The UN and IDPs: improving the system or side-stepping the issue?
by Marc Vincent June 2003

The proposal for a dedicated IDP unit in the UN has met with a mixed reaction. But the humanitarian community must seize this opportunity to improve its assistance to IDPs; it could be years before we get another chance.

In March 2001, the Senior Inter-Agency Network on Internal Displacement proposed setting up a dedicated unit within the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) to improve the UN’s work in internal displacement. The proposal has met with a range of reactions, from outright dismissal as an empty gesture to cautious optimism. But debating whether the unit will be an improvement or not misses the point; it has to be part of an improved UN response because nobody – especially the internally displaced – will benefit from continuation of the status quo. NGOs, the UN, member states and donors alike all need to ensure that the new unit is effective. There might not soon be another opportunity.

The scale of the problem

The scale of the IDP problem is immense, and growing. In 1970, there were approximately five million internally displaced people, compared to nine million refugees. In the 1990s, following the end of the Cold War and an increase in the number of internal conflicts, the number of IDPs grew dramatically, peaking at 27m in 1994. Current estimates of the number of internally displaced people vary greatly, according to who is being counted and who is doing the counting, but it is widely accepted that between 20m and 25m people are internally displaced as a result of conflict. UNHCR puts the number of officially registered refugees in 2000 at around 11m. The World Commission on Dams, in its 2000 report Dams and Development, estimated that large dams in China and India alone displaced 26m–58m people between 1950 and 1990.

Aside from the increasing dimensions of the problem, another explanation for the increased efforts within the UN system to improve response is the fact that, unlike refugees with UNHCR, there is no single institution to address the needs of IDPs, not least their need for protection. According to international law, states are ultimately responsible for the welfare of their citizens, including displaced people. Yet in some cases, it is precisely the actions of states that have resulted in displacement; in others, governments may be willing to help, but may lack resources or access. There is also, albeit implicitly, the question of sovereignty. By definition, IDPs are an internal matter, and any attempt to create an international agency to address the IDP issue could be seen as implicitly meddling in the domestic affairs of states. In recent years, however, the ‘old’ concept of sovereignty, behind which states have hidden while they abuse their own citizens, is gradually being replaced by a newer model – ‘sovereignty as responsibility’ – which is being promoted by, among others, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, as well as by Francis Deng, the UN Secretary- General’s Representative on Internally Displaced Persons.

The response to internal displacement

The proposal to create a dedicated IDP unit is part of a longer process that began in 1992, when UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali appointed Deng to raise awareness of internal displacement and investigate ways to improve the UN response. In 1996, Deng concluded that there was no political will to create a new organisation mandated to protect and assist IDPs, nor was it likely at the time that any existing institution could assume full global responsibility. Instead, a ‘collaborative arrangement’ between the various relevant actors was adopted.

The ‘collaborative approach’ is a management model for assistance and protection in situations of internal displacement, involving the local government and local authorities, UN agencies, international organisations and international and local NGOs. At the policy level, the collaborative arrangement revolves around the UN Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC). The IASC has internal displacement as a standing item on its agenda, and has developed policies to support the collaborative framework.

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The Senior Inter-Agency Network on Internal Displacement

In 2000, the collaborative approach was called into question by the US Ambassador to the UN, Richard Holbrooke, who lamented ‘the inade-quate and uneven protection afforded to internally displaced persons’. After witnessing first-hand the deplorable conditions facing displaced people in Angola, where IDPs number nearly three million, Holbrooke demanded a reassessment of insti-tutional structures. Forced to defend its approach, the UN created the Senior Inter-Agency Network on Internal Displacement.

The Network, which comprises IDP focal points from the various agencies involved in internal displacement, is chaired by a ‘Special Coordinator on Internal Displacement’. The Network was mandated to assess the humanitarian response at the local level, and provide recommendations for improvement. Despite initial scepticism, it has done some good work. Missions to Eritrea and Ethiopia, Burundi, Angola and Afghanistan, by teams comprising representatives of all the relevant humanitarian actors, have resulted in reports that identify concrete gaps, and put forward good recommendations. The report on Burundi, for instance, identified the failure of the UN and NGOs in the area of IDP protection, and suggested the setting up of a protection committee chaired by the Humanitarian Coordinator/Resident Coordinator (HC/RC) and the Burundian Minister of Human Rights, with the participation of NGOs and other humanitarian actors. Under-funding by donors was also highlighted and put into perspective – lack of funding is just as much of a problem in the response to IDPs as lack of coordination, accountability and expertise. The Special Coordinator at the time, Dennis McNamara, pressed for donors to take greater responsibility for supporting programmes for displaced people. The Network also highlighted the need to engage all political actors, formally or informally, in order to increase access to the displaced.

There were also, however, disappointments. The four missions, over nine months, hardly constitute a comprehensive review of the UN response to IDPs. Furthermore, there was serious doubt about the level of UN commitment to the process; according to McNamara, NGOs have been more enthusiastic about improving the UN response to internal displacement than has been the UN itself. While on missions, the teams represented a true inter-agency cooperative effort which did not translate well to the headquarters level. Bickering continues over mandates and turf. Another flaw has been the absence of a strategic framework on which to build long-term recommendations. While the field-focused approach avoided some of the ingrained institutional problems, it could have benefited from a more comprehensive assessment of the institutional options at the policy and headquarters level.

The proposed IDP unit

In March 2001, the Network presented its interim report to the Secretary-General and the IASC. It contained few real surprises:

  • the level of protection of IDPs was inadequate;
  • serious gaps existed in the international response to internal displacement, some of which stem from coordination problems among UN agencies and other international org-anisations;
  • non-food emergency items such as shelter were regularly in short supply; and
  • the donor response to prolonged conflicts was less than adequate.

