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Refugees Magazine Issue 102 (The high cost of caring) - Calling all donors

Refugees Magazine Issue 102 (The high cost of caring) - Calling all donors
Refugees (102, IV - 1995)

1 December 1995
The $10 million Chechnya Emergency Operation provides a good example of how UNHCR scrambles to assemble the funding, resources and staff necessary to begin saving lives and assisting and protecting victims of conflict.

The $10 million Chechnya Emergency Operation provides a good example of how UNHCR scrambles to assemble the funding, resources and staff necessary to begin saving lives and assisting and protecting victims of conflict.

By Ron Redmond

Bob White clearly remembers the first time he raised with Russian officials the possibility of providing international aid to victims of the bloody conflict in Chechnya.

White, UNHCR's Moscow-based senior programme officer at the time, was at a December 1994 briefing given by the head of the Russian Federal Migration Service, Tatiana Regent. Russian troops had crossed the border into Chechnya a few days earlier, on 11 December, and intense fighting had claimed many lives and driven more than 100,000 people into the neighbouring republics of Daghestan, Ingushetia and North Ossetia. Russia's own humanitarian agencies were having a tough time coping.

"Mrs. Regent told us how bad the situation was in Chechnya and the surrounding republics," White recalled. "Eventually, I asked if she thought there would be a need for international assistance, but she was non-committal. Then, a week or so later, on December 27, we suddenly received a government request from her agency for help. It was something of a surprise, but we immediately faxed the request to headquarters in Geneva."

So began the first ever United Nations humanitarian operation on Russian soil. Within days, UNHCR staff were on the ground and chartered airlift flights were delivering tons of aid to the region. From its somewhat shaky start in early January to its expected successful conclusion in 1996, the $10 million Chechnya Emergency Operation provides a good example of how UNHCR scrambles to assemble the funding, resources and staff necessary to begin saving lives and assisting and protecting the victims of conflict. It also illustrates how UNHCR is prepared to phase out a programme as soon as the task is completed.

Upon receipt in Geneva headquarters, UNHCR immediately forwarded the 27 December Russian aid request to the U.N. Secretary-General's office in New York. The tens of thousands of Chechens flooding into neighbouring republics were internally displaced, and not technically refugees because they had not crossed any international borders, but remained inside the territory of the Russian Federation. As such, they did not fall under UNHCR's traditional refugee mandate, and requests for the office's involvement were required from both the Moscow government and the Secretary-General. At the same time, high-level policy meetings were held in UNHCR Geneva to discuss whether the agency should get involved and, if so, to what extent.

Two days later, on 29 December, the Secretary-General formally requested UNHCR to respond to the Russian invitation by immediately fielding a mission to the region to assess the needs. It was also decided that direct deliveries - possibly by airlift - of humanitarian aid would begin as soon as possible.

The basic requirements met, UNHCR now had to find the money to begin a programme that as yet was not even on the drawing board, and for which absolutely no funding had been sought from donors. On 30 December, staff in UNHCR's Geneva-based Regional Bureau for Europe submitted a request to Deputy High Commissioner Gerald Walzer for $500,000 from UNHCR's $25 million emergency fund. The fund, set up to ensure a rapid response in emergency situations, provides up to $8 million per programme to bridge the gap between the actual start-up of an operation and the arrival of funding from donors. Authorization for the first $500,000 from the emergency fund was granted by Walzer the same day. Over the next several weeks, a total of $2.9 million would be drawn from the fund as UNHCR anxiously awaited the first donor contributions.

Emergency funds in hand, UNHCR staff began work in earnest. "First we got some costings on airlift flights and asked the Supply and Transport Section for a quick assessment of what UNHCR had available in our regional emergency stockpiles in the Netherlands and Turkey," recalled Didier Laye, the Geneva-based head of desk for the operation. "We planned to place some of those goods - standard relief items like soap, plastic sheeting, kitchen sets, medical supplies and blankets - on the first flights along with the equipment we needed to set up our office. At the same time, some of us prepared to fly to Moscow to help prepare the first assessment mission."

Supply and Transport Section staff made arrangements for an Ilyushin-76 cargo plane to be on standby in the Netherlands, advising the charter company to be ready to fly within 48 hours notice once the UNHCR assessment mission was on the ground. The first two charter flights, costing between $60,000 and $80,000 each, and the 69 metric tons of relief items they carried from UNHCR stockpiles in the Netherlands and Turkey would end up absorbing most of the initial $500,000 taken from the emergency fund.

