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Struggling to change UNHCR

Explaining why a top recruit of the High Commissioner for Refugees recently quit

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres speaks to a Somali refugee during a visit to the Basateen slum area in the southern Yemeni port city of Aden May 16, 2008. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)

GENEVA — In April 2006, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) faced a crisis. Funding pledged by international donors was so low that the organization no longer had enough cash to pay salaries.

The High Commissioner, Antonio Guterres, took action: he hired new management with the goal of putting the organization back in the spotlight and making it relevant. One of Guterres’ candidates was Nicholas van Praag, who had been a senior spokesman at the World Bank, and had also spent six years at UNHCR during its heyday in the early 1980s. Van Praag remembers Guterres telling him that he did not want him to steer the ship. He wanted it rebuilt.

Like countless managers before him, Van Praag soon learned that change is easier to talk about at the U.N. than to actually put into practice. By the end of January, he had thrown in the towel and resigned in order to return to the World Bank.

In a landmark study of the UNHCR’s organizational culture released shortly after Guterres became High Commissioner in 2005, an external consultant, Barbara Wigley, notes that the UNHCR has two basic objectives: the protection of refugees, and the protection of its own existence. It follows that as money becomes tighter and staffers face uncertainty about their own future; the instinct for self-preservation becomes more intense.

Instituting change at the UNHCR is further complicated by the fact that a former High Commissioner, Sadako Ogata, converted the organization’s fixed-term contracts to permanent ones, in effect providing staff with lifetime tenure. As a result, it is nearly impossible to get rid of unproductive staffers or to introduce change. Today, about 100 staffers are classified as SIBAS (staff in between assignments). A significant number of others are on permanent sick leave. The cost to UNHCR of this staff is about $30 million a year, or 60 percent of the funding that the organization gets from private sector donors.

Although the UNHCR was awarded two Nobel Prizes for Peace over a 40-year span of protecting refugees, it faces a world today that is dramatically different from its conception in 1950. With globalization and the fall of the Berlin Wall, refugees today tend to be confused with economic migrants. The organization’s work is a much harder sell than during the 1956 Hungarian uprising or the flight of the Vietnamese boat people.

As van Praag saw it when he took on the job, UNHCR needed a radically different communications approach. With refugees no longer in the spotlight, more was needed than a passive response to questions by the occasional news reporter. The organization needed to actively reconnect the public to refugees as people. That meant telling an intensely personal story of the individuals displaced by civil wars and natural disasters. Even more important, with NGOs and other humanitarian organizations competing for attention in a crowded market, UNHCR had to do more than promote refugees; it had to demonstrate why it was still needed as an organization.

The new approach meant shaking up the communications group and getting them to see a completely new set of objectives. “[Van Praag] was politically incorrect as hell,” said Claudia Gonzales, who is still part of the team, “but he was also a visionary.”