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UN integration and its impact on humanitarian space

Time (GMT +00) 14:00 15:30

Francesc Vendrell - former Head of the UN Special Mission to Afghanistan (2000 – 2001) and Special Representative of the EU for Afghanistan (2002–2008)

Victoria Metcalfe - HPG Research Fellow and co-author of 'UN integration and humanitarian space'

Alison Giffen - Research Fellow, Stimson Center and co-author of the report

David Haeri - Chief, Policy and Best Practices Service, Department of Peacekeeping Operations, United Nations

Allegra Baiocchi - Chief, Policy Planning and Analysis Section, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

Following a general introduction, Victoria Metcalfe, one of the report’s authors, gave an outline of the study background, process and some of the key findings. The debate on integration has continued for a decade, but intensified after the Secretary General’s decision in 2008 that integration should apply to all contexts where the UN has a country team and a peacekeeping operation. The main purpose of integration is to maximise impact of UN operations by ensuring that all components of the UN are operating in an integrated way. The policy asserts that UN integration must take account of humanitarian principles and humanitarian space. In 2010, the UN Integration Steering Group commissioned the Humanitarian Policy Group at ODI and the Stimson Center to undertake a study on the impact of UN integration on humanitarian space. The aim was to move forward the debate on integration and humanitarian space. The study looked at five areas:  Humanitarian worker security, access, engagement with non-state actors, perceptions and advocacy.


The study found that opinions on integration and humanitarian space are polarised, with some humanitarian NGOs opposed on principle and some UN aid agency staff sceptical of humanitarian benefits. There is also a climate of mistrust between UN aid agencies and DPKO, and more broadly between NGOs and the UN. Regarding evidence, the study found evidence of both positive and negative impacts of integration on humanitarian space, and also found these impacts are largely determined by the context. The biggest risks to humanitarian space are actually ones related to the context, such as conflict. Concerning the main study areas, the study found:

·         Humanitarian worker security: the study did not find examples of a clear link between humanitarian workers’ insecurity and integration, though integration could pose a higher risk, particularly in certain settings.

·         Access: In some cases, integration increased access for UN and some non-UN humanitarian actors by facilitating the use of logistical assets, however, there were also concerns amongst some UN humanitarian actors that linking with UN security management procedures could lead to risk aversion and in some cases inappropriate arrangements.

·         Engagement with non-state armed actors: There was no evidence of ‘no contact’ policies, though in some circumstances some senior staff had limited engagement with non-state actors.

·         Perceptions: It was not possible to understand perceptions of affected populations within the scope of study, but this should be monitored.

·         Advocacy: there were some examples where integration strengthened humanitarian messaging and advocacy, but also examples where actors sought to limit advocacy.

The relationship between the NGO community and UN at large has been undermined by negative perceptions of integration. This could have implications for UN aid agencies that rely on NGO partners.


Alison Giffen, also a co-author of the report, discussed some of the study findings in more detail. She noted that the policy does have language about protecting humanitarian space – but that in reality there are disconnects. These disconnects emerge from: a lack of understanding and ownership of the policy, limited understanding of importance of humanitarian principles, lack of minimum standards related to humanitarian space issues, lack of transparency in decision making, and a lack of investment in the policy. Many of these issues and concerns were highlighted in the 2005 report. Thus it is important to come up with recommendations on how to better manage these tensions, and also to increase the humanitarian benefits. The report contains many more recommendations, but the following were selected for this discussion:

·         Integration arrangements should be determined by context, some might require greater caution

·         In contexts with significant humanitarian need, the mandate and scope should be informed by humanitarian need.

·         Effective leadership at all levels of UN system are necessary. Senior UN staff should have appropriate skills and competencies to lead humanitarian response and manage tensions. More robust accountability mechanisms are needed.

·         Guidance on minimum requirements on humanitarian space, and more strategic engagement with humanitarian actors, is necessary. This includes greater sensitisation on the importance of humanitarian principles.

·         Trust and confidence should be built; UN leadership must consider how members can implement these recommendations and build trust at headquarters and field levels.

David Haeri
- Chief, Policy and Best Practices Service, DPKO, began by noting that strong views make the subject of integration challenging. The five areas of the study were chosen because these are contested subjects with strong views. The study disentangles the issues that are caused by integration arrangements and those caused by other factors. Integration has been a scapegoat for contextual factors and challenges related to humanitarian system, UN mandates, actions of particular member states and actions of humanitarian aid agencies that go beyond humanitarian boundaries, such as statebuilding. Thus the challenges aren’t necessarily related to integration. A key conclusion of the study is the importance of understanding the context. Policy does recognise the importance of protecting humanitarian space, which is different than some member states that have opted for more comprehensive approaches. Integration seeks to maximise collective impact, which does create contradictions. DPKO intends to take up the recommendations with the integration steering group, including inviting NGO representation to the steering group. It is also important to recognise that integration arose from experience in the field of disaggregated UN action that wasn’t useful for outcomes. While often in this discussion there is a sense of hierarchy (that humanitarian principles sit atop), this is not a given, as there are times when advancing on the political or military track is crucial. All are imperatives, and answering them together is the challenge. Ultimately all actors aim to alleviate suffering and need to deal with dilemmas in achieving this mutual goal.