To ensure that life-saving aid could reach the region as soon as possible, UNHCR's office of the controller granted some early exemptions that allowed the procurement of specific items without awaiting the standard contracts committee procedure. Generally, any purchase exceeding $70,000 must be approved by the contracts committee, either in Geneva or - if one has been set up - in the region involved. But the flexibility to grant certain exemptions is necessary in life-threatening emergencies, when every minute counts.

In UNHCR's regional office in Moscow, meanwhile, staff were facing frustrating delays in trying to arrange visa applications and travel permission for members of the assessment team from Geneva, Moscow and the Department of Humanitarian Affairs in New York. By 8 January, members of the team had assembled in Moscow but were still unable to fly to the region because of various bureaucratic delays and mixed signals from Russian authorities.

"There were some delays in the beginning on the Moscow end and it was frustrating because we wanted to do a needs assessment in a hurry so we could provide the aid and let donors know what was required," recalled Hasim Utkan, deputy director of UNHCR's Regional Bureau for Europe. "But you have to realize that this was really terra incognita for UNHCR, and that the Russians didn't know very much about us either. It took some time to lay the groundwork."

Finally, on 11 January, the 10-member UNHCR/DHA assessment mission arrived in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia. Despite some initial travel restrictions, which were later lifted by Russian authorities, the mission immediately began the task of determining the most urgent needs of the estimated 182,000 displaced persons in Ingushetia (130,000), North Ossetia (10,000) and Daghestan (42,000). If approved by headquarters, their conclusions would form the basis of a "flash appeal" for funds which would be launched on 1 February.

On January 15, four days after the arrival of the assessment mission, the first of more than a dozen UNHCR airlift flights touched down at Beslan Airport in Vladikavkaz with 39 metric tons of blankets, plastic sheeting, soap, medical kits, two generators and a UNHCR vehicle. Two days later, another 30 metric tons of supplies were flown in from UNHCR stockpiles in Turkey. On 19 January, UNHCR and its Russian partner, EMERCOM, ran their first aid convoy to displaced people living in terrible conditions in ill-equipped railway cars and a sports hall in Ingushetia.

Back in Geneva, meanwhile, a policy debate was under way on the nature, scope and time frame of UNHCR's involvement in the Chechnya operation.

"From the very beginning, we viewed this programme as a stop-gap measure that would try to help strengthen the capacity of the Russian aid agencies," Utkan recalled. "We did not want it to be a case of the U.N. coming in and taking over everything."

Even so, there was some doubt and disagreement over the impending programme. "There was some hesitation within the house," Utkan acknowledged. "There were many questions, which led to a certain degree of hesitancy. Will this programme get the necessary support and financing from the international community? How much will it cost? Will UNHCR have to go it alone, or will other U.N. agencies join us? There were worries about possible open-ended involvement. Were we getting ourselves into another Yugoslavia-type situation? Would we work inside Chechnya itself, or only with displaced in the surrounding republics? It took us a long time to allay all these fears and sort things out."

But because of these concerns, it was decided that the initial appeal for funding would cover only three months' duration - through April. In retrospect, many of those involved in the operation believe this short time frame was overly cautious. "In hindsight, three months didn't make a lot of sense," Utkan said. "Setting up a programme of at least six months from the start would have made much more sense in terms of donor response and overcoming all of the obstacles we would face working in an almost totally unknown area."

Back in Ingushetia, the assessment mission, led by UNHCR's Moscow-based Regional Representative Juan Amunategui, was busy compiling the list of requirements that would provide the basis for the 1 February "flash appeal." On 23 January, the team's initial recommendations were sent to headquarters, including a draft operations plan, project description and budget. On 26 January, headquarters confirmed that an appeal would be launched and that a UNHCR emergency response team would soon be sent to the region to begin implementing the new programme. The team would be accompanied by specialists from UNHCR's Programme and Technical Support Section who would further elaborate on the initial assessment findings.

Drawing up a budget for such a complicated operation requires experience and a fair degree of guesswork because of the many uncertainties. At the time, for example, there was no way of knowing how long the conflict would go on, how many people it would affect, where any new displaced people would go, which agencies would take part in the programme and whether any supplies could be locally procured. White said the team's first assessment report proposed a budget of approximately $14 million for the UNHCR programme, which covered traditional aid sectors such as food, transport and logistics, domestic items, health and nutrition, community services, legal assistance and protection, agency operational support and programme delivery costs.

