A Change of Policy and Attitude: UNHCR and Evaluation
by Humanitarian Practice Network June 2003

UNHCR has created a new evaluation and policy analysis unit, which will report directly to the Assistant High Commissioner. The agency will develop a roster of consultants and consulting companies with proven evaluation experience, and put proposed evaluations out to tender. It will also invite NGOs and executive committee members to participate in joint evaluation missions. Moreover, all reports from 1996 onwards will be declassified and made available in hardcopy and on a new website. This is a welcome change from a tradition of commissioning evaluations after a crisis, which were kept confidential and on the shelf; a habit which angered donors and exasperated collaborators. The new organisational set-up, linking evaluation with policy, will also facilitate organisational learning and policy development.

A first major experience with the new approach will be the independent evaluation of the agency’s response to the Kosovo crisis, one which UNHCR itself has commissioned. While the focus will be on UNHCR the terms of reference invite the evaluators to consider the role and impact of other actors involved in the crisis. This is an important evaluation because UNHCR has been heavily criticised, for three perceived failures in particular:

  1. the failure to anticipate and prepare for the large scale refugee flow from Kosovo;
  2. the failure to respond quickly and adequately to this refugee flow;
  3. the failure to coordinate the response of the other humanitarian actors.

The debate between critics and UNHCR has already been going on for some months. UNHCR has argued that it was running an effective and well-coordinated operation in Kosovo prior to the evacuation of all international agencies, and that nobody had foreseen the scale and suddenness of the expulsion of Albanian Kosovars (contingency planning was for much smaller numbers). Moreover, preparing for a large scale influx of refugees would have been politically impossible; it would have signalled a lack of faith in the Rambouillet process at a time when Western governments were banking on peace.

When refugees began to pour out of Kosovo in large numbers, UNHCR did not indeed have enough material and financial resources at hand. Critically, however, the agency also had difficulty deploying enough experienced staff. It could also not unlock, without NATO intervention, the political doors that would allow trapped Kosovars to find transitional refuge in Macedonia. Overwhelmed by events in Macedonia and Albania, and by a multitude of bilateral actions through military contingents and NGOs, UNHCR subsequently could not re-establish the authority and credibility for effective coordination.

The evaluation will bring an independent and balanced perspective to this debate. The interest in the outcomes of the evaluation should not, however, distract from the other actors. Most international NGOs were also surprisingly slow in responding to the Kosovar refugee crisis. And reviews of the planning processes and mechanisms in the international community (governments, multilaterals, military, political and humanitarian actors) during the NATO bombing campaign suggest that every actor was doing its own planning in isolation from the rest, with little strategic coordination around key scenarios. UNHCR can be criticised but should not be turned into a scapegoat.

For the debate on UNHCR see, for example, the UK International Development Committee’s Third Report (May 1999) and the Fourth Special Report (August 1999) containing UNHCR’s response at: www.parliament.the-stationary-office.co.uk/pa/cm/cmintdev.htm or articles in Forced Migration Review 5 (August 1999) at www.fmreview.org

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