the lost american Revising the International Humanitarian System: Focus on the UN-- by FREDERICK C. CUNY EDITOR'S NOTE: The United Nations has long been a target for complaints
by global relief experts like Fred Cuny when it comes to the delivery of
humanitarian assistance. The following is testimony Cuny gave to the House
Select Committee on Hunger in July of 1991.  He explains where the UN is
falling short and how it should be improved.)
Mr. Chairman, Honorable Representatives, Distinguished Guests:

"I am extremely pleased to have the opportunity to testify today on what I consider to be one of the most urgent problems in the field of international humanitarian affairs: the paralysis and inability of the international humanitarian assistance system to meet the needs of disaster victims, refugees, and displaced persons. We have seen evidence of this failure in northern Iraq. Were it not for the valiant efforts of the allied military forces and the handful of private voluntary agencies, most of the Kurds would still be sitting in the mountain and dying at alarming rates. But northern Iraq is but one illustration of the problem. In southern Iraq, the United Nations, and the international community in general, were no-shows. Had there been a major need in Kuwait, it is unlikely that we would have been able to effectively marshall the required aid. Today, throughout the world, the international relief system is overstretched and breaking down.

There is no doubt that the system is overstretched but problems of manpower and resources can be quickly fixed. The most important problems are with the organizations themselves and the way they operate, and this will be the focus of my testimony.

There have been many proposals to improve the system. These include calls for a new Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs to provide executive coordination of the U.N.'s specialized agencies. Others have proposed that a structure be created similar to the Office for Emergency Operations in Africa which was established in 1985 to deal with the African famine. Others have proposed that a series of regional coordinators be established for each of the Third World's continents to focus efforts in those regions. In my opinion, each of these proposals would make little difference. The problems we are facing are both systemic and structural. They have to do with mandates, personnel policies, leadership, professionalism and, to be frank, donor neglect. It's easy to beat up on the United Nations, but we must remember that the UN is a reflection of what we've made it. If we are going to bring about true change, we need to address the problem of the entire humanitarian architecture, not simply that of the United Nations, but also of the rules and mandates of other international organizations, intergovernmental groups and of the private voluntary organizations.

Mr. Chairman, before making my recommendations on changes that need to be made, I think it is important to first examine the international system itself, to describe the agencies within the system and explore what they see their roles to be, and then examine the generic problems within that system. (To shorten my presentation, I will only focus on the UN but it should be remembered that to be effective, we must address the entire system.)

Second, we should note which groups are suffering as a result of the failures of the system; which groups are falling through the cracks because of restrictive mandates and the way the system is structured.


The international humanitarian system is composed of the United Nations specialized agencies, The International Committee of the Red Cross, the League of Red Cross Societies, hundreds of private voluntary organizations and the international financing institutions, such as the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, etc. Any review of the architecture must begin with the United Nations, for it is not only the largest group of agencies operating under one flag, it is the primary organization to which the world community turns in times of stress or disaster.

Perhaps the first step in defining the United Nations' role in emergencies is not to define what it is, but what it is not. As the heads of its specialized agencies continuously point out, the United Nations is not in the business of helping people; it is in the business of helping countries. The United Nations is a club of nations. The roles and the mandates of the specialized UN agencies are designed to assist member nations in dealing with their own problems. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNICEF, the World Food Program and all the others may only help if, and when, they are asked to do so by a member government. Furthermore, the member government may restrict, or selectively apply, the terms of each agency's mandate and may restrict the geographical areas in which they operate. This is an important consideration, for most of the challenges with which we are faced are in countries where governments are in conflict with their own people. As James Cheek, ambassador to Sudan, once pointed out, in most circumstances, effective humanitarian assistance implies a violation of national sovereignty. The mandate to help countries, not people, becomes clearer when we examine the specific work of each UN agency.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

