By Antonio Guterres, The Observer
Dec 10, 2006 — From genocide in Rwanda to the agonies of Darfur, the world seems paralysed when called upon to make the really big gesture. It seems equally reticent when asked to provide comparatively modest financial support to those doing their best to make a difference for the growing numbers of uprooted and dispossessed people.
Tomorrow, I will launch our annual appeal to the international community to provide a billion dollars so that the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) can play its part next year in providing refugees with some measure of protection and life-saving assistance. If history is any guide, however, I will be disappointed and will receive pledges for no more than a third of total needs.
Just over half-a-billion pounds may sound like a lot of money, but this year Britons will spend £250m on Christmas trees alone, not counting the mountains of presents underneath. In this context, UNHCR’s appeal for 2007 is equivalent to just 50 pence a week for each of the 20 million people we help.
Despite scarce resources over the past 18 months, we have helped more than a million refugees return to their countries of origin. We are working alongside other relief agencies to help the thousands now fleeing the conflicts in Iraq and Somalia. We are also dealing with the rapidly deteriorating situation in central Africa, where the crisis in Darfur is spreading into Chad and the Central African Republic. Looking ahead over the next 12 months, the multiplication of challenges is staggering.
We are working hard to implement a new approach to emergency relief as part of the UN’s efforts to improve performance. Within UNHCR, we are looking at how to direct more resources to beneficiaries on the ground. And yet, as the number of people under our mandate grows and we do our job better, too many governments sit on their hands when it comes to paying for an agency that relies on voluntary contributions to cover 98 per cent of its operating budget.
The result is a precariously narrow funding base. We count on just 10 countries to provide 80 per cent of our annual income. Beyond a core group of donors in Europe, North America and Japan, most countries give little more than small change to support an agency that works on their collective behalf.
UNHCR does not do its job out of altruism. It is fulfilling an international mandate handed to it by all members of the UN to protect and provide some semblance of hope to the millions of people uprooted by persecution and conflict.
Some of UNHCR’s key donors are now threatening to cut back support because of fiscal pressures and a sense that they are paying a disproportionate share of the price for refugee relief while the rest of the world rides free on the back of their humanitarian generosity. If contributions do tumble next year, the first to pay the real price will be those forced to flee or keen to return home. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, we are far from achieving minimal protection standards. Earlier this year, we were forced to reduce the voluntary repatriation of refugees to southern Sudan due to lack of money for trucks and supplies.
In an increasingly volatile world, support for agencies such as UNHCR that respond to the needs of the most vulnerable victims is too important to be left to the vagaries of a funding system that makes a small group of countries responsible for a public good that should be the shared responsibility of mankind.
History suggests that my expectations for this week’s appeal should be modest. Perhaps so, but this state of affairs cannot continue. As the eyes of the world are focused today on the humanitarian crisis in Darfur and the alarming insecurity that threatens to engulf not only the refugee camps in eastern Chad but the broader region, it is time for the world to go beyond angst to action. Universal values mean little without something closer to universal financial support for the world’s refugees.
* Antonio Guterres is the UN High Commissioner for Refugees