodus yet - almost 1 million people - combined with population movements which followed the fall of the Ottoman Empire. And the NGOs were rapidly overwhelmed.

At that point, charity organizations gathered in Geneva and, headed by Gustave Ador, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, made an appeal to the League of Nations. Six months later, in August 1921, at their instigation, the League appointed the first High Commissioner for Refugees, Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen.

But Nansen could not act single-handedly. He did not have the necessary funding. The League had only granted him a few thousand pounds sterling to pay his staff. When he took up office on 1 September 1921, he had to appeal to the charitable organizations to help the Russian refugees scattered throughout the Balkans.

Later, when the issue of broadening the High Commissioner's mandate arose, some 30 non-governmental organizations took part in drafting the 1951 Convention. Cooperation between NGOs and UNHCR was even enshrined in the Statute. Indeed, Article 8 of the Statute provides that UNHCR must seek solutions to the refugees' problems in collaboration with, among others, non-governmental organizations.

"At the outset," Jackson said, "NGOs were mainly national in scope: each one took on responsibility for a specific group of refugees belonging to a given nationality. Local NGOs actually provided the assistance - housing, jobs, schools - whereas, international NGOs were involved essentially in resettling. They would even put together refugees' applications. These were for the most part the major church-sponsored NGOs (the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the Quaker International Affairs Center, the National Catholic Welfare Conference) which had extensive contacts throughout the world that proved priceless in resettlement operations."

In the course of time, collaboration between NGOs and UNHCR intensified and changed with the explosion in refugee numbers.

Twenty-five years ago, there were 2.5 million refugees in the world. Today, there are 23 million, not including the 25 to 30 million displaced people. At present, UNHCR works with 104 NGOs in Africa, 85 in Europe, 66 in Asia, 45 in Latin America, and 55 in the Middle East in areas such as health, education, food supply, water supply, shelter, transportation and legal aid.

However, past and present relations between UNHCR and NGOs have not always been perfectly harmonious. At times they are difficult, even tense - due in part to their different roles. Moreover, NGOs have no specific mandate and can subsequently adopt a more flexible approach.

"NGOs do not always understand our constraints," UNHCR's Chefeke explained. "They often criticize, without realizing that, while a given solution we put forth for a specific case may not be ideal, it is often the lesser of evils and the best for the refugees."

In addition, UNHCR's bureaucracy, its red tape, the delays in making decisions, are nothing but obstacles for NGOs in effectively carrying out operations. "And this is serious in a crisis situation in which the lives of refugees are at stake," said Delmar Blasco, executive director of the International Council of Volunteer Agencies (ICVA).

NGOs often feel that they are being under-utilized, while, on the other hand, actions launched by some ill-prepared NGOs can jeopardize UNHCR operations. In an effort in which no one would dare question the generous intention, but which lacked vision, some NGOs with no preparation evacuated children and sick people from the territory of ex-Yugoslavia, thereby complicating further UNHCR's task. Some of these children reached foreign countries without official documents or identification. Today, relocating their families has become a nightmare for UNHCR, ICRC and others who are left to clean up the mess.

However, these differences are not necessarily incompatible. "Our roles, though different, are complementary, making us ideal partners," High Commissioner Sadako Ogata told a 6 June meeting of nearly 200 NGOs in Oslo.

Unlike UNHCR, NGOs are for the most part not financed by governments and enjoy a measure of independence that UNHCR has never had. Moreover, if humanitarian assistance is to be effective, there must be an international organization in charge of coordinating efforts and avoiding duplication.

"As we cannot do anything in isolation, let us attempt to build together on our differences," said Jean-Noël Wetterwald, a former chief of the UNHCR NGO Section and now UNHCR representative in Indonesia. "Let us join our strengths since basically we share the same objectives: to protect and assist refugees. Given the magnitude and frequency of crises, now is the time to review our collaboration to ensure greater efficiency."

From this idea the PARinAC (Partnership in Action) broad consultation process emerged, spanning 12 months and culminating in a summit meeting in Oslo in June. "These conferences have enabled all to appreciate and better understand each other's role and mandates, to reduce the level of tension and suspicion, and above all to pave the way for the future," said Gil Loescher, an academic who specializes in refugee issues and a UNHCR consultant for the PARinAC consultations.

Following the unprecedented scale of refugee movements over the past few years - between 1989 and 1992, more than 82 wars have broken out, 79 of which derived from internal conflicts - UNHCR must face new challenges which it cannot take on alone. "Our partnership with the NGOs is an essential element in our humanitarian strategy for the coming years," stated Mrs. Ogata in Oslo.

Such a partnership also relies, among other things, on strengthening NGOs, especially local ones.

The crucial part played by international NGOs is well established, while the invaluable role of the local NGOs is much less so. Very often, the local NGOs are entrusted with the lower profile work, laying out the boundaries of a camp, unloading and distributing tents, digging latrines, building roads, drilling wells and writing reports. Once the refugees' survival is ensured, the local NGOs then help them to improve their living conditions, offering them education, income-generating activities, social services and other programmes.

Because of their wealth of experience and efficiency, UNHCR often calls upon the major international organizations when a crisis situation arises. These have the necessary staff and resources to react at the shortest notice to pressing refugee needs. But once the crisis is under control, the international NGOs often withdraw. They pack up and leave the scene of disaster to tend to another emergency situation somewhere else. Someone must fill the gap they leave behind. Local NGOs remain on the spot and take over.

But these are less favoured than their major international counterparts. They cannot draw on the same resources, hence cannot grow at the same pace. Fortunately, an increasing number of international NGOs, aware of their own limitations, hire helpers locally and train personnel on the spot. UNHCR encourages this type of initiative.

Local NGOs do indeed have a number of intrinsic advantages over the international relief organizations: they speak the same language as the refugees they are assisting and know their culture and their traditions as well as local susceptibilities. Their personal commitment tends to be stronger - after all, it is their country and future which are at stake.

NGOs can also consider problems in a broader context. United Nations specialized agencies such as UNHCR are limited by their very mandate. Thus UNHCR is not a development agency. NGOs can bridge the gap, acting as the missing link.

Some countries have not readily accepted NGO involvement. Others are only just starting to work with them. Perceived as a nuisance, NGOs do not always enjoy the trust of governments. UNHCR, in collaboration with a number of NGOs, is embarking on a major information scheme in the former communist bloc countries, where it has proven difficult to explain how private organizations can take up where the welfare state leaves off.

Given the proliferation of crises and the limitations of resources on all sides, the future will demand enhanced cooperation and coordination between NGOs and UNHCR, for the greater benefit of refugees. As UNHCR's Romero-Perez puts it, "The more effectiveness the NGOs can muster, the better we will be able to do ourselves."

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 97 (1994)