Russia’s war on Ukraine is not only increasing the cost of delivering aid to the world’s most vulnerable people, but European donors’ and American interests in the war are also reducing the ability of those countries to fund global development agencies that are facing food and fuel price hikes. The upheaval from the war and rising numbers of “forcibly displaced” people worldwide — hitting 100 million — are prompting aid operations to find new strategies to do their work.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres and UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi have visited some of the developing countries where these trends are unfolding, highlighting the worsening conditions of the enormous refugee and displaced populations in these parts of the world.
Grandi and the UN Refugee Agency and other large humanitarian aid agencies prepare their budgets every December for the year ahead and make global pledge appeals that month as well. Often, events overtake these plans but not at the scale that they have six months into 2022.
Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba, a communications officer for the UN high commissioner in Africa (except for the north), shared insights into the situation of the most vulnerable communities worldwide. She said that to increase funding sources, the Refugee Agency is partnering with private companies in Africa and working with African economies that are relatively thriving to provide money to relieve the donor burden on the West.
In this recent interview with PassBlue, Lejeune-Kaba explained how the agency is adapting and reacting to the growing financial gaps. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
PassBlue: What considerations does the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) make in disbursing resources?
Lejeune-Kaba: People are used to seeing or hearing about aid coming. So the first thing for us is to be present; UNHCR is present across more than 160 countries, and we are always close to where people who are forced to flee are settling. The second thing is that we have to look at different groups because they’re affected differently. So we disaggregate the data, we look at how many women, how many youth, how many children, how many boys, how many girls and how many elderly people [there are]. We also look at the profiles of the groups as to the livelihoods they had before they were forced into fleeing. Once we have done assessments and determined what the needs are, we do a lot of monitoring, but we don’t do this alone. We work with the governments and the strategies they have put in place to work in the various regions.
PassBlue: After factoring in all the data variables tracking the people you help, how do you determine who to assist immediately?
Lejeune-Kaba: We ask a lot of questions to determine people’s vulnerabilities but also their strengths. That allows us to know how many people are extremely vulnerable. The elderly, obviously; pregnant and lactating women. You have children who are separated from their families. You have people with disabilities. Sometimes you have people with chronic illnesses. So for us, it’s very clear. Where it becomes difficult is when we don’t have enough [aid] over a long period of time. For example, right now in Cameroon, we have some urban refugees. They need to pay rent, to pay for medical services. Recently, we’ve had to reduce our interventions because we were not able to provide as much support as we wanted to those who are in town.
PassBlue: At a food security and conflict debate at the UN Security Council in May, the UN secretary-general said about 18 percent of global humanitarian appeals had been funded. Are pledge redemptions worse this year so far?
Lejeune-Kaba: We have funding gaps, but it’s not that huge. Fortunately, we do get a lot of support from our traditional donors. We have pledging conferences every December, and there we get an indication of how much money we will be receiving to begin the year. Every year, we receive more than the previous year, because our donors, the member states, are aware of all the challenges. They’re the ones who approve our budgets. Last year, when we were planning, we never thought that in a couple of weeks, we would see millions of Ukrainians fleeing across borders, in addition to those fleeing inside their countries elsewhere. We know in the Sahel that the situation is difficult. So we plan, anticipate and look at the trends over the years. For example, we thought that in 2022, we would have an additional 300,000 displaced internally. When displacement happens faster than what we had planned for, we have a gap and this gap is widening. Now we’ve passed the 100 million milestone of people forcibly displaced around the world, which means one in every 78 people. It’s crazy.
PassBlue: Would you say the response to the war on Ukraine has depleted UNHCR’s resources?
Lejeune-Kaba: When the crisis erupted, and because of its sheer scale and that it’s happening in Europe, close to donors, there was a rapid reaction. UNHCR has a high commissioner who has over 30 years of experience working with refugees, and we have very sound relationships with various donors. Immediately, we started having conversations about the needs, we started deploying staff and we also have emergency reserves that we keep for new situations. The overwhelming response from across the West has helped to take care of the initial response. But when a new crisis erupts or deepens inside other regions, we will not have the money we need unless we do more sensitizing with our donors and expand the donor base. Recently, our high commissioner went to Cameroon. He’s just left Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia. The secretary-general [Guterres] went to Senegal. The UN leadership wants to make it very clear that even if Ukraine requires a lot of attention, we should not forget other operations, especially not in Africa.
PassBlue: How are you coping with higher energy and food costs, now that some resources from Western donors are a bit reduced?
Lejeune-Kaba: It will not have an immediate impact where we already have supplies, but as the crisis continues, the next time we have to replenish, we will feel the pinch. That’s why we increasingly use cash to allow people to buy whatever they need. It could be for housing, food or medicine, and that’s one way we are mitigating all these changes. The other thing is we are increasingly sourcing whatever we can locally.
PassBlue: Is there something else you’d like to add that I’ve not asked?
Lejeune-Kaba: To talk about one good thing. While the number of crises is multiplying, and the number of displaced is at an unprecedented level, with over 100 million people, Côte d’Ivoire is the reverse. It’s the first time in a long time that we have closed, or we’re about to close, a refugee chapter. That’s where our high commissioner spent Refugee Day, to draw attention to the fact that whatever happens to a country after a war, it’s possible to bring back peace. It’s about leadership, creating the right conditions for reconciliation. So from the first of July, the refugee status for Ivorians ceased to exist. It’s called the cessation clauses, and they are part of the 1951 convention regulating refugee affairs internationally. And it says that whenever the circumstances that led to mass displacement no longer exist, there can be an end to the refugee status of people. So in Côte d’Ivoire, 96 percent of the refugees who fled have returned home, so this is the end of the chapter. It reminds me that in West Africa, we’re able to do that. If you remember, we had Liberia, we had Sierra Leone and today all those refugee chapters have been closed.
PassBlue encourages readers’ comments: Let us know what you think the UN could do to alleviate the current aid crisis in vulnerable communities.
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Damilola Banjo is a staff reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.