United Nations: deceptive humanitarian reforms?

Nine different clusters have been validated by the members of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) in the UN's cluster system. These clusters are:
  • Nutrition
  • Water and hygiene
  • Health
  • Coordination and camp management for displaced people
  • Emergency shelters
  • Protection
  • Logistics
  • Means of communication
  • Re-launch of the economy in the post-conflict stage This organisation applies mainly to relief efforts in favour of internally displaced populations.

    The past two years have raised many questions regarding the operational engagement of the United Nation's agencies: there have been inappropriate or slow UN responses to emergencies in Niger, the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Somalia; difficulty understanding strategies and agendas, such as in Northern Uganda, the Caucasus and in Colombia; poor coordination of their delivery partners in Indonesia following the tsunami or more recently the earthquake in Pakistan, and the virtual absence of UN aid in very fragile regions such as the Central African Republic.

    Spurred on by increasingly public failures to adequately respond to the needs of displaced persons in various contexts - Darfur being the most egregious example, the UN, on occasion of its sixtieth anniversary, initiated a series of reforms intended to improve its response to humanitarian crises.

    Marked by the modification of its emergency fund to establish the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) in December 2005, these changes fall within the scope of a wider process of organisational reform proposed by the UN Secretary General under pressure from many Member States.1

    MSF and current reforms: independence and pragmatism

    Officially, reform aims to increase the role and authority of humanitarian coordinators in the field to better defend humanitarian space and principles.

    Everything rests on two pillars. The first is financial resources that are more predictable and more readily available in emergency situations through the new CERF. The second is a mechanism ("cluster system") allowing the humanitarian coordinator in a given country to clearly identify and quickly mobilise the agency responsible for overseeing a response to particular needs, with the aim of eliminating any gaps between sectors.

    This "cluster lead" then relies on the other members of its cluster to carry out a response: the UN operational agencies and NGOs it will mobilise to address an identified need.

    MSF continues to follow this process of reform with attention to its potential implications for the organisation of emergency relief and the response to humanitarian needs in the field. We have abstained from publicly taking position on the current reforms, as we considered it did not fall within the competence of a medical-humanitarian organisation to comment on, or make proposals regarding the internal workings of the UN.

    The current reforms are also a UN process: clearly stated, we will not be a member of the clusters and the action of MSF will not be placed under the responsibility of UN humanitarian coordinators nor be accountable to them. In the face of the challenges to be met, however, we can only welcome the willingness of the United Nations to improve their humanitarian response.

    We must also take a critical look at the possible effects of the reforms on the effectiveness of aid. While it is doubtless too soon to fully evaluate the impact of proposed changes, the slowness of the UN response to the recent cholera outbreak in Angola, including at the peak of the crisis in May 2006, or in the face of the latest population displacements in Katanga province, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) makes one wonder whether the reform will deliver better assistance for those most in need.

    In DRC, the military operations launched in November 2005 by the Congolese armed forces against certain Mai-Mai groups resulted in the displacement of several tens of thousands of people, yet the World Food Programme needed several months to become fully operational. In Northern Uganda, chosen as a pilot country for the implementation of reforms, the needs for water and latrines were not always met in most districts more than six months after the reforms came into effect.

    Placed respectively in charge of the nutrition and health clusters, Unicef and the World Health Organization (WHO) have a chance to play a leading role promoting and adopting new strategies for the treatment of malnutrition, following the discovery of a new therapeutic product (in the form of an enriched ready-to-use paste).

    Given this possibility, their position and operational decisions surrounding this issue will also constitute a full-scale test to see if the new coordinated cluster structure results in any real improvements in meeting human needs.

    Whilst determined to retain its independence in the face of current reforms, MSF will continue a dialogue with the UN operational agencies and also accepts the need for context-related, operationoriented coordination between the head offices as well as in the field.

    MSF will maintain its independence of analysis and action and resources so as not to jeopardise the strictly humanitarian and impartial nature of our organisation, particularly in conf lict situations, where it is critical to keep the trust of the belligerents to be able to reach those who require our assistance.

    Coordination: to what end?

    Coordination cannot be an end in itself; it must be useful, guided by the reality of the situation on the ground and directed toward concrete action. The limits of the mechanisms of coordination must be recognised: faced with political interference in humanitarian aid, the solution resides not in multiplication or strengthening of technical measures, but rather in the need for humanitarian organisations and the international community to highlight political constraints and ascribe responsibilities.

