Issue 9 - Article 5

Rearranging the deck chairs? Reforming the UN's responses to humanitarian crises.

November 1, 1997
Joanna Macrae

It is easy to suffer from acronym overload when trying to review recent attempts to reform the UN’s responses to complex emergencies. From the ECOSOC, to the IASC, to ECHA to the GA, to CCPOQ and the ACC[1], discussion of reform has been in the air for nearly two years; this process seems to be nearing its end, what are we to make of the maze which is UN humanitarian reform?

At issue is who should coordinate humanitarian interventions. In the context of weak states and in environments where state authorities are widely seen to be illegitimate, the question of who should allocate scarce resources and according to what principles has become a central preoccupation of the humanitarian system, particularly within the UN. The lack of coherence of UN agency responses has been a constant theme of a series of evaluations and media reports, extending from Iraq to Somalia to Rwanda. The coherence problem is confronted at numerous levels, extending from the level of inter-agency coordination and division of labour at field and headquarters levels, to the even more complex problem of how to ensure that the political bodies of the Security Council and the Departments of Political Affairs (DPA) and Peace-keeping (DPKO) support rather than undermine humanitarian objectives.

The weaknesses of DHA, in particular its lack of independent resources, its ambivalent relations with UNDP and the perceived weakness of its leadership are widely seen to be symptomatic of the inherent structural flaws of its original mandate. Since its inception, DHA has relied upon consensus rather than clout in order to effect decision-making, a strategy which has proved weak in a climate of inter-agency competition and overlapping mandates. Furthermore, despite the location of DHA within the UN Secretariat, the level of coherence between humanitarian, political and military responses appears not to have improved.

The arrival of a new UN Secretary-General in January 1997, the conditional improvement in relations between the USA and the organisation, and its continued financial crisis have combined to make reform the buzzword of 1997. The organisation’s response to complex emergencies has not been left untouched. A bewildering array of committees, papers and working groups has been instigated over the past year to try to find the magic formula which would improve the coordination of the UN’s response to complex emergencies.

In its 1995 session the ECOSOC (the Economic and Social Council) adopted a resolution requesting a review of the capacity of the UN system in humantiarian assistance, ostensibly to review the progress which had been made since the establishment of the Department of Humanitarian Affairs in late 1991.

Following the resolution, a scurry of discussions took place in various fora, including the IASC, which prepared a report for submission to ECOSOC at its session earlier this year. The findings of this report were overtaken by events, in particular the review of UN structures conducted by Maurice Strong on behalf of Kofi Annan, the new UN Secretary-General. On the humanitarian side, the cornerstone of Strong’s report was the proposal that DHA’s functions should be incorporated into UNHCR, the largest of the UN specialised humanitarian agencies.

While seemingly attractive in providing the UN emergency coordination role with the political leverage associated with such significant resources, this proposal was criticised by many as it meant losing the independence necessary to ensure impartial coordination of the humanitarian system. While other elements of Strong’s report are reflected in the UNSG’s own submission to the General Assembly in July this year, his central recommendation regarding an expanded role did not survive the summer. Rather, in terms of humanitarian policy, the UNSG’s report makes four substantive changes to the existing arrangements:

  • DHA disappears
    The Department of Humanitarian Affairs is to disappear. In its place, there will be an Office of the Emergency Relief Coordinator (OERC) led by Mr. Sergio Vieira de Mello, which will remain in the Secretariat. The real significance of this move is that OERC will shed most of its operational responsibilities. For example, responsibility for the reduction and mitigation of natural disasters will be handed over to UNDP and responsibility for demining will go to the Department of Peace-Keeping Operations (DPKO). Relieving OERC of these operational responsibilities is seen to enable the ERC to focus more on its advocacy and coordination roles, and the more limited operational responsibilities which it retains such as responding to natural disasters.
  • Unified framework for field level coordination
    Following from the discussions of the ACC and CCPOQ, agreement was reached between the UN agencies to accept a unified framework for field level coordination. While this existed in theory, personified in the figure of the UN Resident Coordinator system managed by UNDP, in practice this system was often seen to lack ‘buy in’ from agencies. In addition, in some countries a parallel system had emerged where a Humanitarian Coordinator and a Resident Coordinator would literally or figuratively sit side-by-side. Now the distiction has been abolished. The Resident Coordinator will now represent the entire UN system, although where there is also a humanitarian coordination function, the Coordiator would report to both UNDP and to OERC.
  • Increasing coherence between political, humanitarian and development domains
    The establishment of Executive Committees as internal coordination bodies, including the Executive Committee for Humanitarian Affairs (ECHA) and the Executive Committee on Peace and Security potentially provides a way of increasing the cooperation between the political and aid domains. The Office of the Emergency Relief Coordinator will be represented on both, and chair the former. At the field level, increased political coherence of UN operations may be achieved in future by the Special Representatives of the Secretary-General, having at least moral authority over all United Nations entities, including the specialised relief and development agencies.
  • Department of Political Affairs to take responsibility for post-conflict peace-building
    DPA as chair of the Executive Committee on Peace and Security has been designated the focal point for UN and will work closely with the World Bank and other development partners in those countries where a peace agreement has been signed and which are designated ‘post-conflict’.

Each of these reforms has attracted controversy and generated as many questions as answers, but it is probably DHA’s future (or lack of it) which is of most interest to our readers. ECHA established a working group to thrash out the implications of the DHA-ERC reforms. In addition to representatives from DHA itself, this included UNHCR, WFP, UNICEF and UNDP. Needless to say, there was significant disagreement between the operational agencies and DHA.

The former supported the creation of a ‘lean and mean’ Office of the Emergency Coordinator, with a staff of 61 who would focus on coordination, advocacy and information. In contrast, DHA proposes a larger structure, which maintains a capacity for operational support in crisis countries. The extent to which the OERC has a field presence is a crucial issue; without it, the Office is unlikely to be seen as a credible and authoritative body. Clearly, however, it cannot be business as usual – if the OERC is to have a field presence, the conditions under which this is organised will need considerable review.

Which of these two competing visions will win out is far from clear. In the midst of the detail of the various reports, laden with specification of staff numbers and grades, it is often hard for outsiders to understand the objective of the reforms and the analysis which is driving it. For example, while ERC lacks resources and authority over other operational agencies, can it ever exert any more than moral authority over the UN humanitarian system? Perhaps even more fundamentally, there remain considerable overlaps in operational responsibility in areas such as food aid and food security, while significant gaps remain in areas such as responsibility for internally displaced people. None of these points are addressed within the current UN reform agenda.

The UN faces growing problems securing adequate resources for its emergency operations and pledges against appeals remain at an all-time low. At the same time, globally, humanitarianism as a concept seems to be under siege from critics on the right and left. In this context, it is disappointing to see that this opportunity for reshaping the UN’s response to complex emergencies has yielded such a timid response. Rather than moulding a new conceptual and operational framework for future global intervention in political crisis, one is left with the sense that the deckchairs are simply being rearranged on the eminently sinkable UN humanitarian enterprise.

[1] UK


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