UN ‘Dysfunction’ at Heart of Slow Response to Humanitarian Crises

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July 8, 2014 – The global humanitarian system is failing to appropriately and rapidly respond to crises and the UN is at heart of this failure, according to a new report from Medecins Sans Frontiers.

The organization reviewed three recent crises – the refugee emergency in Upper Nile State, South Sudan from Nov. 2011 to Nov. 2012; the M23 mutiny in North Kivu, DRC, from April 2012 to April 2013; and the influx of Syrian refugees to Jordan from July 2012 to June 2013.

“The UN was at the heart of the dysfunction in each of the cases reviewed. There, historical mandates and institutional positioning have created a system with artificial boundaries (for example, between the coordination roles of UNHCR for refugees and OCHA elsewhere), to the detriment of those needing assistance and protection,” the report states.

“Further, the triple role of key UN agencies, as donor, coordinator and implementer, is causing conflicts of interest, especially in recognizing and correcting mistakes.”

Significantly, the report notes that “insufficiency of financing was not identified as a major constraint on performance in any of the three emergencies reviewed.”

Instead it says that disbursement of funds is slow and bureaucratic and the process for receiving funds in the field takes up to three months “which means it cannot be properly considered ’emergency response.'”

The report specifically criticizes the UN Refugee Agency’s role as coordinator, implementor and donor saying this triple role led to considerable “conflicts of interest” and this in turn made it difficult for “UNHCR itself to admit to bigger problems or to ask for technical assistance from other UN agencies, for fear of losing out on funding or credibility.”

It says that refugee status and not need or vulnerability was the primary determinant of assistance and that those registered with UNHCR and living in UNHCR camps were prioritized over those living in host communities.

The MSF report also states that “risk aversion” is a major problem in the global humanitarian response system and “populations received assistance in large part based on how easy they were to target and reach.”

“While the humanitarian system has grown massively, this had not led to a proportionate improvement in performance during emergencies,” the report concludes.

A spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs responded that it welcomes the contribution by MSF ahead of the World Humanitarian Summit which is being convened because of the “unprecedented strain on the international humanitarian system” and that “many of the report’s conclusions are reflected in OCHA’s own reviews of humanitarian operations.”

“The UN has already been addressing some of the concerns raised by MSF. We are working to improve our security management,” OCHA’s Clare Doyle said in an email to UN Tribune. “Aid organisations are using rapid mobile response teams, for example in South Sudan, to reach the most remote locations. Over 800,000 people have been reached by these teams since March 2014.”

She added that research does not indicate that aid workers are becoming more risk averse. “Figures from the Aid Workers Security Database do not support MSF’s assertion that humanitarian workers are becoming more risk averse, but indicate that the risk acceptance of humanitarian workers is increasing slightly.”

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Image/UNHCR

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