The UNHCR was created to assist countries in dealing with the problem of refugees. Its mandate, and the way it has been interpreted by successive High Commissioners, prevents the agency from effectively dealing with a problem before it becomes an international issue. In short, UNHCR can only deal with refugees once they have crossed an international border. Many times in the last decade, UNHCR was prevented by its internal policies from taking any preparatory action despite the fact that it was well known that thousands of people were moving toward a neighboring country. In the international community, there is much talk of early warning of refugee flows and initiating forward planning to ensure that people are properly cared for when they arrive. Yet, reality is very different. The UNHCR is often afraid of bringing up the matter for fear that the country of asylum my close its borders to prevent the people from entering. Careful planning can rarely take place since the emergency budget of UNHCR is often over stretched and the High Commissioner's representatives are reluctant to commit resources until refugees are actually admitted. There is simply not enough money available to encourage a representative to take risks.

Another major problem facing UNHCR is the struggle between those who see its primary mandate as protection in a strictly legal sense and assistance (or emergency relief). The issue has become a Trans-Atlantic debate with the United States and Canada strongly advocating a more operational role for UNHCR while the Europeans have fought hard in recent years to restrict it to protection. One only needs to consider the composition of the UNHCR staff to see where its priorities currently lie. The Specialist Support Division, which provides in-house technical support during emergency and field operations, has been reduced in the last two years from twenty-two people to eight. In the recent Iraq emergency, I heard senior State Department officials wonder why the UNHCR was not sending its nutritionists, refugee camp planners and logisticians to the emergency. But in reality, UNHCR only has one nutritionist, one doctor, one water engineer and one architect (with little practical experience in refugee camp planning).

United Nations Disaster Relief Office (UNDRO)

UNDRO has been a disaster itself ever since it was created. The international community expects UNDRO to provide disaster relief and to coordinate emergency operations. It was created at a time much like the present. The world was frustrated with the inability of the United Nations to provide effective relief in Biafra, Peru, and Bangladesh. The Office of the UN Coordinator was thus established in an attempt to overcome those problems. Yet, successive Coordinators have failed, and UNDRO's problems demonstrate how failure to understand how the system works when an organization is formed can effect its performance. UNDRO's primary task is to serve as coordinator for international disaster assistance. In practical terms, this is not workable. Outsiders unfamiliar with local government or politics should not coordinate; the national government should.

Implementation of UNDRO's program has been hampered by the imprecise nature of its mandate, by its inability to establish a leadership role, by limitations placed on the organization by financial constraints, by problems in determining its role in complex emergencies such as famine and civil conflict, and by the fact that it does not provide relief, but only coordinates the relief efforts of others from outside the affected country.

Another major problem for UNDRO is that its mandate forces it to focus on the one area where it is the least effective; that is, emergency relief. Natural disasters are essentially a development problem. They have to do with the quality of housing, rapid urbanization, poor land utilization, etc. When UNDRO was established, disasters were treated in isolation from development. Thus, UNDRO was given autonomous status and not placed under the auspices of the UN Development Program (UNDP). If the system is to address the causes of the problems, we must begin by integrating disaster and development and take advantage of the many opportunities to link vulnerability, reduction and mitigation to development programs. As an independent agency, UNDRO can never be effective in that role.

United Nations Development Program (UNDP)

Last year, the United Nations Development Program established an Office of Emergency Support. As a result of the complex emergencies (i.e., civil wars and famines) in the Horn of Africa and especially Sudan, UNDP created an office to provide support to UNDP representatives, who are also the United Nations Resident Coordinators in each country. The debate surrounding the creation of this office is interesting. It was clear that UNHCR was not anxious to expand its mandate to handle displaced persons, and UNICEF did not have the resources to handle all the problems in complex emergencies. Experience had shown that a large portion of the persons displaced by civil conflict and famine would flee to the government's side of the lines where they could be helped, at least in theory, by the UN system operating through the national government. Thus, UNDP was tagged. While setting up the office is a step forward, it is still a stopgap measure. Ironically, UNDP did not address the main types of disasters for which it is most appropriately suited, i.e., natural disasters such as earthquakes, wind storms and floods.

