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Refugees Magazine Issue 102 (The high cost of caring) - A resounding humanitarian voice

Refugees Magazine Issue 102 (The high cost of caring) - A resounding humanitarian voice
Refugees (102, IV - 1995)

1 December 1995
Europe accounts for 42 percent of UNHCR's total funding.

Europe accounts for 42 percent of UNHCR's total funding.

By Ruth Marshall

It started out a routine mission for UNHCR's Filippo Grandi, accompanying two officials from ECHO, the European Community Humanitarian Office, on a mission to Tanzania in July 1994. Then came news of a looming humanitarian disaster along the Rwanda-Zaire border. The initial reports received by Grandi - an experienced UNHCR emergency officer who had just transferred to the Fund-Raising Section - warned of a massive and catastrophic exodus of Rwandan refugees toward the Zairian town of Goma. In mid-mission, Grandi suddenly found himself redeployed as the leader of UNHCR's emergency team in the agency's latest, and arguably largest, refugee crisis. He diverted the mission's small plane to Goma - and took the ECHO officials with him.

"We landed on July 15 in the middle of chaos at that awful airstrip in Goma," Grandi recalls. "It was really a scene of total confusion, impossible to describe." But, as hundreds of thousands of panicked Rwandans continued to pour over the border to the remote and difficult site, says Grandi, "The ECHO people were right there with us, really with us. These two officials literally helped set up beds and mattresses for the emergency team. We were together in the mud, and it really meant something to us all.

"In the Great Lakes, ECHO and UNHCR achieved a real partnership, something extremely meaningful, beyond the level of money," Grandi continued. "They saw this incredible urgency with their own eyes. They realized that an emergency is not something on paper that you can plan and detail and submit reports on. It is a catastrophe. People are dying, and you need to have five million dollars in your pocket to give to the right people to get to work. The control, the reports - all that is important, but it can follow later. In an emergency, you need disbursement, now. And, in that emergency, ECHO stretched the rules, and they gave."

In Laos, the pace of work may be different, but the underlying partnership is just as strong. There, entire new villages must be carved out of dense forest to house returnees from Thailand who prefer to move back in large groups, to keep their clannish social structure intact. It may not be emergency work, but it is back-breaking nonetheless. Returnees to UNHCR's 29 group settlements arrive in villages that are surveyed, cleared, laid out and equipped with basic infrastructure.

The returnees live on food rations and cash grants, in temporary housing, until they can build their own homes and till their own land. The process typically takes at least 18 months, though some returnees need assistance for longer. Many of the refugees - who include formerly nomadic highland peoples, such as the Hmong - return from decades of exile, and are unused to their new land and settled farming practices.

To help UNHCR undertake the painstaking work of establishing new group settlements in Laos and helping the returnees attain self-sufficiency, the European Union has provided strikingly generous funding - some 80 percent of 1995's $3.2 million project budget. But, again, in Laos the E.U.'s contribution to UNHCR's work has stretched the basic rules, extending much further than simple funding. In Bokeo province, nestled against the borders of Thailand, China and Myanmar, the E.U. has actually set up two of its own settlement sites for hundreds of returnees, in a two-year project that will cost more than $2.5 million.

In Bokeo, returnees like 28 year-old Blia Lee, a mother of seven, who repatriated to the newly established village of Say Cha Leun (Nam Puk district) in 1994, have found new opportunities and new freedoms away from cramped refugee camps in Thailand. "In the beginning it was difficult, because we didn't have enough money to open a shop," says Blia Lee, who, with her husband, initially invested savings from embroidery work done in Thailand into purchasing groceries in a neighbouring village for resale in their new home. "But now we have a shop, and we get the goods on credit, and it should be better. It's good that we came back."

Blia Lee and her fellow homesteaders in Say Cha Leun just harvested their first rice crop. All have left their temporary bamboo longhouse for the individual, zinc-roofed houses that they built with their own hands. Their new concrete school - shared with neighbouring villages - has been constructed. Soon to come are a market-place, several kilometres of badly needed road, and 250 hectares of irrigation. All will be fully funded and built by the European Union.

"We want to assist in closing down the refugee camps in South-East Asia, and finding solutions," notes Xavier Nutin, the E.U.'s delegate in Bangkok. "The hope is that with more assistance in Laos, there will be more voluntary return. And the need is there. After so many years of exile, there are entire new generations who have no awareness of what agriculture is about. But we try not to focus too exclusively on returnees because that would never be accepted by the local people." Thus, to cap its very sizeable annual contribution to UNHCR's project budget in Laos, and the separate, substantial E.U. project underway in Bokeo, the European Union recently initiated a three-year, $5.8 million programme to fund projects to reinforce Laotian provinces' capacity to absorb returnees.

