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Refugees Magazine Issue 97 (NGOs and UNHCR) - Partnership in action

Refugees Magazine Issue 97 (NGOs and UNHCR) - Partnership in action
Refugees (97, III - 1994)

1 September 1994
From its creation, UNHCR's responsibilities to refugees were linked, in a statutory manner, with NGOs.

From its creation, UNHCR's responsibilities to refugees were linked, in a statutory manner, with NGOs.

By Santiago Romero-Perez
UNHCR NGO Coordinator

Forty-five years ago, when the debate at United Nations headquarters centered on what type of agency would be responsible for the world's refugee problem, perhaps inadvertently, the relationship which UNHCR would have with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) was being established. How would the new agency carry out its dual mandate of protecting and assisting refugees? The compromise which won the day - a humanitarian agency outside the political considerations of the U.N. Secretariat, capable of acting independently - mandated UNHCR to seek durable solutions to the refugee problem by assisting governments and, subject to their approval, private voluntary organizations to carry out these tasks.

UNHCR's Statute, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in December 1950, mandated UNHCR to work with NGOs. This far-sighted decision allowed the first High Commissioner to receive and disburse funds through governments and NGOs, giving them the responsibility for the use of these funds in specific projects.

From its creation, one of UNHCR's main responsibilities, to provide assistance towards durable solutions, was linked, in a statutory manner, with NGOs.

The new agency, non-political and humanitarian, began its task alongside NGOs, relying on their knowledge and expertise to carry out its refugee programmes. This relationship with NGOs became fundamental to the success of UNHCR's work.

The NGO role in relation to UNHCR's principal task, to provide international protection to refugees, is frequently misunderstood. NGOs are often seen as UNHCR's operational arm, as deliverers of assistance, rather than as a source of support for UNHCR's protection tasks. There was a tendency in UNHCR to think that because the responsibility to provide international protection cannot be delegated, NGOs were assigned to a narrowly defined realm of assistance.

The increasing complexity and size of the refugee problem, and the growing needs of displaced persons inside and outside their own countries, have required enormous changes for UNHCR. The new world "disorder" has required new strategies and a search for association with a wider segment of society, interested and involved in the search for solutions. The relationship with NGOs has, therefore, grown in quantitative terms to a level where in 1993 UNHCR channelled some $300 million, directly or indirectly, through NGOs. This relationship has also grown in terms of the number of NGOs working with UNHCR - some 300 in 1993 - and in the diversity of their involvement. UNHCR's strategy of prevention, preparedness and solutions has necessitated greater NGO involvement, not only as "implementing partners" but as sources of information, advocates of refugee rights, and important voices in policy formulation.

How has UNHCR traditionally related to NGOs? As much of UNHCR's work is field-oriented, the choice of operational partners is entrusted to our field representatives, who liaise with local and international NGOs on a daily basis, and are well placed to assess the needs and determine which agencies are best suited for programme delivery.

The selection criteria has been from the beginning quite simple, based on operational capacity and accountability. The three basic conditions require NGOs:

  • to be legally registered at the location of their headquarters and/or where they operate;
  • to have authority to operate a bank account and keep separate records of expenditures incurred on UNHCR's behalf;
  • and to demonstrate, via official audit statements, financial reliability.

The varied nature of refugee situations requires flexibility in the choice of partners; some additional considerations include past experience, local expertise, rapid response capacity and phase-out potential.

The United Nation's Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) permits NGOs to which it has granted consultative status, as well as members of the Commission on Refugees of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA), to submit statements and participate as observers in the annual session of UNHCR's Executive Committee.

As the challenges to refugee protection and assistance increased, so did the need to re-examine relations with NGOs, recognizing our respective roles and mandates. In 1990, UNHCR embarked, together with ICVA, on a dialogue with NGOs to reappraise the fundamental nature of the partnership. This exercise, which involved some 200 NGOs and 20 UNHCR field offices, led to the recognition that NGOs were more than mere "implementing partners" or "deliverers of service," and emphasized UNHCR-NGO complementary capacities. It also resulted in a document entitled, "UNHCR-NGO Partnership: Reference on Relationship Between UNHCR and NGOs." This important document, while calling for improved cooperation at field and headquarters level, did not, however, cover every area of potential partnership. It lacked a broader input, especially from local NGOs.