    The setting up of coordination structures at national (Joint Monitoring Committee) and decentralised (District Disaster Management Committees) levels did not, for example, help to improve the quality of assistance provided in Northern Uganda.

    It is also crucial not to maintain the illusion that a unified aid system steered by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) or any other agency would lead to an automatic significant improvement in the efficiency of relief efforts. Presented as a model of coordination, the international response to the tsunami at the end of 2004 was nonetheless severely criticised by an international evaluation mission.2

    According to the conclusions of that investigation, the international relief effort did respond to the actual needs of the affected populations, but was driven more by political and media considerations. Faced with the scale of the public response, the humanitarian organisations spent the money "quickly and ostentatiously" and "to find something to do".

    The humanitarian landscape is currently made up of a large number of actors with widely differing aims, resources and modus operandi. It is not only impossible and unrealistic to believe that all these actors can work in perfect synergy under a single banner, but it can also be at times perilous, as some actors operate with mixed agendas, the humanitarian goals falling second to political, security or developmental objectives and resulting in unmet needs.

    The existence of a diversity of approaches is what helped save the lives of thousands of children in Niger in 2005, illustrating that independent actors may well offer people in need the best chance at effective assistance. Further, diverse approaches to humanitarian aid help assure that if one strategy fails, all do not fail, with deadly consequences.

    We have already seen this to be the case in contexts such as East Timor and Angola.

    The increasing politicisation of humanitarian action

    According to United Nations official line, the reforms initiated in 2005 should better defend the humanitarian space and principles and improve the efficiency of the UN's crisis response. This can be doubted, however, in light of the UN Secretary General's note on integrated missions, adopted on 17 January 2006.

    This document reaffirms the central role of integration for the mounting of UN peacekeeping missions. It is not only a matter of achieving "a more consistent UN system" in the field, but also of "ensuring efficient coordination between the peacekeeping mission, the UN's operational agencies and non-UN partners."

    The note also specifies that the UN presence must be based on a clear and shared understanding of the priorities and the willingness of all actors to contribute to the achievement of shared objectives - subject to reorientation based on the global objective of the UN mission.

    This document clearly shows that in the UN's view, humanitarian action remains subordinate to the UN's political arm and that humanitarian aid comes second to the political objectives pursued by the peacekeeping missions.

    The DRC provides a perfect illustration of this: the weakness of the international assistance given to Katanga and the slow response of the UN's operational agencies to the renewed displacements of populations that occurred at the end of 2005/ beginning of 2006 were linked to the reticence of the Security Council and donors to examine the situation in this "Presidential province", for highly diplomatic reasons.

    MSF has on a number of occasions publicly stressed the risks of the politicisation and the militarisation of the system of aid brought about by the "coherence agenda"4 and integrated missions, in particular in conf lict situations. This approach has notably led in the past to certain groups in need being excluded from immediate assistance in Angola, Sierra Leone and Burundi5.

    In Sierra Leone, for example, the UN in 1997 withdrew staff and cut off emergency assistance to support its political aim of weakening the AFRC/ RUF, the result of which was deliberate and unnecessary suffering and starvation of the population. This year, Darfur and the occupied Palestinian Territories served once again to remind us that humanitarian action constitutes a crisis management instrument.

    In April 2006, the World Food Programme (WFP) announced a halving of food rations to the people displaced by fighting in Darfur because of a lack of finance. This was brought about because the donor countries had decided to make assistance to populations conditional upon the signing of a peace agreement.

    Following the victory of Hamas in the January 2006 parliamentary election, several countries including the United States and the European Union decided to suspend their bilateral financial aid to the Palestinian Authority whilst proposing to redistribute these funds towards international relief organisations. Humanitarian action thus became a palliative for a retaliatory measure and was effectively asked to act as a substitute for the Palestinian Authority.

    Improving the effectiveness of relief actions depends mainly on upholding and implementing humanitarian principles by the operational agencies of the UN (WFP, Unicef, HCR) and by the NGOs, in other words, strengthening the impartiality and independence of humanitarian action. The increasing politicisation of the international system of aid over the past few years does little to inspire optimism, particularly as the majority of humanitarian relief actors are actively contributing to the process - or do not have the means to escape from it.