ExCom: World's poor, displaced must not be forgotten; UNHCR chief tells annual meeting

News Stories, 6 October 2008

© UNHCR/D.Favre
High Commissioner António Guterres opens the 59th annual meeting of UNHCR's governing Executive Committee.

GENEVA, October 6 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres warned Monday that the welfare of the world's poor and uprooted people is increasingly at risk as the international community struggles with a combination of adverse economic, social and political trends that threaten to trigger even more displacement in the future.

Opening the annual meeting of UNHCR's governing Executive Committee (ExCom), Guterres said it would be "tragic" if the current global financial crisis resulted in a decline in funding for humanitarian needs at the same time that demands were increasing dramatically.

He said that post-Cold War hopes for universal peace and prosperity have been overshadowed by the confluence of several difficult global challenges, ranging from climate change and gaping economic disparities to increasing competition for resources. The situation is further complicated by worldwide turbulence in financial markets, a worsening global economic outlook and disturbing developments in the political arena.

"Competition for scarce resources has become an increasingly important factor in provoking and perpetuating violence," Guterres told delegates from ExCom's 76 member states in Geneva's Palais des Nations. "We are confronted with a series of interlinked conflicts in an arc of crisis that stretches from South-West Asia to the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. Some of them are deepening, with important implications for global security."

He said climate change, extreme poverty and conflict are increasingly inter-related. As a result, forced displacement is on the increase and, along with it, demands on UNHCR. At the end of 2007, there were 11.4 million refugees, and the number is climbing.

The number of internally displaced people those who, unlike refugees, have not crossed a border is also rising. Out of the 26 million people who have been internally displaced by armed conflict, UNHCR works with 14 million in 28 countries more than twice the number in 2005.

Guterres said the global turmoil is reflected in several areas of UNHCR activity. "In the last 18 months, we have provided emergency response support to over 40 countries," said the High Commissioner, who called for a debate on the international community's response to the growing scale and complexity of forced displacement. "In 2007, we made a total of 197 emergency deployments. We have already exceeded that figure this year."

Funds drawn from UNHCR's Operational Reserve to address emergencies rose from US$34 million in 2006 to more than US$87 million in 2007 and an expected US$150 million this year. In 2008, UNHCR's global expenditure will increase to US$1.6 billion, compared to US$1.1 billion in 2006. Guterres said these figures highlighted the dramatic pressure being placed on UNHCR, despite reforms begun in 2006.

"We want to become a more effective, efficient and agile organization, responsive to the needs of our beneficiaries," he said of the reforms, adding that the vast majority of UNHCR's work in nearly 120 countries is in the field.

The changes include streamlining UNHCR's Geneva headquarters to devote as many resources as possible to field operations. Guterres said headquarters had been reduced from 1,047 staff at the beginning of 2006 to 747 today. The number is expected to drop below 700 by mid-2009. The proportion of UNHCR's budget spent on headquarters is expected this year to fall to about 9 percent, from 13.9 percent in 2006.

Globally, the proportion of staff costs is projected to fall from 42.5 percent in 2006 to 33.3 percent next year. Many of the headquarters posts were moved to a new UNHCR global service centre in Budapest, a move expected to save at least US$9 million annually beginning in 2009. Guterres said more posts are being relocated to the field under a decentralization and regionalization programme expected to conclude in mid-2009.

He said more than US$22 million in savings from the reforms had already made "a real difference in the lives of our beneficiaries" by addressing crucial gaps in the areas of malaria, malnutrition and reproductive health, as well as sexual and gender-based violence in several countries.

Declaring that "beneficiaries are not numbers, but people who have rights and needs," Guterres said it was time that UNHCR change its traditional budget planning process to be based on those needs rather than on the projected levels of support the agency expects to receive from donors. As a result, UNHCR has launched a Global Needs Assessment process in eight pilot countries. It will eventually be mainstreamed into all operations.

The High Commissioner reminded ExCom, which approves UNHCR's annual budget, that the agency must receive appropriate funding if it is to fulfil its protection mandate. Its proposed revised annual budget for 2009 is US$1.275 billion, with an additional $535 million for supplementary programmes.

"While we are doing our very best to minimize costs, our budget does not allow us to meet the global needs of our beneficiaries," he said. "With high food and energy prices, their welfare is seriously at risk. At the same time, we are asked to do more and more and to respond to greater and greater demands.

"I fully recognize the challenges of the current financial environment," he continued. "At the same time, I must point out that the resources required to support the 31 million people we care for are very modest indeed when compared to the sums being spent to bring stability to the international financial system."

Noting that "a hungry man is an angry man," Guterres warned that if the international community fails to meet the basic needs of the world's poor, "then we can only expect more social and political turmoil in the years to come."

Joining Guterres at the opening was International Committee of the Red Cross President Jakob Kellenberger. The opening session also welcomed Benin, Luxembourg, Montenegro and The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia as new ExCom members.

Later Monday, Guterres was to present the 2008 Nansen Refugee Award to the UN Mine Action Coordination Centre of South Lebanon, represented by its programme manager Chris Clark and mine clearer Jamal Hammoud.

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The governing body meets annually to discuss programmes, budgets and other key issues.

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