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Refugees Magazine Issue 102 (The high cost of caring) - Real purchasing power

Refugees Magazine Issue 102 (The high cost of caring) - Real purchasing power
Refugees (102, IV - 1995)

1 December 1995
An increase in refugee emergencies around the world over the past five years has brought a huge jump in UNHCR's purchasing budget.

An increase in refugee emergencies around the world over the past five years has brought a huge jump in UNHCR's purchasing budget.

By Francis Kpatindé

UNHCR's purchasing officers are used to doing a lot of juggling on the job as they try to find the multitude of relief items required each year by millions of refugees worldwide. But the 1994 refugee crisis involving more than 1 million people in the Great Lakes region of Africa posed a real logistical challenge for the specialists in UNHCR's Supply and Transport Section.

"Everything started to come apart at the same time," recalled Senior Purchasing Officer Lucie Poirier, whose section buys everything from pots and pans to plastic sheeting for UNHCR's refugee programmes worldwide. "We were just beginning to get things under control in Tanzania when Goma (Zaire) blew up and Bukavu (Zaire) was on the verge of doing so. In the morning, we planned for 50,000 arrivals, but we were obliged to revise our figures upwards virtually on an hourly basis. At one point, we had to supply five emergency programmes simultaneously using available resources in the area. It was the largest refugee outflow we have ever seen in Africa. We took relief material from our emergency stockpiles and borrowed from our programmes in neighbouring areas in Djibouti, Kenya and Ethiopia. We diverted goods meant for elsewhere and sent them to the region. Once that was done, we had to rapidly replace the stocks to avoid hurting our other programmes and replenish our emergency stocks."

UNHCR Purchases by Region in 1994
Western Europe47.84%
Asia/Middle East14.7%

An increase in refugee emergencies - from Bosnia to Burundi - has brought a corresponding increase in UNHCR's purchasing budget over the past five years. In 1991 alone, the purchasing budget shot up from $38.9 million to $191 million, mainly in response to the Gulf crisis.

It hasn't gone down since, nor has the number of refugees and others of concern to UNHCR, which today totals more than 27 million people. The purchasing budget has remained around the $150 million mark for the past four years, with the conflict in the former Yugoslavia taking up a large share of the resources.

The Yugoslav crisis led the purchasing section into an entirely new sector - winter relief items. These included repair kits for houses, fuel oil and charcoal, and large quantities of sleeping bags, parkas and boots, all necessary to enable refugees to cope with the harsh Balkan winters.

In previous crises, the focus had been on equipment and goods suited to mild or tropical climates, where most of the refugee movements occurred. The usual items for these influxes included plastic sheets, blankets, tents, kitchen utensils and jerry cans.

"In recent years, the choice of articles has become more diversified in order to respond to the specific characteristics of our different programmes," said Poirier.

The purchasing service has identified the new items with the help of UNHCR's technical service, which developed appropriate specifications. For example, although a minimum wool content of 30 percent is enough for blankets meant for warm countries, blankets for use in cold climates must be at least 50 percent wool.

Finding the right supplies in an emergency can be a major challenge. "In 1993, we had to find nearly a million blankets overnight, which we delivered in a bit over two months by land - a real record," Poirier said.

To meet refugee needs, UNHCR is a big purchaser of tents, computers, domestic utensils, clothes, plastic sheets, blankets, farm tools, water pumps, water treatment units, vehicles, food, petrol, charcoal and mattresses.

A large share (40 percent) of the $150 million dollars spent in 1994 went for the purchase of shelter materials and domestic goods. About 23 percent of the purchasing budget went for vehicles and spare parts; 6 percent for food; 4.5 percent for petrol and fuel oil; 3.5 percent for medicine and medical equipment; and 5 percent for farm machinery and tools.

UNHCR Purchases by Item Group in 1994
(rounded to nearest full percentage point)
Shelter and domestic items40%
Vehicles and spare parts23%
Telecommunications and computers7%
Fuel and lubricants5%
Engineering and agriculture5%
Total (US):$150,000,000

Following is a detailed breakdown of 1994 purchasing expenditures.

