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A partnership at risk? The UN-NGO relationship in light of UN integration

Originally published


The establishment of United Nations (UN) Integrated Missions – whereby humanitarian coordination and leadership are placed under the umbrella of political and peacekeeping missions – has raised serious concerns within the humanitarian community. This discussion paper explores how integration has impacted on humanitarian coordination and particularly the relationship between the UN humanitarian actors and NGOs. The main assertions have been that UN integration undermines the independence of humanitarian action; silences the humanitarian voice and reporting of the UN; and distorts local power holders’ perception of humanitarian action and actors, risking the safety of both humanitarian workers and the people who benefit from humanitarian action.

This discussion paper aims to provide a different perspective on the ongoing integration debate. It explores an area that has received little attention to date: how integration has impacted cooperation within the humanitarian community – particularly between the UN and the NGOs. The paper also touches upon integrated UN security management. While security management is not directly linked to UN integration, it is seen as one of the greatest impediments to UN-NGO coordination.

Due to the heterogeneous character of the NGO community, it is difficult to get one common NGO perspective on UN integration. However, the paper gives a snapshot of some of the considerations and concerns raised by parts of the NGO community that have traditionally taken part in UN-led humanitarian coordination structures – by partnering with UN agencies, participating in cluster coordination and receiving common humanitarian funds.

The analysis is based on interviews with staff from UN missions, UN agencies, donor governments and NGOs working in Afghanistan, DRC and Somalia conducted in 2011 by the Norwegian Refugee Council. It also draws on consultations with other NGOs. Doubtlessly, Afghanistan, DRC and Somalia all present fairly extreme operating contexts, where humanitarian principles are tested to the limits. That makes it particularly important that the UN considers very carefully the implications of structural integration here. Yet, it is recognised that they are not necessarily representative of other humanitarian contexts in many respects.

Main findings

· Structural integration is seen to politicise humanitarian action as it can lead to the sub-ordination of humanitarian concerns to political and military objectives.

· UN integration and the perceived politicisation of the UN family have strained the UN-NGO working relationship – threatening effective coordination between the humanitarian UN and NGOs.

· There is growing hesitancy within parts of the NGO community to engage with the UN - including sharing of information, joint assessments and joint field visits.

· NGOs are re-assessing their participation in humanitarian coordination mechanisms. Some have already withdrawn, because it entails a risk of association with the UN. With closer UN integration, being associated with the UN – even the humanitarian UN - is sometimes seen as undermining NGOs’ perceived independence from the political and military objectives of the UN mission.

· Parts of the NGO community are increasingly uncomfortable with OCHA or the Humanitarian Coordinator facilitating humanitarian access. They are perceived as lacking the necessary independence of the UN political/peacekeeping mission adequately to perform the role of neutral broker in complex security contexts. However, many would welcome increased advocacy by the HC and OCHA for humanitarian space with host governments.

· The UN’s extensive use of armed escorts and armed security on compounds, road blocks and barriers, high fences and tight security controls places additional barriers to coordination between NGOs and the UN agencies, especially with national NGO staff.