Issue 46 - Article 14

Integration: recent developments and persistent misperceptions

March 25, 2010
Oliver Ulich

Integration remains one of the most controversial issues in debates among humanitarians and between them and their colleagues in the peacekeeping, political and development areas. But many of these debates do not reflect recent developments, particularly in the UN context; instead, they tend to perpetuate a number of myths and misperceptions. This article  provides an overview of recent policy developments and addresses some of the more persistent sources of confusion. It explains that the UN’s policy on integration is much less rigid than is generally assumed, and shows that some of the arguments still being made against integration have been overtaken by events, or are not always supported by convincing evidence.   


Scope and purpose of integration in the UN context

Several of the most important recent developments at the policy level relate to a set of decisions the UN Secretary-General took in June 2008. Following wide-ranging consultations with the main parts of the UN, the Secretary-General reaffirmed integration as the guiding principle for all conflict and post-conflict situations. He also, for the first time, defined exactly which countries the principle should be applied in, namely wherever the UN has a ‘country team’ (consisting of the UN agencies, funds and programmes operating in that country) and a multi-dimensional peacekeeping operation or political mission/office. On the other hand, the principle is not applied in countries with traditional peacekeeping missions whose mandates are limited to ceasefire monitoring or in conflict or post-conflict countries without a political UN presence.

The 2008 decisions also clarified that integration applies not only to missions that are ‘structurally integrated’ – that is, missions with a Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General (DSRSG) who is also the Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator (RC/HC). Instead, country-level arrangements can take different structural forms and should reflect the specific requirements and circumstances at hand (often referred to as ‘form should follow function’[1]). At the time the decisions were made, there was a strong consensus that the UN needed to refocus on the main purpose of integration, rather than equate integration with structural arrangements at the field level. There was also general agreement that far too much time and energy had been spent since the late 1990s arguing over these structural arrangements, with too little attention being paid to what actually makes integration work (or not work) in practice.

However, the perception that integration always means structural integration and ‘integrated missions’ is still widespread. Moreover, some humanitarians believe that one of the main purposes of integration is to subordinate humanitarian actors to the political leadership of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG). For them, integration means political command and control of all UN entities on the ground, and therefore – by definition – poses a grave threat to humanitarian space and principles. Again, the June 2008 decisions should allay these concerns: the main purpose of integration is to maximise the individual and collective impact of the UN’s response, concentrating on those activities required to consolidate peace. This focus on peace consolidation means that many humanitarian activities fall outside the scope of integration efforts.


Key elements of integration at the country level

The decisions also spell out how integration should be achieved at the country level. Generally speaking, there should be an effective strategic partnership between the UN mission/office and the Country Team, under the leadership of the SRSG. While the exact arrangements should reflect specific requirements and circumstances, the decisions establish some requirements that should be in place in all cases, including (i) a shared vision of the UN’s strategic objectives; (ii) closely aligned or integrated planning; and (iii) a set of agreed results, timelines and responsibilities for the delivery of tasks critical to consolidating peace. The emphasis is on integration at the strategic and planning levels, as well as accountability for the delivery of critical peace consolidation tasks. Coherence is seen as a means to an end (maximising the individual and collective impact of the UN’s response), not an end in itself. And there is a clear recognition that the relationship between the mission and the Country Team has to be a partnership, rather than one of subordination or even absorption.

In practice, integration arrangements adapt to circumstances on the ground. The general rule of thumb has been that the level of integration increases as the level of active conflict declines, with the most integrated structures emerging in the later post-conflict phases. In Sierra Leone and Burundi, for example, the UN has created the position of Executive Representative of the Secretary-General (ERSG), merging the functions of RC, political representative and head of the integrated office. Where active conflict prevails, the UN has decided in several cases to retain a separate RC/HC instead of merging this role with that of a Deputy SRSG. This has been the case in Somalia, Chad and Darfur.[2] In Afghanistan, there is a DSRSG/RC/HC, but a separate OCHA office has been re-established. There is now a separate OCHA office or presence in every country with significant ongoing conflict, and which has a UN mission or political office. Most of these offices are also physically separate from the missions.

Specific humanitarian arrangements and concerns

Integration is often blamed for a number of threats to humanitarian space and principles, especially increased attacks against humanitarian workers and reduced access to beneficiaries. One of the main arguments is that attacks could be reduced and access increased if humanitarian actors distanced themselves from all those engaged in political and military activities, including UN missions with peacekeeping or political mandates. The success of the ICRC in reaffirming its neutral identity is seen as a model for other humanitarian actors. 

There are a number of problems with these arguments. Most importantly, there is little or no empirical evidence to support the assertion that UN integration as such generally increases risks to humanitarian staff or reduces access. Second, to the extent that we know the reasons for increased attacks on humanitarians and reduced access, they often have little or nothing to do with UN integration arrangements. In many of the most dangerous countries, humanitarian space has been shrinking for other reasons, such as strong political pressure, close collaboration between humanitarian agencies and government military forces or a diffusion of and increase in violence. This includes several countries with no UN political or peacekeeping presence. Third, the vast majority of humanitarian actors, particularly UN agencies but also many NGOs, will not be able to adopt the ICRC model. Most have dual mandates covering both humanitarian and development assistance. UN agencies will always be accountable to member states through their governing boards and as donors, making them inherently political entities in a way the ICRC (or MSF) is not. As UN entities, they are inevitably linked to the political organs of the UN, especially the Security Council, and most attempts to differentiate between the UN’s different roles on the ground have met with little success.[3] The level of independence the major NGOs enjoy from their donors and host governments also varies greatly.        