  • Housing: UNHCR spent $10.5 million on plastic sheeting, $5.6 million on tents, $3 million on construction materials and $2.2 million on prefabricated buildings (primarily warehouses).
  • Medical supplies and products: A total of $2.7 million went for medical equipment, $1.2 million for drugs, vaccines and first-aid kits, $697,000 for insecticides, $42,000 for laboratory expenses and X-rays, and $36,000 for dental and nutritional problems and for veterinary equipment.
  • Food: Most food for refugees is provided by the World Food Programme, but some is purchased by UNHCR. In 1994, UNHCR placed a total of 16 orders for food, totalling $8 million. The bulk of the orders consisted of items such as high-protein biscuits, orange juice with added vitamins, and green tea.
  • Domestic articles: In 1994, 164 orders totalling $31.8 million were placed. Items included blankets ($12.7 million), kitchen utensils ($7.8 million), soap and detergent ($3.7 million), and clothes and textiles ($3.3 million).

In addition, UNHCR spent some $11.4 million on logistics, broken down as follows: nearly $9 million for chartered airlift flights; $921,000 for air freight; $795,000 for shipping; $529,000 for transport by land; and $349,000 for storage and warehousing.

Ordering is usually centralized in Geneva. However, for added flexibility, some offices in the field have been authorized to set up purchasing committees and local contract committees which approve bids and purchases. Regional purchasing offices have been opened near areas of major UNHCR operations, including in Zagreb, Johannesburg and Nairobi. Sometimes, UNHCR's NGO partners themselves purchase goods directly for their programmes.

Every single purchase, international or local, is regulated by a complex, stringent and transparent procedure which combines competitive bidding by suppliers and a desire to obtain high-quality products and services rapidly or within a reasonable time.

One step consists of drawing up a list of suppliers. Invitations to tender are then sent out. Purchases of goods or services budgeted at $20,000 or more are subject to formal international competitive bidding. Below this amount, purchasing staff are required to compare three written offers.

The bidding process is, however, time-consuming. In an effort to enhance efficiency and profitability, UNHCR intends to extend a pre-selected roster system, already used for the procurement of generators and refugee registration materials, to the purchase of blankets, kitchen utensils and plastic sheets. UNHCR plans to work out long-term arrangements with a limited number of suppliers for these products in 1996.

"We began by inviting interested suppliers to comply with our technical specifications, among other things by sending their material to laboratories pre-selected by UNHCR to obtain certificates of analysis certifying that the equipment met our standards," Poirier explained.

In each of the past three years, UNHCR required an average of 1.9 million blankets, 300,000 kitchen utensil kits and 750,000 plastic sheets.

"We will not promise to purchase such quantities from the suppliers who have been selected," says Poirier. "But we will contact them when the need arises."

Before making a decision on where to buy, the purchasing section takes into consideration the seller's reputation and experience, geographical location, and the ease and rapidity with which the merchandise can reach its destination. In 1994, UNHCR purchased 47.8 percent of its supplies and services in Europe; 17.6 percent in Africa; 14.7 percent in Asia and the Middle East; 8.9 percent in Japan; 8.8 percent in the Nordic countries; and 2.1 percent in the Americas.

In many cases, locally made products are given priority. "In 1990, when the Liberian crisis broke out, we had to quickly find cooking pots for the refugees who had just arrived in Guinea," Poirier recalled. "We contacted internationally known companies, but the prices they quoted were sky-high. Then, during a mission to the area, I realized that some refugees were already using locally manufactured cooking pots which were highly prized and which, above all, stood up to long hours of cooking. We bought the material on site."

Finally, the purchasing service is responsible for ensuring compliance with one last selection criterion - and a rather important one at that. Starting in August 1995, contracts have contained a clause stipulating that a company which sells its services or products to UNHCR must guarantee that it is not involved in the production and/or sale of land mines.

Level of Contributions to UNHCR
per Capita in 1994
(in US $)
E.C. + Member States1.31
United Kingdom1.22
E.C. only0.67

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 102 (1995)