Struggling to change UNHCR


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.”

One of van Praag’s first acts was to call in an outside communications consultant, Media Tenor, to analyze the organization’s communications effectiveness. “They were not focusing on the media that set the agenda at a world level,” said Media Tenor’s CEO Roland Schatz. In fact, Schatz concludes, “there was no structure or strategic plan for communications at all.”

Next, under pressure to reallocate $500,000 in his budget, van Praag shut down the UNHCR’s refugee magazine, a glossy quarterly published in six languages, which cost the organization $500,000 to $1 million a year, depending on whether you counted staff salaries and distribution costs. Van Praag, who had helped launch the magazine in the early 1980s argued that the Internet was a cheaper, more effective way to get the message out and that in any case, it was unlikely that anyone still read the magazine. The outgoing editor fought a rear guard action for several months and then left.

Creating a strategic plan proved to be the least of van Praag’s concerns, however. He had failed to take into account his staff’s reaction to being told that their performance over the previous several years had been largely useless.

In her study, Barbara Wigley, who based her research on interviews with UNHCR staffers at all levels, notes that power in the organization often operates behind the scenes through personal networks. Even more important, credibility is frequently based on the amount of time an individual has spent in the organization without necessarily taking into account whether the individual has been effective. Wigley also points out that there is an underlying assumption that fairness, meaning equal treatment, trumps everything else.

Applying the “credibility through longevity” principle meant that it didn’t really matter whether staffers were actually accomplishing anything. The mere fact that they had held on to the job for a number of years was enough to establish their credibility over that of any newcomer. Since much of the staff had managed to survive doing the same thing, they saw no reason to change.

Ultimately, the resistance to change won out. The communications staff is back to reading press releases to a gaggle of bored journalists at the weekly briefing. But the staff’s victory is likely to be a pyrrhic one. The organization still has to deal with an external world in which its own survival depends on adapting to change.

“When I think of Darfur, I don’t think of UNHCR,” a British academic was quoted as saying in a study of UNHCR’s image with key stakeholders. The study, which has not been released publicly, found that many stakeholders are not very clear about what UNHCR actually does. Indeed, when the UNHCR’s John Solecki was released in Pakistan this month two months after he was kidnapped, there was practically no mention in the media that Solecki had actually been working for the UNHCR.

When he offered his resignation, van Praag, who said he still holds Guterres in high regard and credits him for trying to institute reform, explained diplomatically that he thought he had accomplished as much as he could within the system. Privately he compared the experience to doing yoga in a straight jacket.

When I asked UNHCR’s spokesman Ron Redmond for the organization’s take on the affair, he responded that UNHCR does not talk about that kind of thing. He then added that he plans to retire shortly. This story is based on numerous interviews with both officials inside the U.N. and outside consultants.

“You can’t come into an intergovernmental bureaucracy without strong support and expect to make radical changes,” Wigley said. She acknowledged that the UNHCR has serious problems, but expressed strong admiration for what it has accomplished. “It holds and attracts an incredible number of brilliant and dedicated people,” she said.

Media Tenor’s Roland Schatz was more pessimistic about UNHCR’s message: “They were beginning to make real progress last year,“ he said in a telephone interview as he was boarding a plane in Istanbul, “but they are not continuing. They are falling back, and it is not helping their fundraising or the public to understand what UNHCR is really about.”

In a farewell statement, Guterres publicly congratulated van Praag for his “significant contribution to UNHCR's efforts to raise support for refugees through innovative approaches to communications and fund raising that will leave an enduring legacy.” In fact, during van Praag’s brief tenure, the UNHCR had substantially improved its funding and its public image, but he had also encountered a series of management hurdles facing anyone determined to carry out U.N. reform.

Editor's note: This story was updated to correct the spelling of High Commissioner Antonio Guterres's name.

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