Without the funding and support of the European Union, it is unlikely that UNHCR would resemble the ubiquitous and effective agency that it is today. In 1994, the European Commission - the civil service of the European Union - gave UNHCR $237 million, of a total $1.07 billion in contributions received that year. That sum was somewhat smaller than the $281 million donated by the United States. However, when added to the bilateral donations of Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Italy, France, Ireland, Spain, Belgium, Luxembourg, Greece and Portugal (in that order), Europe's donations to UNHCR came to $452 million in 1994, or 42 percent of total donations received. In other words, the countries of the European Union - bilateral plus multilateral - make up UNHCR's biggest donor. (That sum is likely to grow, particularly since Sweden, Finland and Austria joined the E.U. in 1995).

Of all the money donated by Europe to UNHCR, the single largest sum comes from ECHO, Europe's humanitarian wing. Set up in 1992, following the Gulf crisis, ECHO is a new and immensely powerful actor on the global relief scene, centralizing the emergency funding of the European Commission. The organization manages a regular annual budget of over $1 billion, covering funding of emergency-related activities in crises involving refugees and internally displaced people, as well as those resulting from natural disasters. In addition, responsibility for Europe's food aid shifted this year to ECHO - now UNHCR's largest food donor. Europe covered 95 percent of the total $1.1 million of food donated to UNHCR in 1994.

In the countries of former Yugoslavia, ECHO has been UNHCR's leading donor since the agency began leading the U.N. humanitarian operation there in 1992. In the Great Lakes, Grandi says, it is "impossible to exaggerate how instrumental ECHO's aid was" in 1994. The relationship between ECHO and UNHCR is a close and vital partnership. It is marked by mutual admiration, mutual respect and - sometimes - a little mutual irritation.

The European Union is not just one of UNHCR's biggest donors: it is also its most complex. ECHO funds part (but never all) of UNHCR projects. It prefers that Europe-funded projects be implemented with high levels of participation by European NGOs. And, unlike most of UNHCR's main donors, ECHO always precisely earmarks funds for a specific operation and time-frame - for a duration never initially exceeding six months - in a process that requires detailed forms and procedures, creating an often cumbersome and frustrating procurement process.

ECHO procedure is often difficult to dovetail with UNHCR practice, which tends to be more flexible and decentralized - so that sudden contingencies can be met with instant cash, rather than weeks of paperwork. "In an emergency," explains Grandi, "a UNHCR team could, for example, need $1 million for household items, to be detailed later. It's unlikely to work as well with a process that calls for specific, highly documented grants of $300,000 for so many blankets, of what description, at so much per."

Learning to trust UNHCR teams in such situations is inevitably a gradual process. "Europe is a tremendously valuable partner, though the difficulty that we sometimes have with them is all the reporting," comments Karen AbuZayd, formerly UNHCR's chief of mission for Bosnia-Herzegovina and now deputy director of the Division of Programme and Operational Support. "There are lots of forms and lots of demands. My first job with UNHCR was in Khartoum, doing all the reporting for the European Community, and the earmarking was just unbelievably precise. Much later, when I was in Sierra Leone, I found myself with no electricity and everything broken down, trying to find the bills to justify why we were spending $100, not $90, on buckets."

Still, though Europe's pressure to maintain a punctilious reporting system may seem excessive, it does keep UNHCR's teams aware that they must remain very strictly accountable for every mark, franc and centime spent. That's a clear benefit, in the long term, for the agency, for the countries of operation, and for the refugees themselves. As AbuZayd points out, it's hard to fault the European Union for trying to keep tabs on its money. "Their demands are not outrageous," she notes. "They're accountable to their taxpayers and member governments. And though the European Union might sometimes seem bureaucratic, our emergency section couldn't have functioned without the flexibility that ECHO has shown."

Though ECHO's contribution to UNHCR's work in emergencies and repatriations is enormous, particularly in Africa, the European Union's cooperation with UNHCR is wider still. ECHO usually covers immediate, life-sustaining needs, not longer-term rehabilitation activities. Two other sectors of the European Commission - DG-I, for external economic relations, and DG-VIII, for development funding in a group of African, Caribbean and Pacific countries - fund longer-term work. This typically involves rehabilitation and repatriation activities, self-sufficiency programmes, micro-development projects for returnees, and care and maintenance. (The E.U.'s programme for assistance to returnees in Laos is funded by DG-I).

Though the specific procedures often vary - almost as widely as the programmes - from the Great Lakes to Indochina, the basic theme remains the same. In refugee camps or returnee settlements, UNHCR's partnership with the European Union has saved innumerable lives, and given shelter, education, assistance, and, above all, safety, to many more. In Zaire, ECHO's near-instant assistance helped shelter and care for more than 1 million refugees threatened by disease, hunger and abuse. In Laos, more than 26,000 former exiles have been able to go back to their country - in many cases, to their own land, poultry and crops; to basic schools and clinics; and even, in some areas, roads and irrigation systems. Worldwide, the beneficiaries of E.U. humanitarian aid number in tens of millions. None of this comes cheap. But neither do lives.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 102 (1995)