RPN 17 published August 1994

1. Practical aspects of UNHCR-NGO partnership by Shirley C DeWolf

In March 1994, a conference was held in Addis Ababa as part of PARinAC (Partnership in Action): the 1993-94 UNHCR-NGO consultative process. This paper was written as a contribution to the process, highlighting the need to facilitate greater consultation of and participation by refugees and internally displaced people.

We came from Changara District [southern Tete Province, Mozambique] in 1984... There was fighting in our area but the people in our village continued to work their fields even after we heard that others were starting to leave. The church clinic had no medicines and after some time the priest had to move away because he was in danger. Renamo kept coming to demand food until our stocks were finished. Then they burned our houses. We ran away with nothing. We stayed several days hiding in the forest and two of the children died. We went to another village and the people gave us food. We stayed there for about a month and did some odd jobs to help them. But we did not want to bring more hardships to those people so we thought we had no choice: we had to go for help to Zimbabwe. We all walked to the town of Guro [still in Mozambique]. There we found people being given food at a certain place... But the food soon finished... So we got a ride in the empty food lorry as it was returning and it dropped us near the border. From there we walked to Fombe [in Zimbabwe]... where we found many others from Mozambique... Then a Zimbabwe army lorry came and took us to Morris Depot. We lived at Morris for a few months and the army was giving us food and clothes. After some time they said the water supply was becoming contaminated from too many people and cattle using it, so they moved us to the camp at Nyangombe... We have now been here for ten years. We are grateful to the Zimbabweans for their help but we are weary of being cared for like children: it is unnatural. You have not known us as we really are.

Testimony of the Tzenze family in Nyangombe Camp, Zimbabwe.

The experience of this Mozambican family cannot be very different from that of many people in Africa who find their rights violated and their safety threatened and who are left finally with no recourse but to abandon their homes to become internally displaced, eventually seeking assistance in neighbouring countries as refugees. Looking at the Tzenze testimony it is interesting to note the following:

- They never considered leaving their home until they no longer had a home to live in.

- They turned initially to their neighbours for help and also, when they first reached Zimbabwe, to villagers there.

- The local institution best positioned to help - the church - ended up as vulnerable as the people it was serving.

- From the time their rights were first violated, during their period of displacement within Mozambique and until they reached the official refugee camp in Zimbabwe, they did not have any direct contact with NGOs or intergovernmental humanitarian agencies.

- The first institutional aid to reach them was from their own government and from the army in the country of asylum, both of which were able to operate in areas where NGOs were not venturing.

- Contrary to aid agency claims that ten years in a refugee camp has created a `dependency syndrome', these people are anxious to escape dependency which they find uncomfortable and dehumanising.

With the Tsenze family in mind and many others like them, let us consider three questions that relate to the practicalities of our partnership.

1. Who is best placed to offer what sort of assistance to the internally displaced and refugees?

The story quoted above would indicate a support structure which could be graphically expressed in this way:

PARinAC is taking place between the two outer layers in our diagram. In order to ensure that it makes sense in the field, PARinAC has to be viewed within the context of and indeed as a response to the whole circle.

At the centre of the action are the internally displaced and refugees. The best protectors of their rights are the people themselves: they have vested interests in ensuring that their rights are safeguarded and they are directly on the spot when violations occur. But when the situation gets out of hand and they need back-up assistance, this basic initiative is often trampled underfoot by zealous rescuers. Too often uprooted people have to tolerate help that robs them of their right to self-direction, afraid to speak out lest they should lose the material aid on which they depend for survival.

When people are most vulnerable they are especially careful in whom they place their trust. In Mozambique there is a saying: `dumbanenge' - in a crisis trust your own feet. And when your feet cannot hold you up any longer, trust those who share your vulnerability and who understand the risks from their own experience.

