The United States is the biggest donor to the UN Refugee Agency, and the Trump administration wants the world to know it. A new framework, or agreement, signed by the State Department and the refugee agency (UNHCR) requires it to acknowledge US contributions in most — and eventually all — of its public-information materials. What those materials include — tents and food supplies, or just press releases and fact sheets? — will be spelled out later.
Eric Schwartz, a former US assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) —the same bureau that signed the new framework — and now president of Refugees International, a nongovernmental organization based in Washington, D.C., said in an interview that the desire for credit is understandable, noting that “any government would like its contributions to a multilateral organization to be recognized.” But he characterized the new demand as both “transactional” and “unreasonable,” and suggested that dealing with it could bog down communications and distract the UN agency from doing its real work.
Last year, the US donated $1.45 billion to UNHCR, an amount that represents 18 to 19 percent of the agency’s total budget, according to an earlier framework. It is more than what the next nine donors gave — including the European Union — combined. An agency official who asked not to be named said the US contribution was closer to 25 percent because some donations were not reflected in the official budget.
Left out of the new framework is the amount the US plans to give this year to UNHCR. The US operates with a “flexible contribution” system, which means it can provide funding according to agency needs and results. The agency is headed by Filippo Grandi, formerly an Italian diplomat and an ex-commissioner-general of the UN Relief and Work Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or Unrwa.
The UNHCR has agreed to acknowledge Washington’s contribution in 75 percent of its public-information tools by the end of 2018, and in 100 percent of them by the end of 2019. When asked for the reasoning behind these specific percentages — which appear to be a first — a State Department official explained that since its donations are not earmarked by project but rather given by region or subregion where the UN agency works, credit typically goes unacknowledged.
Other countries tend to donate to specific projects, which makes it easier for the refugee agency to name them in public-information materials, which it does. For example, one fact sheet about aid to Jordan names the “donors of unrestricted funding.” The list includes Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands and others but not the US. It also includes the specific amounts of money that countries have earmarked to projects.
The UNHCR earlier agreed to a so-called “visibility strategy,” an agency official said, adding, “This is not controversial.” And USAID, which has been donating food and other basic humanitarian necessities to developing countries for decades, has been labeling contributions with the USAID name, promoting “foreign economic development,” since President John F. Kennedy launched the program in 1961.
Yet critics raise concerns that the new UNHCR framework is unnecessarily exacting. There’s the additional question of how to meet the 75-percent deadline before the requirements are even worked out.
As the agency’s largest donor by far, the US understandably believes it contributes to nearly everything the agency touches, the State Department official said. “We aren’t asking UNHCR for a fundamental change in its funding material – we are requesting that funding material reflect all donor support, not just those donors that earmark very specifically.”
Neither the State Department nor the refugee agency could provide a clear definition of “public information material” or explain how the requirement would be implemented. The two sides are hammering out a strategy for highlighting US contributions that should be announced before the end of the year. “UNHCR has acknowledged that it is [a challenge] to credit flexible funding to a particular donor,” a State Department official said. “We’re asking them to look for innovative ways to improve visibility for donors, like the US, who provide flexible funding.”
Kathleen Newland is a senior fellow and founder of the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute who sits on the board of USA for UNHCR, a nonprofit organization. She has worked for the UN refugee agency as a consultant and says she has noticed a “difference of emphasis but not a radical departure,” in the most recent framework. She noted that “to insist on measurable acknowledgment and a stronger visibility strategy is not something the US saw as necessary in the past, although governments always like to have their support recognized.”
Schwartz of Refugees International expressed concern that meeting the new US labeling quotas could distract attention from the refugee agency’s main focus: helping refugees. “It invites similar requests from other donors that if implemented would undermine the overall objectives of coherent UNHCR communications about the critical work it’s doing,” he said. “UNHCR would have to be checking so many different boxes, and that I think would be burdensome.”
Furthermore, he said, “This framework is being written at a time when refugee assistance and resettlement policy and other issues related to protection have gone in an unfortunate direction.”
In 2017, the US admitted 29,022 refugees, the lowest number since at least 2002. For 2018, the Trump administration has set the number of refugees’ cap to 45,000, the lowest cap in three decades. Moreover, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, has slammed the recent separation of children by US officials as “unconscionable.”
Newland said: “The controversies around greatly reduced refugee resettlement to the US and major cuts to US funding of the UN agency that supports Palestinian refugees may have affected the perception of the US as a steadfast leader in humanitarian action. The visibility requirements in the framework agreement may be designed to counter that. The government wants to make sure people know it is still the major supporter of UNHCR.”
The new framework highlights the need for a wider variety of donors — not just countries, but what an agency official called “nontraditional donors” — private entities. That notion coincides with a goal set out by the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley: to spend less of Washington’s money on the United Nations.
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Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.