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UN Integration under the spotlight

Refugees queue at the UNHCR field office for tents allocation at Ifo camp, Dadaab, eastern Kenya John Ndiku/OCHA
Refugees queue at the UNHCR field office for tents allocation at Ifo camp, Dadaab, eastern Kenya
Putting all UN operations in a country under a single management structure is not as simple as it might sound. In some countries, different parts of the UN may be negotiating with rebels to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid, while their colleagues might be involved in planning military assaults against the very same groups.

Neutrality, impartiality and independence are regarded as humanitarian principles, but are not the priorities of UN political or peacekeeping missions, and many humanitarian staff believe integration helps to erode them, hampering their ability to help people in need.

Given ongoing tensions between UN agencies, the UK’s Overseas Development Institute and US-based public policy group The Stimson Center have carried out an independent study exploring the impact of integration on humanitarian response, finding that the new coordination model has drawbacks and some surprising benefits.

Coordination, or the lack of it, became an issue in the 1990s, as UN peacekeepers, political missions and humanitarian agencies found themselves working side-by-side in conflict-affected countries. (See Box I) The report’s authors detail UN operations in three countries - Afghanistan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) - as they struggled to comply with a policy of greater integration in various forms. (See Box II).

Afghanistan, Somalia and DRC

In all three countries a UN peacekeeping force was trying to stop armed groups threatening a peace process, while a UN political mission was trying to build capacity and support a recognized national government, and humanitarian agencies were trying to provide non-partisan help to all who needed it, regardless of their political affiliation. All three wings of the UN found it difficult when they were told to integrate their operations.

Leadership in integrated missions - timeline
1997: UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan commissions `Renewing the United Nations - A Programme for Reform’ in a bid to improve UN coordination. This notes that ‘separate UN entities… pursue their activities separately, without regard to or benefiting from each other’s presence.’ It rules that ‘all UN entities…. at country level will operate in common premises under a single UN flag.’
2000: The Brahimi Report on UN Peace Operations proposes that Integrated Mission Task Forces should become the standard for planning and supporting UN missions.
2000: Secretary-General issues a guidance note on relations between the key leaders in integrated missions - the Special Representative (SRSG), and the Humanitarian and Resident Coordinators. It puts the SRSG in charge, but stipulates that the RC/HC should “where feasible” also serve as Deputy SRSG (DSRSG). Each retains their own reporting line to HQ, while copying all substantive communication to each other.
2001: The “triple-hatted” position of DSRSG/HC/RC is established in Sierra Leone. Other similar appointments follow.
2006: A further guidance note establishes that the DSRSG reports primarily to the SRSG and through him or her to the Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, although with a secondary reporting line to the UN Development Project. But it also says the SRSG will uphold humanitarian principles and support the creation of an effective operating environment.
Although the information is presented anonymously, the rawness of interviewees’ emotions shines through the ODI/Stimson report. When it comes to engaging with non-state armed actors researchers found no evidence that the UN barred contact with such groups, but in some cases individual UN mission leaders created obstacles to contact. In Somalia, where the UN political mission tried to discourage humanitarian agencies from engaging with the Al-Shabab militant group, the overall UN mission head at the time went so far as to say: “Those who claim neutrality can also be complicit. The Somali government needs support - moral and financial - and Somalis as well as the international community have an obligation to provide both.”

Even where the local UN leadership accepted that the humanitarian agencies had to work with both sides in order to reach people in need, the relationship could be uncomfortable.

In DRC agencies could and did work in rebel controlled areas, but one interviewee told the authors: “It’s difficult to create a relationship with the FDLR [anti government forces] when MONUSCO [the UN peacekeeping force] is partnering with the Congolese army to hit them on the same day!”

One of the report’s authors, Alison Giffen from the Stimson Center, told IRIN they found the issue raised strong emotions among all stakeholders. “We found that despite quite a few reforms in the last five or six years, the debate remains very polarized,” she said. “The challenges and risks facing humanitarian actors are very considerable and this raises the stakes.”

Access and security

The report addresses the issue of whether a closer relationship with military and political operations puts aid workers in greater danger of attack. Encouragingly - and to the surprise of some - the authors concluded: “There is no evidence to suggest that attacks against humanitarian workers are more likely to occur in a UN integrated mission context.” Even in Afghanistan, they say, they could identify no case where there was a clear link between a security incident affecting an NGO and UN integration arrangements.

