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In Conversation With: George Okoth-Obbo, head of operations at the UN refugee agency

The senior UNHCR executive opens up about his agency’s challenges influencing antagonistic governments, its fractious relationship with other UN agencies, and a refugee response system at "breaking point"

Allison Joyce/UN Women

Monsoon season in Bangladesh’s Rohingya refugee camps, formerly refugee-friendly countries closing their borders, and an international refugee response system at “breaking point”: these are just some of the things that keep the man who oversees the delivery of UN aid to millions of refugees up at night.

George Okoth-Obbo, the UN refugee agency’s assistant high commissioner for operations, sat down recently with IRIN Director Heba Aly and opened up about the challenges of helping tens of millions of forcibly displaced people around the world amid unrelenting new emergencies, rising needs, and an increasingly hostile political environment.

In an unusually frank conversation, Okoth-Obbo lamented UNHCR’s challenges to influence antagonistic governments, acknowledged “inter-agency strife” at the UN, and looked for a “more equal relationship” with the NGOs that carry out its programmes.

A lawyer by training, Okoth-Obbo took over UNHCR’s operations in 2015 after decades spent at many levels in the organisation, from field worker in Botswana to director of the Regional Bureau for Africa.

George Okoth-Obbo

The interview – held at UNHCR’s annual meeting with hundreds of its NGO partners in Geneva in late June – came as the UN gears up to agree a more effective way of responding to refugee crises at its General Assembly in September, after two years of negotiations around a new global compact for refugees.

Okoth-Obbo also expressed concern about regressive moves in protecting refugees around the globe. For instance, IRIN has reported on Jordan closing its border to Syrian refugees; Kenya threatening to close its largest camp for Somali refugees; and Pakistan’s constant threats to send Afghan refugees home. In the United States, the separation of Central American migrant children from their parents recently caused an uproar around the world.

“We are seeing some of the most serious forms of retrenchment from good asylum protection-based policy – policies of compassion, policies of receiving people – either in deliberate policy and legal terms or in practice,” he said.

Along with the rolling back of rights to asylum and protection, he noted a deterioration in the circumstances in which refugees live.

“The conditions of life of refugees really are terrible – and in fact weakening with time,” Okoth-Obbo said.

George Okoth-Obbo on the roll-back of refugee protections

He acknowledged UNHCR’s “weakness in performance” in meeting even the most immediate needs of refugees at times, but put this largely down to a lack of resources, noting that despite an overall budget increase the agency’s spending per capita has dropped from $1.24 per refugee per day in 2009 to about $0.60 today. “This is the reality that we face: on a per capita basis, our programmes are becoming poorer.”

Highlights of the conversation follow, edited for clarity and length:

Myanmar, “the single most preoccupying situation”

Top of mind for Okoth-Obbo are nearly one million Rohingya refugees packed into densely populated camps in Bangladesh and now facing the monsoon season. He said he regretted not having found an alternative to housing the refugees in crowded camps, which increase the risk of disease and sexual and gender-based violence, and the impact of the monsoons.

“The single most preoccupying situation that has kept me awake is the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, because they faced… still face today, and will continue to face through to September the risk not just of harm but potential death if the monsoons and the cyclones were to come with the vigour that we have all feared...

“The single greatest failure of protection – and that's our mandate – is if the people that we are interested to serve end up being exposed to risk. The most extreme, and most unacceptable, of those risks is where there is loss of life or great brutalisation of personal safety and dignity.”

In Bangladesh, UN agencies “played off” each other

Okoth-Obbo acknowledged a rivalry between UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration over leadership of the aid response in Bangladesh, widely seen to have hampered relief efforts to the Rohingya. As IRIN has reported, Bangladesh refused to let UNHCR lead the response, as it typically does in such situations, because the government had a closer relationship with IOM. Okoth-Obbo also noted competition between UN agencies over control of the increasingly lucrative business of cash transfers to refugees.

“We need greater unity among ourselves as the United Nations agencies because, quite frankly, in [the case of Bangladesh] there were also considerable weaknesses on our side, which allowed the situation to be exploited... [If] we are perceived as being in competition with each other... that will magnify the opportunity for one to be played off against the other...