Upon receiving the assessment team's report in Geneva, Senior Desk Officer Laye discussed the $14 million proposed budget with John Horekens, director of the Regional Bureau for Europe. Horekens, all too aware of the difficulties in raising funds for the scores of UNHCR programmes for more than 27 million refugees, displaced and others of concern worldwide, asked Laye to pare $2 million from the budget and then discuss it with UNHCR's Fund-Raising Service. Fund-raising staff, who deal on a daily basis with donors and are best able to estimate how much governments may be willing - and unwilling - to pay, told Laye that $12 million was too much. Fund- raising staff suggested an appeal figure of $7 million. Laye countered that $10 million was the bare-bones minimum required for humanitarian needs. Fund-raising agreed, and UNHCR's portion of the upcoming flash appeal would seek $9,995,000.

"New appeals have to be realistic," said Tony Land, the fund-raising officer currently responsible for the Caucasus region. "And it has to be seen in the context of UNHCR's overall annual budget of $1.3 billion and the difficulties in making sure that all the programmes covered under that budget are financed."

Land said the big question in starting any programme is knowing what level of funding to seek. "You have to be able to determine and define the basic emergency needs," he said. "If it's not an extended care and maintenance programme, donors must have the confidence that we are asking for the minimum humanitarian requirements."

Land and his fund-raising colleague, Anne Landouzy, also noted that it can cut two ways if the budget figure used in an appeal is not right on the mark. Too low and people suffer because basic needs are not met. Too high and a fully funded programme may provide refugees with a better standard of living than the surrounding local community, a problem that is especially relevant in the Third World. And an over-ambitious appeal can result in big shortfalls and an erosion in donor confidence.

In the case of the Chechnya operation, UNHCR's estimated requirements of approximately $10 million turned out to be right on the money, even though the amounts earmarked for various sectors in the first appeal later shifted as other U.N. agencies joined the operation and revised appeals were issued.

By the time the DHA-coordinated flash appeal was issued on 1 February, UNHCR and DHA had been joined by three other agencies - UNICEF, the World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organization (WHO). The five agencies appealed for a total of $23.6 million, nearly half of it for UNHCR programmes. In the meantime, the number of displaced Chechens in Ingushetia, North Ossetia and Daghestan had risen to nearly 200,000.

Unfortunately, the flash appeal did not receive an immediate response from donors. Despite regular information meetings for representatives of donor governments in both Geneva and Moscow, there was a gap of several weeks before the first substantial funds began flowing. The slowness in the initial response was attributed to a variety of factors, including donor confusion over the three-month duration of the operation.

UNHCR Moscow Representative Amunategui returned to the Russian capital in mid-January and immediately called a meeting to brief diplomatic missions, NGOs and other interested parties. Such meetings are essential in keeping donors informed on the progress of an operation. Eventually, information meetings for donor governments were held every Wednesday in Moscow, as well as on a regular basis in Geneva. Moscow-based donor representatives were also invited to inspect the operations first hand, an offer many of them accepted.

During the initial funding gap, UNHCR's 14-member emergency response team - which arrived in the region on 6 February - had to carefully husband what was left of the $2.9 million total provided by the emergency fund. It was a difficult period for the emergency team members, who had separated into two groups - one based in Vladikavkaz and the other in Makhachkala, Daghestan.

"The first three months, we had to make do with what little resources we had, and that made forward planning very difficult," recalled Senior Emergency Officer Nicholas Coussidis, the team leader. "The three-month time frame for the operation caused a lot of confusion and indecision until it was extended to six months in March. Donor funds didn't really start flowing until mid-April, and by then we were almost penniless. But once the donor money came in, we very quickly got up to operational speed and things went very well."

During the funding dry spell, the team members devoted much time and energy to establishing good working relations with their new Russian partners, especially the Ministry for Emergencies (EMERCOM) and the Federal Migration Service, and with the International Committee of the Red Cross and the other agencies operating in the region.

"If we had begun with a six-month programme and had more money up front at the start, we could have become more operational much sooner," Coussidis said. "But there was really a lot of groundwork to be laid, and the first weeks focused on us getting to know the Russian partners and them getting to know us, and on coordinating with ICRC and others so there was no overlap. In the long run, it paid off."

In addition, a logistics network was set up and 10 airlift flights arrived in the region between 15 January and 8 April, providing tons of relief goods for distribution by UNHCR and its Russian partners.

A lot of time was also spent investigating the possibility of procuring locally some of the aid supplies. When practical, UNHCR prefers to do as much local procurement as possible both to save money and to support the domestic economy. But very little was known about what was available in the North Caucasus region, let alone the quality and price. To help with the process, a procurement specialist from the Supply and Transport Section at headquarters flew to the region with the initial emergency response team to begin looking for suppliers. Eventually, UNHCR was able to purchase clothing, mattresses, towels, sheets, soap and other items on the local market. But it wasn't easy.