World Food Program (WFP)

The World Food Program is generally limited to delivering food from food surplus countries to food deficit countries. In extreme food emergencies, such as famines, the organization should be effective, but it is not. Famines are far more complex than simply food deficits. They represent the failure of markets and food pricing systems. Famines rarely occur in countries without war or civil conflict. By mandating the agency to only delivering, and preventing it from selling food or from entering the market system with a variety of other interventions, WFP usually causes more problems than it solves. Many observers believe that the current crises in western Sudan could have been prevented by early market interventions, but the international community insisted on providing food rather than taking a more sophisticated approach which could have responded more rapidly and substantially reduced the overall scope of the problem that was then developing.

World Health Organization (WHO)

WHO is primarily a technical assistance agency that works with a country's health authorities to prevent communicable disease and to build institutions that can effectively deal with health problems. As long as those problems are within areas of government control, the organization can carry out its mandate. But in counties where the government has little infrastructure outside the capital or has lost control over much of its territory due to civil war, WHO can only sit on the sidelines or counsel private agencies and others about what to do. Only in Latin America, where the Pan American Health Organization has taken on an aggressive and proactive approach, has WHO been effective in the field of disasters or disaster preparedness.


UNICEF is the one bright spot in the United Nations system. It is the best operational agency and is the most flexible. Its mandate, which permits it to go wherever children are in need, has been interpreted by its Executive Director and its Emergency Unit as a mandate to try and find creative ways to respond to emergencies. The one criticism that could be leveled at UNICEF is that its operations are too narrowly focused, but what they do, they generally do well.


The problems of the UN go beyond restrictive mandates; all UN agencies face some fundamental problems. These include large numbers of incompetent staff, a lack of motivation, built in disincentives to working in the field, a lack of professional training and a lack of funding, especially emergency funds that would permit agencies to respond immediately or before an emergency becomes acute. (The latter is extremely important. Despite years of pleading, it still takes images of starving children before the international system can get funding for an emergency.)

The cumulative result of these problems are felt most at the field level. For example, there is now a major scramble to find someone who can head emergency operations in the Ogaden. After spending five years and millions of dollars training UNHCR and UNICEF staff in emergency operations, can they not find one person capable of going to the field to run an operation?

In northern Iraq, at the height of Operation Provide Comfort, UNHCR had only one P-4 (a mid-level professional position) in the allied security zone. The next highest rank was an L-2, an entry-level, short-term consultant. Eight of the top nine positions in the security zone were taken by people who had been seconded to UNHCR and had no idea how it operated. A key post was administrator of the Dahouk office, the most sensitive place in the area: the person sent there is normally a secretary in UNHCR's headquarters in Geneva.

These problems are not new. Since 1985, UNHCR has had trouble finding volunteers to staff key posts in many places, such as Gambella, one of the most sensitive and critical areas in Ethiopia. The UN system of pay and promotions has evolved in such a way that it discourages people from leaving headquarters and taking up difficult assignments. Worse, the system promotes people away from the field. The higher up you go, the less contact you have with field operations. As a result, the average age of the persons who manage UN emergency operations around the world is in the low 30's and there are few experienced field "generals" to take charge when a full-blown emergency occurs. Persons who really know the system, how to operate in a confused environment and who can sort through the complexities of competing national and international agendas are either discarded at an early age or co-opted by the system and put in meaningless desk jobs far from the action. In the end, it may be far easier to change the mandates of each of the UN agencies than to overcome generic problems of the UN staffing system.


Perhaps the biggest obstacle to improving the performance of the UN system is the lack of accountability. If a UN agency makes major mistakes and hundreds, or even thousands, of people die as a result, who makes the agency accountable? Most emergencies occur in remote, backwater locales far from immediate attention and it may be weeks before the world takes notice of a developing problem. If the staff of the scene do not respond or respond slowly, how often do they get called on the carpet. Poor field performance has never hindered job promotions in the UN. But responsibility for this situation must be shared, for the donors -- including the US -- continue to fund the organizations and rarely conduct more than superficial audits of the UN agencies' fiscal accounts. Until the donors hold the UN to a set of performance standards and insist on demonstrated improvements, we will see little change in the way the UN operates.