But Marit Glad of NGO Norwegian Refugee Council, who has written a paper on the implications of integration for the UN’s relationship with other NGOs does not find this particularly reassuring.

"Tying a single incident to integration is very difficult,” she told IRIN. “In some cases, as many as 10-15 different factors could potentially have contributed to a security incident, and it is in many cases impossible to pin down one single reason which caused it.”

Afghanistan has posed some of the starkest dilemmas, with UN agency staff having to relocate to military bases belonging to the NATO-led ISAF force during major security incidents. Some NGOs then stopped coming to meetings in their offices, because they felt that being seen going to the bases would compromise them. Glad says: “Integration brings a clear risk of jeopardizing cooperation between the UN and the NGO community. You have to ask what the benefits are. Is forcing integration worth the risk?”


In DRC things seem to have been less fraught; a good working relationship with MONUSCO brought benefits to both sides in terms of information sharing, and aid workers benefited from MONUSCO’s help with security and transport arrangements.

Three models for integrated missions
“Strategic Integration” - working together towards shared goals - does not always have to entail “Structural Integration” - actual changes in the organizational structure of the mission, where a single UN official will wear three hats: as the UN’s highest-ranking humanitarian representative (Humanitarian Coordinator), chief development official (Resident Coordinator) and deputy head of the peacekeeping or political mission (Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General).

Having ruled that “form follows function”, the UN has developed three main models for integrated missions:

“Both Feet In”: The Humanitarian/Resident Coordinator (HC/RC) serves as DSRSG and OCHA is located inside the integrated mission. This model is recommended for stable post-conflict settings where the presence of the UN’s political/military mission is well accepted. This was used in East Timor.

“One Foot In, One Foot Out”: The HC/RC serves as DSRSG, but OCHA retains an independent presence, outside the main mission. Recommended for situations where the political/military mission is more controversial. The model used in DRC and Afghanistan.

“Both Feet Out”: The Humanitarian Coordinator and the OCHA office are not integrated with the political or military aspects of the mission. Recommended for what OCHA calls “situations of persistent widespread conflict or lacking a credible peace process”. Adopted in Somalia.
Even so, some humanitarian workers worried about the two sides’ different attitude to risk - the military’s only concern was safety, and they felt this tended to make the whole operation too risk-averse, hampering their ability to access populations in need.

Ross Mountain wore the “triple hat” as humanitarian and resident coordinator, and deputy representative of the Secretary-General in DRC. He says his way of working was to try to be pragmatic, and focus on the needs of the victims of the conflict. “There were problems of perception,” he told IRIN, “but we tried to minimize the downside. For instance, as the DSRSG [Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General], I was never personally directly involved in negotiations with rebel groups. We got OCHA [Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] to do that directly.

“On the plus side, I was very concerned about civilian protection, and being inside the mission, I was able to work closely with the Force Commander, placing the military in areas where the humanitarians had identified concentrations of displaced people so that the peacekeepers’ presence dissuaded militias and other armed groups from attacking them.

“Over time I think integrated missions have become more concerned with the humanitarian dimension... Civilian protection eventually became the number one priority for the UN force in the Congo. What started off at the beginning as an add-on has become the raison d’être of peacekeeping missions.

While the report includes instances where humanitarian advocacy is undermined by integration, Mountain says in DRC in some cases it smoothed his advocacy role with the government. “When linked to the peacekeeping mission, one tended to be rather better listened to by those who didn’t always like what one was saying.”

Clearer guidance needed

The report says it found the reasons for more integration to be poorly understood, and the policy inconsistently implemented. On the whole the political/military side were happier with the outcomes than the humanitarian agencies, but the authors remark that the political/military wings of the mission often did not really understand humanitarian principles or the imperative need for neutral humanitarian space in which to work.

Clearer guidance, they conclude, is needed from headquarters, including advice on how potential disagreements can be resolved, as well as better planning and training of staff before they take up their posts. And, says Giffen, “confidence-building really needs to happen across all stakeholders, for shared goals to be reached, but also for specific goals to be reached.”

For better or worse, integration is here to stay, and UN humanitarian agency heads understand they must try to make it work, if possible. As UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos said at the study launch: “Integration is a UN-mandated policy. Withdrawing from (it) is not an option… At the same time, we cannot allow integration to impede the effective provision of humanitarian assistance to people in need.”

But form must follow function, stresses Mountain - with mission objectives leading the way: “You have to ask yourself, `Integration for what?’ It is vital to focus on what you are trying to do, and never to confuse the tools with the objective.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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