Evaluation of UNHCR’s Engagement with the Private Sector

Evaluation and Lessons Learned
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Executive summary

Aim and audience of this evaluation

The overall aim of this formative centralized evaluation is to strengthen UNHCR’s understanding of how to better engage and partner with the private sector beyond fundraising, for a range of potential benefits for refugees and other persons of concern (PoC). The key evaluation questions focused on documenting the types of private sector engagements (PSEs) in which UNHCR has been involved between 2016 and 2019; the perspectives of UNHCR and private sector partners on the desired objectives, challenges and risks from said engagements; and lessons learned from similar agencies.

The prime audience for this centralized evaluation is the Senior Executive Team, divisions, Regional Bureaux and country operations. Looking across the whole organization enabled the evaluation team to make recommendations that can tackle the existing fragmentation of partnering expertise and functions across the organization and support the rationalization of partnering across the organization.


The evaluation used mixed methods, including the collection and analysis of data from surveys, interviews and participant observation across the key components of the evaluation, including:

  1. A stocktake of non-financial PSEs that are ongoing or took place in the past three years, particularly in operational divisions;

  2. Benchmarking of similar agencies and a literature review of PSE beyond fundraising;

  3. A case study of PSE in Malaysia and the Africa Shared Value Summit in Nairobi, Kenya; and

  4. Consultations with UNHCR Headquarter (divisions and Regional Bureaux) and field staff on strategic considerations and implications of UNHCR’s partnerships in the future.

Findings were then presented to UNHCR and a series of three strategic workshops were conducted to explore how and what UNHCR could do to better position its engagements with the private sector to leverage potential benefits to improve protection and solutions for PoC.

Key findings

Private sector engagement for operational purposes is undertaken across UNHCR

The evaluation shows that PSEs are managed by many UNHCR Country Offices as well as Regional Bureaux and various divisions at Headquarters. UNHCR engages with almost 250 private sector actors in over 60 countries for improving the protection and well-being of PoC. In addition, the Private Sector Partnerships Service (PSP) in the Division of External Relations (DER) recently established a team, the Shared Value Partnerships Unit (SPU), to directly work on shared value creation through UNHCR’s partnerships with global private sector actors.

Engagements centred on promoting protection, self-reliance and meeting needs

The evaluation notes five main result areas from PSE: (1) provision of goods and services to meet protection and other needs of PoC; (2) improvement of the environment for refugee protection and access to services; (3) economic and financial inclusion (e.g. access to work permits, bank services); (4) helping UNHCR to work more efficiently and effectively so that resources can stretch further; and an ambition to work towards (5) changing the business models and practices of the private sector to be more refugee-inclusive.

Organizational mandate, operational coverage and staff expertise support PSE

The evaluation finds that many staff involved in PSE are highly passionate and committed to the work they are doing and can clearly see and articulate the goals of the partnership. These individuals tend to have previous experience working with/in the private sector, are innovative in their approach to operational programming, understand their political economic context, have a strong sense of what will work to achieve their goal and know also how to partner with other stakeholders, such as national and local government bodies. In practice, UNHCR already has a whole-of-organization approach to PSE.

Moreover, UNHCR has expertise in partnering with the many different types of stakeholders promoted in the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR), including government, NGOs, civil society organizations, multilateral organizations and international financial institutions (IFIs).

Private sector actors currently partnering with UNHCR expressed their interest in UNHCR’s unique mandate, positive organizational reputation and understanding of the situation of those forcibly displaced and the environments they live in.

Several factors hinder private sector engagement beyond fundraising

The annual planning cycle was reported as a challenge for designing longer-term interventions and targeting higher-level impact outcomes desired by private sector actors. The budgeting framework was also perceived by UNHCR staff as a challenge because the tendency is to prioritize activities that the organization is directly implementing. In contrast, PSEs tend to involve collective actions by the private sector and other partners, and UNHCR’s role is convening or coordinating between actors. It is sometimes challenging for staff to justify time and resources to support these types of effort under the current framework. UNHCR’s current Results-based Management (RBM) system that supports the organization’s planning and reporting was found to also have limitations in being able to capture and record operational engagements with the private sector and corresponding results from partnering. Current changes to the RBM system that are under way will address the issue of recording partnership outcomes but leave other recording and measurement issues unresolved.

Technical guidance and capacity-building resources related to PSE on operational activities were the most cited requests for support from staff working in Regional Bureaux and country operations. Specific areas that are found to be challenging include the development of value propositions in negotiation with partners, negotiation skills, selecting the appropriate partners and partnership type, and managing partnerships. Formal and informal spaces for sharing and learning across teams and operations on how others engage with the private sector are limited.

Based on the stocktake, the evaluation finds that managerial support for PSE varies within the organization. Low managerial and senior management support creates disincentives for staff to seek out partnerships with private sector actors. UNHCR’s whole-of-organization approach to PSE is not uniformly supported either in strategy or managerially.

The evaluation notes that in practice, UNHCR works with all stakeholders that the GCR identifies as being critical to a whole-of-society approach. However, these engagements are organized at HQs in a siloed way according to the type of partner; i.e. different divisions and teams tend to manage partnerships with one sector.1 Furthermore, HQ staff not only manage their “own” partnerships, but also have to provide support to others who work with these partners in the field as well as technical support. These teams do not regularly interact with one another to share best practices or harmonize partnering processes. More recent efforts have been made to foster linkages across the various organizational silos for other purposes (e.g. protection or programming), which the evaluation notes as a positive trend and recommends that this model should be used also for partnering.