While it would be difficult to enumerate the number of people who fall through the system each year, there is no doubt that it is many times the number of people that we are actually reaching. For example, in civil conflicts the number of displaced persons far exceeds the number of refugees, yet we have no international agency that is mandated with helping displaced persons.

Displaced persons are the most obvious and most important group without an international advocate. If those fleeing civil war head to the government's side, theoretically they could be helped by the UN system. But in more cases than not, the government is part of the problem and often they regard the displaced with suspicion and hostility. Each year, thousands of experienced relief workers are actively prevented from helping the displaced by the very governments they seek to assist. If the displaced choose to remain in rebel-held areas, extraordinary efforts must be mounted to provide assistance and the UN is often powerless to do anything other than put moral pressure on the two sides to permit relief efforts.

Persecuted minorities are another major group that cannot be assisted effectively through the UN system. How many tribes in Africa, the rain forests of Brazil, or the tropical forests of Indonesia face extinction because of persecution by their governments while the United Nations agencies are powerless to intervene in their behalf?

Persons repatriating to their country during time of conflict or those returning from internal exile can only rarely assisted by the UN system. If a Southern Sudanese forced out of Khartoum by his government tries to return to areas held by the SPLA in southern Sudan, little can be done to effectively help him or his family rebuild their lives. Recent studies have indicated that many refugees and displaced civilians could return home in relative safety and resume productive lives if assistance were made available. In some cases it is even possible to use assistance to returnees to effectively stabilize areas where conflict is minimal and eventually reduce the scale of the conflict but requires helping people resume farming and economic enterprises, not traditional relief. With a mandate to work with the host government, the UN system is effectively prevented from participating in these programs.

Persons living in communities impacted by an influx of refugees or displaced persons are almost totally neglected by the UN system. A few letters of understanding have been written between the UN specialized agencies promising to resolve the matter, but by and large, relief and economic assistance is still highly selective and targeted on the primary victim. No matter that 10,000 displaced persons swarm into a small village and destroy the local economy and job market; the only ones who can receive food rations are the displaced. The unemployed and undernourished children who are increasingly marginalized by the influx must stand aside and watch while the displaced receive all the benefits of international beneficence.

Recently we have witnessed two new types of migration crises: population exchanges and forced repatriation of third country nationals. Population exchanges occur when two countries expel large numbers of each other's resident emigrant population, as happened in Senegal and Mauritania in 1989. Both countries accepted the expellees as citizens, not refugees, yet there are few programs or institutions in the international system that are configured to deal with the unique problems of rapid population absorption.

In the case of mass expulsions of third country nationals, the country of origin is often struck by a two-edged sword. When Nigeria expelled its Ghanaian work force, Ghana was suddenly faced with absorbing a population equal to approximately 20% of its existing population, while at the same time, losing 50% of its foreign income earnings. Treating the population transfer as a relief problem has left that country a financial wreck.

The victims of natural disasters also find themselves without a strong advocate in the UN system. As mentioned earlier, UNDRO provides neither disaster relief nor effective coordination. The organization was established at a time when relief was seen as the best response -- not prevention, mitigation or reconstruction. As a result, the system has been designed to rapidly acquire and ship useless "junk" aid around the world at great expense and UNDRO has done little to effectively discourage inappropriate or ineffective assistance.


Mr. Chairman, the time has come to quit applying bandaids to the cancer. As we enter the post-cold war era, it is time to completely redesign the international humanitarian architecture. We can begin by overhauling many of the existing agencies, expanding their mandates, shifting their focus, or merging some, or some of their functions, into others. We may need to explore the possibility of forming new agencies and entities to fill the gaps that currently exist. But most important, we must match the changes that are required to the needs that exist. With your indulgence, Mr. Chairman, I would like to submit the following as a short list of specific changes that should be made in the mandates of the specialized UN agencies and some generic changes that must be encouraged.