Neighbours and traditional leaders in the community are almost always the first to attempt to absorb the burdens of human rights violations and displacements and they always pay the greatest price for their assistance. Their role is also the most easily overlooked. Aid agencies sometimes try to compensate them for food losses and to use them as a source of information but rarely are they considered as integral to the partnership and their lead role given full recognition.

Village-based groupings have largely been ignored as a support base by aid agencies and governments, perhaps because they are made up of people within the target group receiving aid and are therefore considered to be powerless. The collective capacity of violated people to become part of the solution to their problems is not only an indispensable resource but also an indispensable right.

Government, NGO field workers and army personnel are, unless deployed by the antagonists, an easily accessible support resource for the internally displaced and refugees. The emotional pressures on these personnel which arise from living within a difficult situation yet being seen as outsiders require greater attention than we have given them. The workability of PARinAC depends a great deal on the cooperation and mutual trust established between people at this level.

The institutions indicated in the two outer layers of the diagram are best placed to raise financial support, secure commodities, negotiate with governments, pressurise for adherence to agreements that protect human rights, provide training opportunities and gather and disseminate information from national and international levels. Enhanced cooperation between these more remote outer levels of our circle is undoubtedly necessary. But we must be wary: a closer-knit, more efficient and mutually responsive working relationship between NGOs, UNHCR and other intergovernmental agencies can solidify us into a block, reinforce our institutional self-sufficiency, make us more sensitive to the dynamics between us than to the softer voices of the uprooted people and thereby render us less responsive to all other support levels.

2. What are the practical limitations to partnership that we need to work around?

Local NGOs operate by consent of and normally in a spirit of teamwork with the governments of their countries. National loyalties urge them to support and build the capacity of their own government departments working for the protection of people's rights, rather than to give priority to their partnership with UNHCR and other international agencies.

When the government itself is the perpetrator of human rights infringements, local NGOs giving protection to the abused are also targeted and may require the support of the outer circle of international agencies. Outside assistance should serve as far as possible to strengthen local NGO network initiatives in dealing with the adverse conditions which threaten them.

Governments that are party to agreements with UNHCR and other international bodies for refugee care and repatriation often find themselves running around in circles to meet the foreign standards and demands of these agencies at the expense of their longer standing relationships with local NGOs. This is a frequent source of contention between international and local agencies and governments trying to work together.

Inter-agency rivalries are familiar to all of us and, while this is proverbially put down to competition for funds, it may have more to do with our need for space in a crowded arena to develop individuality and creativity in our work which is given its due recognition.

However, at the fundraising and commodities purchasing levels of support, monetary forces do influence the form that our partnership takes. In order to raise funds from the international community for a repatriation exercise, UNHCR is obliged to design a detailed plan on paper in which flexibility to respond to a fluctuating situation with a wide range of change agents as partners is limited. Often such a plan must be finalised before refugees themselves and their local support communities are able to tap their own information sources and visualise their own plans.

3. How can PARinAC effectively span the various support levels so as to provide a more integrated resource for internally displaced people and refugees?

As agency partners we work together in volatile and sensitive situations. If we build a partnership machinery that is too cumbersome to give quick response, we may cause tragedies. If we are uncoordinated, we present a confusing menu of offers and faces and work methods. If we are to be true to our conviction that our services must be a response to the initiatives of the uprooted people themselves, our planning and activity must always be one step behind them. The following questions are offered as discussion starters in seeking broad guidelines for action:


Vision must find a way of expression and must be heard. Speaking to a government delegation from Maputo, refugees in Tongogara Camp told them:

We have spent the last few years being exposed to various countries in this region and learning many organisational and technical skills. We may not have schooling but we have good ideas and enormous enthusiasm. If you people give us the support we need, we can get Mozambique back on its feet in two years.

They then insisted that the government delegation report back to them about how they were using the refugees' ideas in their research. What resources outside of PARinAC do we need to pull in to help give greater breadth and depth to our vision?