Allegra Baiocchi
from OCHA provided commentary from a humanitarian perspective. She began her comments with a quote from a retreat of Resident Coordinators: Realities of integration are as varied as the countries we work in – the challenges are undeniable but the integrated approach – where implemented effectively – does add value. This quote from an RC retreat asummarises some of the important issues. First, each context is different, and different actors are affected differently. It is good news is that policy does take into account humanitarian space and that the model needs to make sense for the context. However, we are not making the most of the policy’s inclusion of flexibility. The ‘triple hatted’ model is the default setting, instead, there is a need for a process that starts with an open question about what model would work best. The second point is that the challenges are indeed undeniable. While there are many factors that pose challenges to humanitarian action, it is important not to forget that integration is one of them. The presence of other challenges should not detract from the issues posed by integration. Attacks on aid workers have increased three-fold in the last decade. The problem of integration is not the policy but rather implementation. NGOs buy into the theory but have issues about how it is being translated in practice. NGOs need to be brought into the picture; if integration is just designed for the UN, it will hardly work if most of the operational aid agencies are on the outside. NGOs should be part of the conversation, even if there are many voices and this is challenging. Finally, concerning the question of the added value of integration, the answer depends on who you ask. It is very UN centric. Ultimately this is about the people we are seeking to help, so we need to ask them. There are positive examples in DRC and Haiti (post-earthquake) where we could imagine people would have appreciated integration. In conclusion, it is important to think of all of these things, acknowledge the challenges and manage them. The integration steering group will go through recommendations, NGOs will join that process; and the recommendations will be made operational.


Comment: A person from the SDC noted that they had been reviewing this issue internally and that perceived association with UN mission is probably unavoidable. Thus there needs to be a strategy on the humanitarian side to deal with the downsides of integration and increase the capacity of the independent NGO community when humanitarians are negatively affected. The SDC is making investments in this direction. Another audience member noted that when there is good coordination between UN agencies, NGOs and others there are benefits, but that this can be heavily dependent on the personality of leadership and the need for the UN to see itself as a partner.  A question was also asked on how to set prioritises when they compete.

Panellists responded that, on the issue of partnerships, and new actors, opening the door to everyone is a challenge as people don’t all speak with the same voice. Regarding prioritisation, the ISF is the strategic plan, so the main issue is about having a real conversation about objectives with the right people around the table. Also, in some specific contexts, senior leaders can use roles in complementary ways.  On the issue of personality, while it does matter, its importance can be mitigated through tools. Also, UN agencies leaders might not be engaging or have appropriate experience, and all those in leadership positions should have support structures.

A second round of questions asked about the benefits of humanitarian action on peacebuilding, the impact of counter-terrorist policies, the short timeframe of the study (and the comment that perhaps such questions required much more time), links between the strategic and field levels. Panellists noted that the issue of peacebuilding was outside of the scope of study, but that experience shows you need mutually reinforcing activities (political, governance, basic institutions, govt provided services to people). While the impact of counterterrorist policies was also outside of the scope, there is often an assumption made by humanitarian actors that policies and legislation means that they should not engage with certain non-state actors (e.g. Taliban, Al Shabbab) though this in fact is not in such policies and legislation. Integration works most smoothly at the operational level (i.e. the field), and at times, relationships breakdown over small issues, and if there is a breakdown in NY this is consequences in the field.

The two authors closed the meeting with final comments, with Alison Giffen noting that the study challenged their own views, and that it is part of a long effort to identify and manage risks to humanitarian space but that there is still further to go. Victoria Metcalfe  closed by noting that there is no moral hierarchy, whereby peacekeeping or the humanitarian imperative always trumps. Some humanitarian actors are prepared to compromise but there might not be confidence that humanitarian issues will be addressed through integration.  


The benefits and risks of UN integration for humanitarian space have been intensely debated for many years. The issue has proved highly contentious with many humanitarian staff sceptical that UN integration can benefit humanitarian action. Others stress the need for enhanced coherence and highlight the positive experiences of UN integration.

This event will launch the joint HPG/Stimson Center report 'UN integration and humanitarian space'- commissioned by the UN Integration Steering Group.