Mandate Revisions

The most important group that we must assist in the immediate future is displaced persons. I strongly urge that the United States government encourage the Secretary General to expand the mandate of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to include protection and assistance to the displaced. Our recent experience in northern Iraq has illustrated that the international community can effectively intervene to stop a crisis in its tracks. In only 11 weeks, the coalition and our civilian partner agencies relocated 425,000 people from mountain encampments along the Turkish border back to their homes. Not only were the people returned, the harvest was brought in, the economy was restarted, schools were reopened and stability was brought back to the area. The success of this operation permitted almost a million refugees in Iran to return to their areas outside the allied zone. Had the problem of displacement not been addressed in the country of origin, Turkey and Iran would now be faced with long-term refugee situations not unlike those of scores of other countries around the world and the international community would be faced with the burden of providing humanitarian assistance and long-term care and maintenance for years to come.

The situation in Iraq is not unique. While military intervention may not be practical, nor indeed desirable, in many other situations, international intervention on a humanitarian basis to solve developing refugee problems before they become an international issue can succeed, but only if we properly configure the United Nations to undertake that role.

A mechanism that will permit the High Commissioner to operate in internal conflicts will be required. This should be standing resolution or a clause issued by the Secretary General or the Security Council that mandates the High Commissioner to intervene to save lives. I believe that such a resolution can be carefully crafted and worded in such a way that it will acceptable to the permanent members of the Council and will ensure that it will be used more often than not. In this period of perestroika, the great powers understand that it is to their advantage that stability be brought to an area before a conflict spreads and creates instability in a region.

The second major task is revising the mission of UNDRO. There are several options. UNDRO could either be moved to the UNDP, where it belongs, or it could be restructured to provide emergency support for all UN agencies. In the first option, it makes sense to shift the organization into the UNDP. As mentioned earlier, natural disasters are essentially a development problem and being an integral part of the United Nations leading development agency would enable UNDRO or its derivative, the ability to focus its energies on the activities that can yield the best results: disaster prevention, mitigation and reconstruction.

It is still desirable, however, that the United Nations have the capability of responding effectively to acute emergencies. For the immediate future, all the existing UN agencies will continue to respond to emergencies, yet no one agency has all the effective resources or personnel to meet the needs. UNDRO could be revamped as an organization that would provide emergency support to all the entire UN system. It would have its own stockpiles of emergency supplies, a standing emergency fund, mechanisms (and authority) to contract the necessary personnel, services, or consultants and could rapidly deploy a variety of technicians and equipment anywhere in the world in support of the lead UN agency. It is difficult for one agency to justify keeping large numbers of refugee camp planners, emergency logisticians, nutritionists, etc. on their full-time staff, but a singular emergency support agency could retain and second these staff to UNHCR, UNICEF or WFP when they are needed. The agency wouldn't lead an emergency, its job would be to support the specialized agencies when and where necessary. In concept, this agency would serve the UN in the same way that the highly successful DART team employed by AID's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance in northern Iraq, serves the US government.

The mandate of the World Food Program is the third task that must be undertaken. Both its mandate and its operating procedures need to be changed to give the agency more flexibility and to make it more responsive to needs. In cases where famine is eminent, WFP must be permitted to enter the marketplace and apply creative interventions to contain famine and to eradicate the core problems, few of which are actually related to the availability of food.

The World Health Organization will need to become more operational in the immediate future. The current wave of cholera epidemics underscore the types of problems that we are already facing. WHO must become more operational and develop capabilities not unlike those of the Center for Disease Control to successfully intervene and stop epidemics before they get out of hand.

Addressing the Systemic Problems

The UN system as a whole and the way in which it operates also needs to be called into question. The issue of nationalities, i.e. the requirement that the UN hire staff from all member countries, is often quoted as one of the major obstacles to improving the UN's performance. I believe, however, that it is not so much a question of hiring as one of firing. In any bureaucracy, it is difficult to tell whether or not a person is competent until they actually take a job. If he or she is ineffectual, it is difficult to remove them. The UN needs to develop hiring procedures that can overcome this problem and when a staffer doesn't work out, swiftly replace him or her with someone who can do the job.

