The Reinvention of the UNHCR

Individuals like Barnett and Walker have argued that the so-called “Humanitarian Club” (i.e. the most powerful humanitarian organizations of the 20th century) is outdated, not responsive enough to the voices and needs of its beneficiaries, and at risk of becoming irrelevant in the current humanitarian marketplace. To a great extent, they are right. In some ways, organizations like the UNHCR have become too concerned with protecting their own space in the humanitarian arena, and less focused on confronting the complex challenges of the 21st century as they relate to refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). To be sure, an organization like the UNHCR still has a role to play — even a central role — in confronting the greatest displacement crisis since World War II. But to be effective in a crisis of this scale the UNHCR must adapt to a changing landscape. Let’s start by looking at what the UNHCR is doing well, and then turn to just how it might be able to adapt.

As a recent report from the Multilateral Organisation Performance Assessment Network (MOPAN) highlights, the UNHCR is strong when it comes to emergency preparedness and response. No other organization in the world is able to register refugees, provide emergency aid, work with host country governments, and advocate like they. The organization itself was born in response to a massive refugee crisis, so it is no surprise that they are able to do these things well. This organization also has the distinction as being largely known as independent, a quality that is priceless in the humanitarian space.

The displacement crisis of today, however, is notably different than the refugee crisis of more than a century ago. As Antonio Guterres, the next Secretary-General of the United Nations, pointed out, people are now fleeing their homes in response to what could be social, economic, or environmental crises. They are not just being displaced because of armed conflict. The UNHCR needs to take this into account in order to be truly effective in the 21st century.

This is connected with something else that is problematic, namely the UNHCR’s mandate. The organization was created to work on behalf of refugees, and indeed there are many refugees that are in need of their help. At the same time, they do not have a mandate to work with IDPs, and this at a time when there are more internally displaced than ever. In a place like the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KR-I), now hosting upwards of 250,000 Syrian refugees, there are an estimated 1.5 to 2 million IDPs. This number will undoubtedly rise as Kurdish and Iraqi troops — with the help of U.S. Special Operations Forces — fight to liberate Mosul, Iraq’s second most populous city. The Kurdistan Regional Government is struggling to come up with the resources to adequately take care of the displaced, and here is an example where the UNHCR would be much more effective if its mandate were broadened to include IDPs.

Barnett and Walker make another good point when it comes to an organization like the UNHCR, that is that it still espouses an operational practice in which relief work is done to others and not with others. In other words, it remains too paternalistic. In this current humanitarian context, the UNHCR must be willing to let go of some of its power and work more with local partners. This is important for a number of reasons. First, local partners are likely better in touch with the needs on ground in a way that a large bureaucratic organization like the UNHCR cannot be. Second, local partners working on behalf of their own communities will run counter to the notion that the Humanitarian Club is paternalistic by giving agency back to the beneficiaries themselves. Third, shifting some of the work load to local actors may be more cost effective and require less of the administrative costs often associated with the UNHCR. Of course, in working with local partners the UNHCR would need to make sure that such organizations retain the independent humanitarian spirit and refrain from partisanship or sectarian aims.

Broadening its mandate and shifting responsibility are just two of the ways the UNHCR and organizations like it can adapt in the 21st century. Indeed, there are many other ways to speak of. If they cannot adapt, they risk becoming increasingly less effective and relevant. If, however, they can respond to the new challenges in innovative ways, they may become more successful than ever, blazing new trails just as they did in the World War II era.


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