“There has been inter-agency strife – let's put it like that – between UNHCR and [the World Food Programme] at this particular stage in the evolution of the application of cash in humanitarian refugee programmes...

“Those things have occurred,” Okoth-Obbo said. IRIN's reporting has uncovered  “massive disagreements” in particular programmes in Turkey and Lebanon. 

“But let us not overgeneralise, because since 2016 to the end of last year, UNHCR dispersed $1.2 billion in cash in 95 countries,” Okoth-Obbo said. “This strife – if that's what it is – is not the character at all in the majority of those operations.

“What we are increasingly working at is the ‘straight line’ approach… At head of agency level, especially between us and WFP, we are hoping that we can resolve these questions as quickly as possible so that the general pattern will be one of focusing, by far the most of all, on the people themselves.”

In dealing with strong governments, the UN is “a bit lost”

Okoth-Obbo said the UN is most comfortable working in fragile states, where governments generally demand less influence over the UN's direction. But “when we confront strong governments, we are a bit lost”. While many governments "truly seek to abide by their obligations" under refugee law and provide international protections for refugees and other displaced people, most governments also have interests that might not coincide with those objectives, he said.​

“It's a very tense relationship and we are an intergovernmental organisation, which must remain constantly sensitive to our ability to do business. In other words, we have to be on the ground to be able to work on a day-to-day basis...

“This kind of work,” he said, referring to long-term outreach with both assertive governments and communities on the ground, “we are not very good at as UNHCR.”

“A more equal relationship” between UNHCR and NGOs

UNHCR and its partners must shift their focus away from pure aid delivery towards influencing the “hearts, souls, and attitudes” of both host governments and host communities, which increasingly espouse anti-refugee positions, Okoth-Obbo said. NGOs could play an important role.

“We need somehow to have a partnership [with NGOs]… that is much more dynamic in reaching out to decision makers and to political constituencies at home… everywhere – from the United States to my own country, Uganda...

“Quite a lot of the energy we spend duelling with each other… I have definitely seen it in cases where [what is meant to be joint advocacy] comes out as fundamentally a battle between NGOs and UNHCR. This then creates in-house a dynamic of sort of feeling defensive, which is wasted energy, isn't it?...

“So how do we optimise this power of voice [that NGOs have] so that most of the energy is spent in the right direction?...

“The answer to this question cannot be anymore: ‘UNHCR will be the voice and then our partners will wait to follow operationally.’ I think we have to create a more equal relationship.”
He cited as an example UNHCR's relationship with BRAC, Bangladesh’s largest development NGO, which "quite frankly has – at least on some issues – more leverage with the government than we do”, noting that BRAC was successful in engaging both the government and local communities in tandem with UNHCR.
George Okoth-Obbo on UNHCR leading from behind

George Okoth-Obbo on UNHCR leading from behind


A system at “breaking point”

So far this year, UNHCR has received $1.9 billion from donors, about half of what the agency spent in 2017, and far less than the $8 billion it has requested. Okoth-Obbo said this has forced the agency to prioritise some thematic sectors, like hygiene, shelter, or advocacy, over others in any given emergency.​

"We are obliged because of resource constraints to do constant revisions and reprioritisation."

George Okoth-Obbo on why refugees regularly protest the quality of services they receive

George Okoth-Obbo on why refugees are increasingly protesting the quality of services they receive


“As we sit here, one human being is being displaced every two seconds; 44,000 every day; and three million from one year to the next. While we have old situations that are not going away – whether it is in Yemen, the Sahrawi situation, CAR [Central African Republic], Colombia – more and more are being added each year. The system is at breaking point…

“If I was to choose one thing which all of us should work on very strongly for the 12 months, it would be capacity. Because we are really at the limit of the capacity…

“In the case of Myanmar, at the beginning there was hardly really any conversation in terms of doing something about the factors which are causing people to be displaced… Take the Venezuela situation, for example, or South Sudan – whatever we are doing on the humanitarian side, more should be done on the prevention side because the system, in my view, has reached the limit, or is very close to reaching the limit, of being able to absorb the situation.”