In a system where no one is fired, promotion comes on the basis of years in grade rather than performance. The UN should be encouraged to establish performance-based promotion standards and to demand better performance and suitable field experience as prerequisites to advancement. Furthermore, the system should be restructured so that the highest and most prestigious jobs are field-related, not headquarters-related. Emergency agencies should acquire enthusiastic field operatives and encourage them to stay in the field and pursue careers that will give them opportunities to exert leadership and command at the end of their career after they've had a variety of experiences, not in the beginning when they are still novices.

Professional development needs to institutionalized within the UNHCR, WFP and UNICEF. One of the reasons why our military has been so effective in emergencies is that the upper echelons have been required to "punch their tickets" on the path to flag rank. A person does not become a general in the American Army unless he or she has held field command and attended a variety of schools and in-service training throughout his or her career. With the exception of UNHCR, no UN agency has a professional staff development program designed to develop leadership or to encourage professionalism in emergency operations.

Finally, the UN must undertake a serious examination of its system of remuneration for people working in the field and eliminate those disincentives that encourage people to remain in headquarters for financial reasons. Until the system rewards people for taking risks and leaving their families, it will continue to be impractical to expect people to accept posts with long periods of hardship in remote areas.

Outside Pressures

Mr. Chairman, while I believe that most of these changes can take place from within, I am not so naive as to believe that they will take place without continuous outside pressure. To be frank, the United States Government and those agencies charged with monitoring the UN have been remiss in failing to demand better performance. It is only when we have an extraordinary emergency that acquires worldwide attention that we become alarmed and briefly focus our attention on these issues. In the last decade, dozens of senators, representatives, State Department officials, staffers of the GAO and other government officials have bashed the United Nations for its failures in emergency operations. Yet, how many of them could actually describe in detail how the UNHCR operates in the field, how a branch office is structured or even define the different grades and ranks within the UN system. If we are to hold the UN accountable, we ourselves must develop the capability to effectively monitor the UN and develop a sophisticated understanding far beyond that which we now possess.

The best reform is reform carried out as a result of pressures from within. The problem is how to stimulate those pressures. One way is through competition. At the present time, the United Nations is virtually the only international organization in many humanitarian fields. But there are other types of international groups. For example, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) is an intergovernmental organization created by Western governments to deal with specific migration issues, and special problems facing refugees and displaced persons. Many of UNHCR's staff have come to view IOM as a competitor, especially in the field of repatriation and resettlement. In northern Iraq, when UNHCR was stonewalling and refusing to effectively engage in the operation, the staff of the US Embassy in Ankara decided to explore alternatives and contacted IOM to see if they could help organize and manage the return of the Kurds to their communities. Friends inside UNHCR tell me that within hours after the UNHCR learned that IOM had been approached, they reversed their earlier position and offered to assist in operation. This situation is not unique: I have personally witnessed dozens of times when a UN agency chose to undertake a specific task because of the threat of another agency becoming involved on its turf.

We need to promote this creative tension by strengthening existing intergovernmental agencies and expanding their mandates so that they provide suitable competition for the UN. Not only will we be able to improve the performance of the UN and its competitors, but we should also be able to build some much needed redundancy into the international system.

Another intergovernmental agency that could be strengthened to undertake humanitarian operations is NATO. Our successful experience in northern Iraq has also demonstrated the value of backing humanitarian objectives with military clout. It is clear that repatriation and reintegration in Kurdistan could not have proceeded as swiftly had the allied forces not been present. The lesson is not that military intervention is required in every case, but that clear signals to offending nations that the great powers are prepared and willing to apply force to stop human rights abuses can be a powerful means for stopping gross abuses and gaining access to troubled regions. For this reason, it may be wise to explore new ways by which existing international agencies can work under a coalition-like umbrella in the future.

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my presentation. I would like to thank the Select Committee for giving me this opportunity to speak and I welcome any questions that you may have regarding my presentation."

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