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InterAction hosts briefing with Anne Willem Bijleveld of UNHCR

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The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is currently facing one of the most serious funding crises in its history. Global recession and country budget cuts have left the agency with a significant budgetary shortfall in 2002, and prospects for the immediate future of the crisis appear bleak. Mr. Anne Willem Bijleveld, Director of Communications and Information for UNHCR, briefed InterAction member agencies on the UNHCR funding crisis, its impact on refugee programming, and agency strategies for securing financial stability in the future.
Mr. Bijleveld opened the discussion with an update on the budget crisis. In fiscal year 2002, UNHCR had an annual budget of $800 million plus a $200 million supplemental budget for its operations in Afghanistan. The agency received only $900 million in donations from member states, however, requiring nearly $100 million in program cuts. At this level, the UNHCR is operating at an absolute minimum level; any further cuts would require the agency to operate below acceptable levels of assistance.

For 2003, the UNHCR Executive Committee adopted a budget of $870 million with a supplemental of $200 million for assistance to Afghanistan, Angola, Sri Lanka, and Côte d'Ivoire. UNHCR officials, however, are expecting another shortfall of $100 million dollars. Furthermore, major developments in Côte d'Ivoire and possible refugee repatriations in Sudan, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, would require additional appropriations, which could result in possible budgetary needs of $1.3 billion.

Bijleveld specifically addressed issues around the bilateralization of refugee funding. Rather than channeling refugee funds through UNHCR, donor governments are increasingly funding non-governmental organizations (NGOs) directly. Thus, while UNCHR is charged with providing basic services to refugees in humanitarian crises, it is increasingly unable to do so. Bijleveld presented the challenge of coordinating available funds to ensure that the needs of refugees are met.

Bijleveld also addressed misperceptions regarding UNCHR donor governments. In contrast to popular belief, the European community of donors is matching, if not exceeding, the United States in contributions. Moreover, European countries give what the speaker described as a "higher quality" of funding in terms of un-earmarked funds. Whereas, the U.S. contributes approximately 6% of the UNHCR's total unobligated funding, 80% comes from European donors.

When asked about the possibility of shifting from a resource-based to a needs-based budget, Bijleveld recommended a balanced approach. A needs-based approach is exceedingly difficult to pursue, as it is often difficult to determine where needs end. Instead, the speaker emphasized the importance of a balanced approach that considers both existing needs and available resources. The challenge, he argued, was improving collaboration between bilateral and multilateral funding initiatives to bridge the gap between services addressing basic and higher level needs. He also emphasized the importance of moving toward multi-year planning and funding.

The speaker commented on new strategies for fundraising within UNHCR. First, he noted that UNHCR aims to raise approximately 10% of its current annual budget from the private sector. While such an approach may be troubling to NGOs that depend on private contributions, Bijleveld suggested that UNHCR and NGOs work in cooperation, rather than in competition, perhaps by jointly approaching the private sector. Furthermore, he commented on the UNHCR's current partnership strategy with development institutions, including the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Bijleveld argued that this strategy is not a funding mechanism, but rather an opportunity to ensure that refugee returnees are not excluded from development initiatives. Pilot partnership programs with the World Bank and UNDP are currently underway in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, and Eritrea, and have yielded promising results.

The current UNHCR budget crisis presents a significant threat to the well being of refugee populations throughout the world. The agency is increasingly unable to meet even the basic needs of refugees and returnees, and current trends in the bilateralization of assistance suggest no immediate improvement in budgetary concerns. As a result, Bijleveld suggested that the international community must explore new, innovative, and collaborative approaches to meeting the needs of the forcibly displaced. By increasing current funding levels and investigating new funding sources, the UNHCR and its cooperative partners will be better able to assist and protect refugees worldwide.