I spent ten days in Ecuador to find out more about the communication and information needs of Venezuelans fleeing the crisis in their country, the coordination mechanisms between organizations on the ground, and the impact of xenophobia on civil society. Our team gathered many interesting findings, many of which we are. now in the process of turning into an easily accessible product that can be widely read by organizations and people to whom it is most relevant. Ultimately, the goal is to identify gaps, as well as good practices, and communicate those effectively.
For me, as someone who has limited knowledge on the humanitarian system and its intricacies — based solely on a few months of interning with Dara/Dahlia, one of the most interesting findings was a structural technicality that I got to understand following several interviews with UN agency officials and conversations with my team members. In 2005, the humanitarian system underwent a series of reforms that aimed “to make humanitarian response more predictable by introducing a system for organising sectoral coordination among humanitarian actors. The objective is also to facilitate more predictable leadership, improved planning and prioritisation and enhanced accountability. Strengthened partnerships between humanitarian actors was subsequently added and has now become an integral part of the reform agenda.” According to my understanding, that is when OCHA, the UN’s coordination agency, was given a more significant mandate in the coordination of humanitarian affairs and the allocation of funding amongst agencies.
In times of a humanitarian crisis, there are multiple organizations that supposedly share a similar goal when responding. In order to best do that, there is a need for robust exchange of information and meaningful efforts to reach out to one another and create a coherent, shared response. On the border between Ecuador and Colombia, we witnessed a sea of white tents with the logos of DRC, UNICEF, WFP, the Red Cross, and many more. On one side of the border, we saw the Colombian Red Cross and a mere 200 meters away on the other side, we saw the Ecuadorian Red Cross. All were there to assist Venezuelans crossing the border. Harmonizing that response and communicating amongst each other was essential to ensure multiple sources of information did not contradict but rather buttressed one another. Duplicity is an enemy of efficiency and a very easy outcome if the multitude of organizations presently working around this crisis do not talk to each other, sharing expertise, planning, and information.
However, international non-governmental organizations — much as they are driven by the moral plateau of humanitarian values — are equally in need of attracting significant sums of money from donors, considering their model of operation. That is where information sharing clashes with individual fundraising interests and where things can get ugly. From my conversations with my colleagues, I came to the understanding that OCHA’s role in such crises is to be the neutral player that distributes funding and coordinates the response of all organizations on the ground to ensure effectiveness and information-sharing without the conflict of interest that arises when organizations talk to each other directly.
As we talked to an increasing number of people in Ecuador, we were starting to realize that in the context of the humanitarian response to the Venezuela crisis in Ecuador and Colombia (that being the scope of our mission), OCHA’s initials were conspicuously lacking. Some of the first explanations that we were given for that absence stated that the nature of this crisis made UNHCR’s technical skills more appropriate in leading coordination efforts. That was a surprising explanation even for someone like me who lacks the depth of experience that my peers had in these conversations. We had basically found out that OCHA taken the backstage, giving way to UNHCR to occupy the mandate that is typically given to the former — for good reason, as outlined above.
As our days and our conversations with locals progressed, we found that explanation to be severely incomplete. We found out that more unpleasant dynamics might have led to the sidelining of OCHA, as we simultaneously discovered many gaps in a badly coordinated multi-agency response to the Venezuela crisis. Antonio Gutteres, the current UN chief, was previously at the head of UNCHR. It seems, based on the testimony of more than a few people we talked to, that favoritism led to an effective sidelining of OCHA and its mandate by UNCHR. When fundraising is at stake — which it very strongly is in a crisis as underfunded as Venezuela’s — the donor-funded UNCHR finds itself fueled by self interest when approaching any type of coordination efforts — the very reason OCHA was given the mandate it formally occupied around the world today. This has resulted in an ugly and unfortunate situation that is far from beneficial for Venezuelans in Colombia, Ecuador, and beyond.