Calling Attention to the Tradeoffs for Delivering on UN Mandates in High-Risk Contexts

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On December 11th, IPI and the Permanent Mission of Sweden to the United Nations held a policy forum to explore the many unremarked upon but necessary functions required to place and enable UN missions in the field.

IPI Vice President Adam Lupel opened the conversation by pointing out that while these activities were under-explained and under-appreciated, they were nevertheless essential. He called them the “forgotten parents of success.”

Marc Jacquand, Adviser in the Executive Office of the Secretary-General, listed some of the functions as security, risk management, logistics/operations, access, staff welfare and medical care, and coordination.

“The reality is, we haven’t been very good at explaining all of these enabling functions, what they cost, and why they’re needed,” he said. “Because it’s complex. If you look at the security side, the way the UN funds its security architecture is very complex, most people within the UN don’t understand it, so we need to be a lot better at explaining how these things work, how they’re funded. I think also some people don’t want to bother knowing these issues, because this is the engine room—this is deep in the engine room. They’d rather sit somewhere and think grand strategy. But if we define strategy as aligning means to the ends, we’ve got to factor in that data.”

Irina Schoulgin Nyoni, the Deputy Permanent Representative of Sweden, which is completing its current two-year term on the Security Council this month, said it was important to communicate the centrality of these little known functions to the highest level of the UN where they are not broadly understood. “Sometimes this becomes very technical and complex, but that is what the reality looks like. It is complex and it has to be technical, and I think that sometimes it is difficult to explain,” she said, “But I would plead with you to try to find ways to explain these things, especially to the members of the Security Council who are sitting with the mandate formulations, but also to colleagues in the Fifth Committee who are then juggling dollars in a way that I think sometimes is very unrealistic.”

Nannette Ahmed, Director and Team Leader of the Central Africa Integrated Operational Team, UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), noted that peacekeepers were operating in increasingly volatile and dangerous environments that inhibited their performance and undercut their effectiveness. “We deploy in very challenging post-conflict situations, sometimes in continuing conflict situations, and more and more, we’re deploying into contexts that are extremely inhospitable, whether logistically- or security-wise, very dangerous, complex, where political process is non-existent, stalled, stalling, which makes it all the more complicated for us to achieve our objectives.”

In these circumstances, “risk management is a daily, if not an hourly endeavor,” she said. Illustrating the dilemma, she asked, “Do they go out of a camp to protect some civilians that are being attacked, when they are themselves being attacked?” Other such questions she suggested were how many people do you deploy in order to protect civilians, how do you decide which pockets of population to save when you know you can’t reach them all, and how do you divide up your available resources in the most efficient and least costly manner.

“If you are going to operate and deliver on your mandate in high-risk environments, it comes at a cost,” she said. “You can’t nickel and dime it. I know that sometimes you look at these operations, and you’re going, ‘My God, they’re expensive,’ but if you look at actually what they’re paying for and really go down deep, I think you can see that a lot of these areas are the ones you need in order to even be there in the first place, and to be effective. Because just being somewhere without being able to be effective is not achieving anyone’s goal or objective.”

Often the necessary ingredient was a tradeoff, she said, citing an example from her work, where roads were a supply line for peacekeepers, “Repairing roads is not a responsibility of a peacekeeping operation; it is a responsibility of a government, but if we don’t have good roads, for example, like the supply line, we can’t use the roads to supply our troops. So whose responsibility is it? And at what timeline do you need it by? There are a lot of tradeoffs…Some of the great success stories are when we work together.”

Aurelien Buffler, Chief of the Policy Advice and Planning Section of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that his office had to take into account that operating in insecure environments was “the norm” for today’s humanitarians and their ability to gain access. “Access, first, is having the right understanding of what is the situation and understanding of what is the situation and just understanding the context in which you operate. It means having staff dedicated to actually leading analysis of the context in which you want to respond, and communicate with the communities involved and parties to conflict, including armed groups. This takes time, this takes skills and, of course, this takes money, money, but it is absolutely necessary.”

Working in what he called “messy environments” in places like the Central African Republic, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, there are particular concerns about safety, mobility, and making sure that resources aren’t diverted and fueling corruption.

He acknowledged that tradeoffs in this environment were of “suboptimal options,” but he said the UN must push forward even if the final objective seems distant and unattainable. “In some cases, just delivering the minimum assistance needed to a community can be a success,” he said, mentioning a food airdrop in Syria that reached a community that had not received supplies for months and where the issue had become one of sheer survival.

Mr. Jacquand said that weighing the value of tradeoffs often came down to examining the details. “If you don’t define what you’re talking about, it can remain at the level of theology,” he said. “This matters to people, to our colleagues in the field, to our colleagues in the UN, in the NGO world, in the delegations, this matters. Getting inside these details, understanding the cost, understanding these things.” This attentiveness to management detail, while sometimes tedious in execution, was essential to the fulfillment of a mission, he argued. “The words that are uttered here, the words that are written in a mandate, or in a budget, a report, they matter, they have implications on people’s lives. Obviously the populations in these countries, but also our colleagues, who are out there and expect us to keep that in mind when we attend meetings and write reports. So we would really encourage continuation of this dialogue because it’s not academic. It matters to our colleagues and friends in the field.”