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Aiding peace … and war: UNHCR, returnee reintegration, and the relief-development debate

Working papers

The involvement of the Office of the United NationsHigh Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the area of refugee return hasincreased significantly over the past decade. The size of its returnee caseloadhas expanded, as has the scope of its reintegration work. This expansion hasbeen driven by events outside the aid sphere, in particular the attempts toresolve many of the proxy conflicts of the Cold War. It has also beeninfluenced by UNHCR’s placing greater emphasis on its role in ensuring sustainablereturn. This trend towards greater involvement in reintegration raises a numberof questions with regard to the interpretation of UNHCR’s mandate, working objectivesand institutional arrangements with other bodies. UNHCR has not been alone in facingthese challenges.

This paper seeks to situate UNHCR’s evolving policywith regard to reintegration in the context of wider debates onrelief-development aid linkages, and of broader changes in internationalrelations in the post-Cold War era. It is based on an analysis of the UNHCR’spolicy approach to the issue of reintegration, as reflected in the decisions ofthe Executive Committee, global policy initiatives and guidelines. It is an analysisof the ideas, which shape the organisation’s identity and practice, not an evaluationof operations.

The paper argues that although UNHCR’s constituency isunique, its analysis of the challenge of reintegration has conformed with whatmight be seen as an emerging orthodoxy: namely that relief aid should serve adevelopmental role, and that it can and should play a role in peace-building.These claims have been based on an analysis of the causes of conflict whichfocuses largely on internal and economic factors. They also assume thatdevelopmental aid and principles can address these effectively. The solution tothe ‘problem’ of reintegration has therefore been conceptualised as a problemof aid management. Improving the coordination and funding instruments, and adoptingmore developmental methodologies are proposed as the way to improve reintegrationstrategies.

The paper questions this approach on a number ofgrounds. First, it suggests that despite some modification in terminology,UNHCR’s reintegration strategy continues to pivot on the concept of ‘post-conflicttransition’, premised on a continuum from war to peace. This envisages aparallel aid transition from relief to development assistance. The persistenceof this terminology is very misleading, since the majority of refugees returnto situations of on-going conflict. There is also the assumption that afunctioning state is in place in the country of origin, which has thelegitimacy and the ability to coordinate and implement developmental policies.

In practice, however, the aid community is oftenstruggling to work in what have been called 'quasi-states' – namely thosecountries where governance is unstable and public institutions are extremelyweak and of uncertain legitimacy. In these chronic political emergenciesdevelopmental approaches, which remain state-centric, face fundamental problems– technical, political and ethical. In the absence of a functioning state, the qualityand quantity of developmental space is severely compromised.

The economic conditions prevailing in manyconflict-affected ‘quasi-states’ mean further that claims regarding thesustainability of reintegration assistance must thus be treated withconsiderable caution. The developmental objective of sustainability may thus beinappropriate in these environments, and may compromise the humanitarian objectiveof achieving minimum standards of provision of basic goods and services, andthe key objective of protection.

The paper concludes that improving UNHCR’s response toreintegration assistance will require a re-examination of the nature of thechallenge it faces. It argues for a shift in emphasis from a focus on themanagerial and technical issues of inter-agency coordination and of aidinstrumentation, towards a more fundamental review of the actual politicalconditions under which reintegration takes place.

At the same time, UNHCR might reflect on thefundamental issues the reintegration problem raises for the mandate andidentity of the organisation. In particular, there is a growing gap between theidealised conditions of repatriation envisaged by the mandate and guidelines ofthe organisation and the actual conditions under which repatriation takesplace. Plugging this principle-reality gap implies looking hard at the type oforganisation UNHCR sees itself as being. More specifically:

·is UNHCR humanitarian or developmental in its outlook?

·is UNHCR primarily a protection agency or a delivererof assistance in partnership with states?

·is UNHCR concerned with minimum standards of provisionof basic needs or with sustainability?

·does UNHCR work impartially and neutrally, or is itactively seeking a role in peace-building?

Jeff Crisp commissioned this study for UNHCR, andprovided a constant stream of documents and good humour during its preparation.David Moore provided invaluable comments on the first draft. A number ofcolleagues at ODI contributed to a brainstorm to discuss the earlier draft,providing many insightful and challenging comments.

Joanna Macrae