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A public policy blog from AEI
The United Nations refugee agencies are having a very poor start to 2018. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recently suspended funding for its refugee camps in Uganda following allegations that Ugandan government officials inflated the number of refugees present in order to profit from food and other aid intended for refugees.
This move followed closely after the United States’ decision to withhold $65 million in funding for the UN’s other refugee organization, the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which oversees assistance to Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. That both of the UN’s refugee agencies are now effectively in crisis management mode demonstrates the need for serious reform of the international humanitarian system.
While there has been significant international endorsement of UN reform efforts, many of the immediate changes are being driven by the Trump administration’s priorities. In his speech to the UN General Assembly, President Trump laid out his administration’s concerns regarding inefficiencies within the organization and a desire that other donors contribute more.
US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley expanded on this message in her comments on the UN’s 2018–2019 budget, noting:
The inefficiency and overspending of the United Nations are well known. We will no longer let the generosity of the American people be taken advantage of or remain unchecked. This historic reduction in spending — in addition to many other moves toward a more efficient and accountable UN — is a big step in the right direction.
The UNHCR’s response to the alleged fraud by the Ugandan government shows that the UN and its partners can be held accountable by aid donors. But the scandal reinforces the fact that simply throwing resources at an agency does not necessarily mean that aid donors are actually achieving their goal of helping more individuals in need. Rather, the system should be focused on maximizing efficiency.
The mini-crisis sparked by the Trump administration’s decision to hold back almost one-third of UNRWA’s budget, the ensuing emergency appeals for additional funding, and the Uganda scandal show how difficult reforming humanitarian assistance will be. Without planned drawdowns, funding cuts can put lives at risk. Millions of refugees rely on the services provided by the UN, which range from the purchase and distribution of food aid to the operation of schools for the 6.4 million school-age refugees.
There are strong humanitarian motivations for providing this assistance — something regularly acknowledged by the administration. But in many cases, there is also an important security rationale; as the head of UNRWA recently quipped: “If you want to ask us how to avoid radicalizing Palestinian youth, then it is not by cutting $300m in our funding.”
This coexistence of humanitarian and security imperatives demonstrates the necessity of rapid reform. Ultimately, the donor countries that fund UN agencies don’t typically have the ability or desire to declare the system dysfunctional and simply walk away. That leaves reform as the only option, and the Trump administration deserves credit for pursuing it.
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