With regard to the alleged connection between integration and violence against aid workers, a study conducted by HPG in 2006 concluded that integrated missions had ‘no statistically significant impact on aid worker violence’.[4] The April 2009 update of the study showed a sharp increase in attacks against aid workers since 2006, but concluded that aid organisations ‘are being attacked not because they are perceived to be cooperating with Western political actors, but because they are seen as wholly a part of the Western agenda’. In countries like Afghanistan and Somalia, the ‘undeniably Western nature and orientation of much of the international aid community is at the root of the insecurity aid workers face’. Put more starkly, in these environments ‘the provisions of aid itself justifies attack’.[5]

Others see the association of humanitarian actors with belligerents as the main cause of attacks, particularly in Afghanistan. One of the leading critics of integration, Antonio Donini, recently urged the humanitarian community in Afghanistan to revert ‘to time-tested humanitarian approaches’ to increase their chances of saving and protecting larger numbers of lives.[6] But even in Donini’s analysis, the precise configuration of the UN in Afghanistan is clearly not the predominant factor driving local perceptions, particularly for NGOs. While he welcomes the establishment of a separate OCHA office and calls for the appointment of a separate HC, Donini mostly attributes the shrinking of humanitarian space in Afghanistan to other factors, including the environment in which aid actors have to operate, donor pressure (and the fact that most donors are also belligerents) and the absence of a critical mass of traditional humanitarian players. The quarterly reports issued by the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (ANSO) generally make no reference to the UN or the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) as a factor influencing the perception of NGOs. Instead, a recent report concluded that ‘NGOs were generally attacked for being perceived as intrinsic to the military and political objectives of the international military forces and related foreign Governments’.[7]  



With regard to humanitarian access issues, others have pointed out that there are currently no objective or robust means to assess claims that overall access is in fact declining.[8] Nevertheless, several arguments tend to be made in support of the link between access and integration. Supposedly, the leadership of missions prevents humanitarian actors from engaging with certain armed groups for political reasons. However, there are currently no examples where this is actually the case, and plenty of cases where UN agencies engage for humanitarian purposes with groups that are considered terrorist by a number of member states, including major donors. These include Gaza, Somalia and Afghanistan, all areas where the principle of integration applies. In several instances, it has been mainly donors that have put pressure on UN agencies to limit or suspend their interaction with certain groups.  

A related argument is that SRSGs or their representatives sometimes exercise direct control over access negotiations and interfere with humanitarian operations, particularly in areas that are not controlled by the government. Again, there seem to be very few if any actual examples that support this argument, and most anecdotes told in this context are many years old. The argument also underestimates the high degree of operational autonomy UN agencies enjoy, even in the most integrated settings, and does not take into account that the DSRSG/RC/HCs are responsible for the planning and coordination of humanitarian operations, under the SRSGs’ overall strategic direction. While there may be some exceptions, most SRSGs leave day-to-day humanitarian coordination tasks to the HCs and OCHA. Compared to a few years ago, there is also generally much greater recognition among colleagues in the political and peacekeeping departments and in missions that protecting humanitarian space matters, and that an effective and impartial humanitarian response is in the interest of the missions and the UN as a whole. 



Many other issues would need to be covered as part of a more comprehensive assessment of the interface between integration and humanitarian issues, including how integration relates to the protection of civilians, the impact of integration on humanitarian advocacy, and the role of UN missions in the UN’s security management system. Most humanitarian concerns in these areas – and in the areas discussed in this article – are not only legitimate, but have also helped shape the UN’s policy in significant ways. In some circles, there also seems to be a growing recognition of the benefits for humanitarian operations that can result from effective and well-calibrated integration arrangements, such as increased access, logistical support and direct influence on planning and operational decision-making by UN political and peacekeeping actors.  

The fundamental tensions at the heart of the humanitarian integration debate will remain. But it would be helpful if discussions were based on the current state of UN policy, a better understanding of the factual evidence instead of isolated anecdotes and a more differentiated analysis of the various threats to ‘humanitarian space’. This would also help the humanitarian community to focus on the many serious challenges it confronts, with UN missions as natural allies instead of antagonists.


Oliver Ulich is Chief, Policy Committee Secretariat, Executive Office of the UN Secretary-General.  The views expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.


[1] That form should follow function was the main argument made in the independent study on integration commissioned by the Executive Committee for Humanitarian Affairs (Espen Barh Eide et al., Report on Integrated Missions: Practical Perspectives and Recommendations, May 2005).

[2] The RC/HC for all of Sudan, including Darfur, is the DSRSG of UNMIS. 

[3] A recent UNHCR study on humanitarian space concluded that ‘[p]erceptions of UNHCR are … first and foremost shaped by the fact that the agency is part of the UN system. The positions taken by one part of the system, and in particular the most visible and powerful components, thus have a major impact on how the UN as a whole is perceived’. See Vicky Tennant, Bernie Doyle and Raouf Mazou, Safeguarding Humanitarian Space: A Review of Key Challenges for UNHCR, UNHCR Policy Development and Evaluation Service, February 2010.

[4] Abby Stoddard, Adele Harmer and Katherine Haver, Providing Aid in Insecure Environments: Trends in Policy and Operations, HPG Report 23, 2006.

[5] Abby Stoddard, Adele Harmer and Victoria DiDomenico, Providing Aid in Insecure Environments: Trends in Violence against Aid Workers and the Operational Response (2009 Update), HPG Policy Brief 34, 2009.

[6] Antonio Donini, Afghanistan: Humanitarianism under Threat, Feinstein International Center, Briefing Paper, March 2009.

[7] ANSO Quarterly Data Report, Fourth Quarter 2008.

[8] Stoddard et al., Providing Aid in Insecure Environments (2009 Update).


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