"First of all, getting the money in there to buy anything was very difficult because you can't transfer funds to the local banks," recalled Coussidis. "We had to hand-carry all the cash. Then, they wanted rubles for payment, not dollars, and exchanging money was a big headache. It took a lot of time. Suppliers broke contracts. Expected deliveries weren't made on time and promises weren't kept. But eventually we identified some reliable suppliers and established a network."

A contracts committee was established in Moscow to clear all local purchases up to $200,000. Anything above that had to be approved by Geneva.

Back in headquarters, UNHCR's senior programme officer for the Russian Federation, Chil Mirtenbaum, and the desk officer for Chechnya, Pascale Moreau, were overseeing the mountain of paperwork and clearances required to get the programme started and to keep it going.

"It was paper, paper and more paper at each step in the process," said Mirtenbaum, who has yet to set foot in the Chechnya region. "In the first two months, I helped facilitate the expenditure of $2 million without ever seeing even a single cent of it, nor even one relief item. From my perspective, the whole Chechnya experience so far has been on paper and on CNN. But all of that paperwork actually results in something positive; it gets concrete results very quickly."

Mirtenbaum and Moreau, who noted that there was no increase in headquarters staff to support the Chechnya operation, were acutely aware of the initial funding gap and tried to keep the field teams aware of the constraints.

"We were counting peanuts - micro-managing - all the way through," Moreau said. "All the donor contributions came together in one big group in April. Before that, the team was afraid to spend money because we did not know how far it would go."

Field team leader Coussidis said he and his colleagues on the ground had to set very strict priorities at first because there wasn't enough funding for everything. "As the funds became available only a bit at a time until April, we had to sit down together and decide which of our sectors should get the available money," he said. "It can cause morale problems when your staff works so hard to plan and prepare, and then you can't implement it."

The first contributions for the UNHCR Chechnya operation came from France ($87,566) and from a private Japanese donor ($101) on 31 December 1994. Nothing was received in January 1995, and only two contributions arrived in February - $350,000 from the United Kingdom and $400,000 from Sweden. Things began picking up in the latter part of March, with 10 contributions totalling $2,568,229. In April, another four contributions were received for a monthly total of $3,109,712, including $2.4 million from the United States. Thus, by the end of April, enough funds had been provided to support the operational work of the 21 UNHCR international staff and 35 national staff on the ground in the region.

The appeal process also continued to evolve, starting with the three-month flash appeal of January, to a six-month consolidated interagency appeal (January-June 1995) issued in March, to an updated appeal issued in July that extended the operation to the end of the year without seeking any additional funding. The final July appeal sought a total of $22.5 million for the entire year for six agencies:

UNHCR $ 10,385,000
WFP $ 5,641,371
UNICEF $ 4,579,094
WHO $ 695,000
IOM $ 1,000,000
DHA $ 252,800

From a peak of some 200,000 early in the conflict, the number of displaced Chechens remaining in Daghestan, Ingushetia and North Ossetia had dropped to about 70,000 by early November. Under the July appeal, much of UNHCR's activities focused on the provision of shelter, along with related water and sanitation facilities, for thousands of displaced people ($2.5 million). The supply of domestic items, ranging from stoves and cooking sets to towels and soap, accounted for another $2.75 million. Other sectors included coordination and programme support ($2.68 million); transport and logistics ($2 million) and health ($200,000).

The UNHCR portion of the appeal has been well-funded. As of 8 November, UNHCR had received $7.8 million of the $10 million required. Most of the UNHCR programmes are in their final stages and were expected to be completed by year's end.

Deputy Europe bureau director Utkan says an early decision to avoid working inside Chechnya itself has made it easier for UNHCR to make a clean break.

"In the beginning, there was a lot of temptation for us to get involved inside Chechnya itself," Utkan recalled. "If we had gone in there, it probably would have had a positive effect on our initial funding response, but it also would have made it much more difficult for us to phase out now. We showed a little discipline, we didn't follow the TV cameras, and we were eventually able to convince donors that there was also a humanitarian need in the areas surrounding Chechnya."

Even though the operation itself was to draw to a close on 31 December, many uncertainties remain and UNHCR will be keeping a watchful eye on the region, possibly by maintaining a small presence in North Ossetia and Ingushetia. By late November, some 48,000 displaced people remained in Ingushetia and 26,000 in Daghestan, and reports of continuing insecurity were still coming out of Chechnya.

But many lives have been saved and much suffering alleviated. UNHCR believes that its Russian partners will be in a much better position to aid the remaining displaced people. A lot of managerial and technical expertise has been shared with the Russians, and solid working relationships established between them and the United Nations agencies.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 102 (1995)