A new approach to refugee response “is working”

A more predictable and comprehensive approach to handling refugee influxes, known as the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, aims to relieve the pressure on humanitarian agencies by encouraging more sustainable, long-term responses that encourage self-resilience and share the so-called burden among a wider number of countries. Is this working?

“I would not pretend that there are not problems… [But] it is working,” Okoth-Obbo said.

“[For example], Venezuelans [fleeing into other South American countries] have found solutions through different pathways, without a cost to the humanitarian system.”

Even in countries that are not formally part of the CRRF, like Cameroon, he said refugees are being integrated into existing national socio-economic systems and international development plans, rather than helped by aid agencies through emergency response.

Keep your ‘refugee protection talk’ out of here

The CRRF is an example of a new push towards a closer relationship between long-term development and short-term emergency aid providers in protracted emergencies. But the so-called humanitarian-development nexus has raised concerns about the ability of humanitarians to remain independent while working with development agencies who are often closely aligned with governments.

Refugee response is no exception. A longer-term approach to refugees, including increasing emphasis on integrating them into national development plans, is absolutely needed, Okoth-Obbo acknowledged, but in his eyes, it also risks weakening the protections woven into humanitarian response.

George Okoth-Obbo on how UNHCR must protect its space amid a push to work more closely with government and development agencies

George Okoth-Obbo on how UNHCR must protect its space amid a push to work more closely with government and development agencies


IDPs: the ‘poor cousins’ of refugees

While admitting failures in some refugee responses, Okoth-Obbo was even stronger in condemning UNHCR’s approach​ to people who are displaced within their own countries but have not crossed international borders. Internally displaced persons (IDPs) make up almost two thirds of those forced to flee globally, and yet, by UNHCR’s own admission, its response to them is less predictable, consistent, and coherent. For instance, UNHCR was much faster to respond to some 30,000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo in Angola than to the millions of people internally displaced within the DRC. An internal review recommended in September 2017 changes to the way UNHCR staffs and budgets its operations to more quickly and automatically respond to such crises. Ahead of a year-end deadline for implementation, what tangible progress has been made towards putting those recommendations into action?

“To be absolutely candid with you, we are still in the middle of setting up all these changes, and particularly in terms of the internal systems and capacities that will have to be created.” While noting that the agency had trialled some of these recommendations when responding to displaced people in the Kasai region of Congo, Okoth-Obbo said: “the truth is that we are still in the stage of working those through...

“It is absolutely correct to say that, today, IDPs remain poor cousins if you compare them, for instance, to refugees… We acknowledge that the response at large, including ours, could be much stronger. The overall response to IDPs, not only of UNHCR, but of the system as a whole, is still too heavily weighed down by processes, particularly coordination processes.”

Putting people first… later?

So where is UNHCR in its quest to “put people first”, a common mantra nowadays and the theme of this year’s annual UNHCR-NGO meetings? UNHCR is rolling out a new system in 21 countries in which its NGO partners – and the refugees themselves – can much more actively participate in the design of its programmes, Okoth-Obbo noted.

“We tend to be driven by the imperatives that we ourselves have to respond to operationally, and those then include a very big mix of things that do not always in all cases coincide with what the refugees themselves would have wished.”

George Okoth-Obbo on why a bid to build the capacity of local organisations failed

George Okoth-Obbo on how international NGOs were reluctant to build the capacity of local organisations


“There are operations in which engagement – whether of women, young people, or people with disabilities – is very successful. But I also have to be very honest that there are others where we are much further behind. We still have operations today where, for instance, women's participation is very difficult. We still have operations today where you'll find a refugee leadership group that is made up not only of men, but very old men actually...

“So it varies. What is common across the board is our commitment more and more, day-in day-out, to work towards this greater inclusivity. And not only consulting with, talking with and listening to refugees, but engaging them in the decisions that we make that ultimately impact their life.”

Watch the whole interview here:


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