In order to widen the dialogue and improve our actions, in 1993 UNHCR and ICVA initiated the partnership process known as PARinAC (Partnership in Action). A series of six regional consultations began in Caracas in June 1993, and was followed by others in Kathmandu, Tunis, Bangkok, Addis Ababa and Budapest. The process culminated in a Global Conference in Oslo in June 1994. Supplementary consultations with NGOs also took place in Tokyo, Toronto, Washington, London and New York.

Taking the "show on the road," UNHCR went to the South, but also East, West and North. Common issues of concern were discussed with people in the field. Over 500 NGOs from every continent, especially local NGOs, took part in the process.

The consultations centered around five priority areas: refugee protection, internally displaced, emergency preparedness and response, the continuum from relief to rehabilitation to development, and UNHCR-NGO partnership. Each regional conference viewed these themes through the prism of their own regional or local specificities and produced sets of proposals on concrete measures to improve our relations and the response to refugees and displaced persons.

The PARinAC Global Conference in Oslo included 182 NGO representatives from 83 countries, as well as observers from U.N. and other intergovernmental bodies, and government members of our Executive Committee. The meeting adopted by consensus the Oslo Declaration and Plan of Action and endorsed the regional proposals from all the conferences. We see the Plan of Action, which includes 134 recommendations, as the blueprint which will guide our response to present and future humanitarian challenges. The following examples illustrate the origins and aims of a few of the PARinAC recommendations.

  • The growing recognition of NGOs' role as advocates of refugee protection, requires enhanced NGO participation in dialogue with governments and appropriate information sharing. This need is reflected in the introduction to the protection recommendations in the Oslo Plan of Action and more specifically in recommendations 1 and 2.
  • An NGO presence before an emergency occurs or in its early phase is of great value in improving early warning and the initial emergency response. At present, local NGOs are often not able to become involved because of a series of financial, administrative and/or operational handicaps. Recommendation 75 addresses this situation.
  • UNHCR and NGOs often complain about each other's "deficiencies" when it comes to project implementation. Some in UNHCR believe that project agreements are the basis of partnership and that NGO delays in complying with agreed reporting requirements are the cause of many of our differences. The PARinAC process has started a reform dialogue; most concretely, some 35 NGO representatives from Africa met with UNHCR officials immediately after the PARinAC regional conference in Addis Ababa, to propose improvements. Oslo recommendations 65-72 refer to programme reform and NGO involvement in this process.
  • The need for better coordination is clearly recognized. This applies not only to UNHCR-NGO relations but also to relations between NGOs. Recommendation 61 calls for the establishment of committees to assess specific requirements before, during and after a refugee crisis emerges.
  • How long is UNHCR presence required in a given refugee or returnee situation? Often the absence of other organizations and lack of resources results in a prolonged UNHCR presence. Recommendation 106 calls for a smooth phase-out period in which local NGOs are supported and other partners - government authorities, development agencies and donors - are called to play an active role.
  • The need for an appropriate response to the growing problem of the internally displaced was a priority issue during PARinAC. There is no agency with a mandate to protect and assist internally displaced people. Recommendation 41 addresses institutional arrangements and calls on the U.N. Secretary-General to designate a lead agency in specific situations. More importantly, however, it calls for the broad, coordinated involvement of UNHCR, governmental and inter-governmental authorities and NGOs to address the problem.

The High Commissioner, in her keynote address in Oslo, called for bold initiatives to make this new partnership work. She offered to bring NGOs into operational and programme discussions; to strengthen, through training, local agencies' response capacity; to undertake joint needs assessment of regional training requirements and approach donors for the necessary funds; to involve NGOs in formulation of programmes in all relevant areas, including emergency response, repatriation, protection and internally displaced; to strengthen information sharing; and to cooperate with NGOs in the incorporation of issues concerning refugee women and children in all our programme activities.

The NGOs have already designated focal points at both regional and national levels to begin turning the PARinAC recommendations into reality and are busy preparing the agenda for the first ever consultation between NGOs and States members of UNHCR's Executive Committee.

Structural changes will also take place in UNHCR headquarters, where senior officials in each regional bureau will be responsible for discussing operational matters with NGOs. On August 1st, a coordinator, responsible for policy matters related to NGOs replaced the NGO Liaison Section, created in 1975, within the division of external relations.

This new partnership will have to overcome old working habits. It will require real commitment from both UNHCR and NGOs to address the problems of refugees and displaced persons as a team. It will need the involvement of other U.N. agencies and programmes. as well as political and financial cooperation of governments.

The challenge is great, the agenda is set, the tools have been identified. It is imperative that we succeed.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 97 (1994)