Information is a powerful commodity which has often been used to lessen or heighten the influence and importance of one layer of the partnership over another. It is also often subject to either deliberate or unwitting distortion by the news media. No one is more wary of this than the uprooted people themselves: one of the most destabilising aspects of refugee life is to be cut off from your trusted `grapevine' and to be unable to verify the information that reaches you from various angles. All participants in the partnership have information which is vital to the composition of an understanding sufficient to prevent serious mistakes from being made. In practice, however, uprooted people set up their own information networks and rely only secondarily on official communiqués from UNHCR, governments and others. In practice, field staff have access to second-hand information from the communities within which they work and often find themselves kept dangerously uninformed by their headquarters concerning the wider context of processes and possibilities to which their ground work relates. In practice, local NGOs often do not have access to the wider contextual information available to international bodies by means of the electronic media. What misconceptions do we need to get rid of in order to open ourselves more fully to the information others have to offer? How can we support each other better in gaining full access to the information each of us needs at our various levels?

Policy and decision-making

Most of the participants in PARinAC are based in societies which have endorsed the statutory role of UNHCR in spearheading programmes for the protection of refugees. Our discussion on sharing therefore requires an initial indication from UNHCR concerning to what extent it is able to go, within the confines of its mandate, in sharing policy formation and operational decision-making with other agencies and local communities. Taking the lead in assuming responsibility for the promotion and protection of human rights cannot, however, be delegated to an international body, even if that body is of our own making. Africa is the greatest refugee producing continent and Africans have suffered the most from uprooting. The lead responsibility to change this situation belongs to Africa. What decisions concerning human rights protection have we as African nations relegated to international bodies for which we need to resume more responsibility? What areas of decision-making should be entrusted to UNHCR within the spirit of PARinAC?

Material and financial resources

Agreements signed between UNHCR and selected operational partners in the implementation of a refugee support programme are a useful way of ensuring that UNHCR's coverage is expanded and that capable implementing NGOs have the funds they need to provide their services. It sometimes, however, leaves those NGOs without signed agreements unclear as to what is their operational relationship with UNHCR. The potential of local communities in this area of partnership must not be ignored. Last year's first post-war maize harvests in Mozambique were substantial. The producing communities have been anxious to find markets for their surplus and in some areas stockpiled maize is now rotting. The World Food Programme has appealed for local purchasing by those international donors which are supporting the resettlement but some countries continue to bring in maize from their own countries. The concept of partnership which extends beyond the intergovernmental agencies and NGOs is missing. Where are the common points where wastage of materials and funds occur in our support programmes?

Expertise and experience-building

Some years ago, a team of Zimbabwe Government and Christian Care field staff visited Mozambican refugees who had returned to their home country despite the war and had resettled in the relative safety of the Beira Corridor. We were delighted to see that in establishing their new village they were putting to use the various skills they had acquired while in the refugee camps in Zimbabwe: carpentry, brick laying, well digging, etc. But their criticism was:

You Zimbabweans let us learn how to do the labour but you kept the planning to yourselves. We know how to dig latrines but not how to site them in relation to water points. You gained experience from our situation as refugees which should have been ours.

The same criticism has often been levelled at international organisations by local NGOs who feel African refugee situations are used as training grounds for their expatriate staff at the expense of local capacity building. What expertise does UNHCR lack which local NGOs and support communities can offer them? What expertise do local NGOs and support communities feel that UNHCR and other international agencies should be sharing more openly?


The February 1992 Reference Document on Relationship between UNHCR and NGOs states that `partnership is not an end in itself but a means to maximise the use of available resources and expertise to achieve the common UNHCR/NGO goal of providing appropriate services to refugees'. Unless PARinAC results in making our services more appropriate and more accessible to people like the Tsenze family when and where they are in trouble, the time and effort and resources we spend on improving our agency relationships are unnecessary and wasteful.

Shirley C DeWolf is Coordinator for Refugee Services at Christian Care in Zimbabwe.

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February 1997