The report suggested action in three areas. First was the creation of a dedicated IDP unit within OCHA, staffed by personnel seconded from relevant agencies, and tasked with providing expertise, training and guidance to humanitarian agencies working in IDP crises. The unit would also undertake systematic country reviews, and develop inter-agency policy. Second, IDP field advisors would be deployed at the country level, and on a case-by-case basis, to support the HC/RC. Lastly, a rapid funding capacity should be created to fill gaps in assistance to IDPs.

Next steps

It is up to the humanitarian community and UN member states to ensure that the new unit actually makes a difference. Because it is new, there will be difficulties around complementarity with the existing functions of OCHA and other agencies. Throughout the set-up period, it will be crucial not to lose sight of the ultimate objective, which is to improve response to the internally displaced.

If the IASC is to make the unit work, it should focus on outlining its priorities. Four spring immediately to mind:

  1. ensure better accountability in IDP response;
  2. implement an effective and consistent pro-tection framework for IDPs;
  3. give the unit autonomy, authority and inde-pendence; and
  4. ensure that donors and other partners support the process.


Until now, the policy forum in which humanitarian agencies have discussed IDPs has been the IASC. Because it is a committee, it is difficult to ensure that the IASC is accountable to its donors, its partners and the subjects of its policy discussions. With the new IDP unit, it will be much easier to ensure such accountability. The unit must also seek ways to ensure accountability within the wider system. There are many advantages to the existing collaborative approach, but there is also a lack of accountability, responsibility and consistency in who is doing what at the national level, especially when it comes to protection for IDPs. One area that could be improved is the level of protection expertise among HCs/RCs. In order to increase their capacity, there should be improved selection, greater evaluation of performance and greater support for them.


The greatest challenge for the Unit is to improve protection for IDPs. For substantial improvements over the current ad hoc arrangements, the Special Coordinator must be bold and develop, somewhere within the UN system, a specialised capacity for IDP protection. Good protection calls for day-to-day interaction with local authorities: it requires the systematic collection of information and the creation of trust and commitment among these authorities. Where necessary, it also includes the threat to denounce abuse publicly. This can only be done if a cadre of ‘IDP protection officers’ is created. The most obvious candidate for this task at the country level would be the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Assuming responsibility for this task would entail a radical departure from the office’s current emphasis on technical cooperation. It would also require a huge investment to improve capacity and performance within UNHCHR for comprehensive field monitoring. Although this has been discussed at a general level, it needs serious and rapid assessment. If the option is not viable, then other alternatives must be sought, including making another agency responsible.

In addition to developing a specialised protection capacity, humanitarian agencies as a whole must more meticulously monitor the rights of IDPs. Through training and awareness-raising, the new unit will need to encourage organisations not traditionally involved in protection, including WFP and the UNDP, to ensure that their staff are, at a minimum, able and prepared to collect basic information on violations of human rights and humanitarian law as they are observed. If they are not able to intervene because of concerns about compromising their programmes or putting staff at risk, there should be arrangements in place to pass the information to an organisation that is able to act.


Another priority for the IASC is to put interagency politics aside, and allow the new unit the autonomy, authority and independence it will need to be effective, especially for advocacy. If the unit is to have any impact at all, it needs to be able to call attention to problems, as well as suggesting solutions. When the system is not working, the Special Coordinator will need to speak frankly and openly.

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Finally, the unit needs support, both political and financial. Donors must ensure that resources are available, and that agencies within the UN system demonstrate real commitment. There must also be a transparent performance review, under which the unit is fairly assessed. NGOs, through public campaigns aimed at their constituencies in their home countries, should also ensure that govern-ments demonstrate real political commitment.

The creation of a dedicated unit for IDPs within the UN system is a unique and valuable opportunity. If it is wasted, it will be many years before a similar initiative can again be discussed. For there to be concrete improvements in the response to internal displacement, all actors will have to demonstrate real political will. Problems of internal displacement raise sensitive and difficult questions of state sovereignty, UN reform, protection, humanitarian access and security. To avoid simply ‘politicising’ the issue, the focus must be firmly on addressing the needs of the victims.


Marc Vincent is Project Manager, Global IDP Project, Norwegian Refugee Council.



UN High Comissioner for Refugees,

Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict,

The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement,

The Brookings-CUNY Graduate Center Project on Internal Displacement,

Global IDP Project, Norwegian Refugee Council,

Refugees International, US Committee for Refugees,

The Refugee Studies Centre,

Marc Vincent and Birgitte Refslund Sorensen (eds), Caught Between Borders, Response Strategies of the Internally Displaced (London: Pluto Press, forthcoming)

Roberta Cohen and Francis Deng (eds), The Forsaken People: Case Studies of the Internally Displaced (Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1998)

Roberta Cohen and Francis Deng, Masses in Flight, The Global Crisis of Internal Displacement (Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1998)

Walter Kalin, Annotations to the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, Brookings and the American Society of International Law (ASIL), Studies in Transnational Legal Policy, June 2000

Janie Hampton (ed.), Internally Displaced Persons: A Global Survey (London: Earthscan for the Norwegian Refugee Council, 1998)

Wendy Davies (ed.), Rights Have No Borders: Worldwide Internal Displacement (Oslo: Norwegian Refugee Council, 1998)

‘UN Creates Harmless IDP Unit, Fear NGOs’, ICVA Talkback, 28 June 2001,