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Working at the Supranational Level

by Daniel Naujoks
July 31, 2019

This interview with Daniel Naujoks was conducted and condensed by frank news. It is part two of our conversation on The Mobility Mandala.

frank: Today, we often hear about a crisis of cooperation at the international level. It seems that many countries are reluctant to work together and many wonder about the place of the United Nations in today’s world. This is broad – but what influence does the UN have on nations today? 

Daniel Naujoks: When we think about the influence of the UN it’s important to recognize that the UN isn't one entity. What we call “the UN” includes many different ways in which states interact with each other, often mitigated or moderated by certain entities of the UN. You have the General Assembly, which, for many people is the quintessential UN. And the Security Council – a highly political body and the only UN organ that has the power to take decisions infringing on states’ sovereignty. On the other hand, there is the UN of the many programs and agencies that have specific mandates and that work with governments and non-state actors to achieve something, like the UN Development Programme, the International Labour Organization, or the UN Environment Programme, to name a few.

When it comes to migration and displacement, we actually had several discussions on these topics at the General Assembly. In 2006, the UN organized the first high level dialogue on international migration and development, for which I was part of the organization team at the UN Population Division. In 2013, we had another high-level dialogue at the UN General Assembly. And after preparing and negotiating for two years, in December 2018, the global community adopted two new compacts. The UN adopted the UN Global Compact for Migration, for safe, orderly and regular migration, and the UN Global Compact on Refugees. These are non-binding agreements but the entire process of drafting these compacts was influential for spurring discussions among countries, between countries and civil society at the international level, and, even more importantly, at the national level. 

Often we think of UN issues as matters at the supranational level, happening at the UN General Assembly hall here in New York or in Geneva. And that's true, that is an important venue. But, when we have a UN event or UN treaty, or in this case, a compact, there are also national stakeholders, human rights commissions, NGO networks, ministries at the national level, who have an interest in promoting certain issues. And they have consultations, the press picks up issues. Each country is a little different and it depends on the strength of certain stakeholders and their interests. For example, the U.S. government was largely absent from the process of the UN Global Compact for Migration.

Already in the beginning of the negotiations, the US declared, "We're out." Which, in my opinion, was not a very smart move, because even at that point, it was clear that it would be non-binding.

The risk of somewhat being held accountable would actually be low. And remaining in the discussions would have given the US a way to influence the content. But I think it was more about sending a political message to certain local constituents than an actual policy move in the international sphere.

What is remarkable is that even though the national government withdrew from the process, many U.S. cities said, "Can we be part of that?" New York, Chicago,and other cities really stepped in. Thus, in the end, there was a lot of participation in the U.S., even though the national government declared they don't want to have anything to do with it. So, sometimes, how the UN works is a little more complex than just what the official state department position is on an issue. And there are many venues. There are bilateral consultations, there are regional consultations on human trafficking, on labor migration and so on. There is a Global Forum on Migration and Development, the GFMD, which, since 2007, takes place every year. Governments come, they exchange notes on good policies, and on what can be done, mostly at the working level. At the working level, government officials cooperate and learn from each other. Again, it's non-binding. And the UN provides inputs, they chair sessions, they write background papers, they present case studies. 

This is to exemplify that there are systems where policy learning happens in a much more informal setting, than through rigid rules-setting and treaty-making. This is something students in the UN Studies specialization here at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, that I direct, focus on when studying global governance. There are many different ways in which local and national governments, countries’ specific ministries, institutions, and agencies, international organizations, NGOs, and other groups negotiate and collaborate. 

And then in the developing world, of course, the UN has a different role, because they are not just advising, they're working with local partners and in actual programs, like funding. And they're advising governments directly on how to do things.

But even there, what people from the outside often don't understand, the UN cannot work without the explicit consent of the host government.

So, when Kenya says that they want to close the refugee camps for Somalia refugees, UNHCR can plead, "Oh, please, refugees have rights and camps are bad." But, unless the Kenyan government gives UNHCR authority to work on certain programs, and provides UNDP consent to implement initiatives on livelihood strategies targeting refugees, these agencies can't do much. This being said, because of certain power asymmetries and donor interests, the so-called technical assistance from UN agencies in the Global South has the potential to influence policy decisions and exemplifies how the work of the UN can have an impact. But the political leverage of many agencies is not as large as is often seen. Which is why there's a lot of bargaining in the background. The things that you don't see that are not official. 

Can you give an example?

DN: An example for the fact that the UN has to always ask for permission to work on certain issues is the persistence of the use of refugee camps. For the last 15 to 20 years, we know that refugee camps are not good for refugees. In the very short term, in the immediate aftermath of an atrocity, of a civil war, of a calamity, in the case of a sudden influx, camps may make sense to provide shelter and food and medical services to a large number of people. But, even in the medium term, they're very bad for the human development outcomes of people.

They lend themselves to a range of human rights violations, because people live in close vicinity to each other, people who are very heterogeneous among themselves. Just because they're all refugees, just because they're all from one country, doesn't mean they all get along well. 

Camps generally don't provide sufficient economic opportunities for people, et cetera. That's why for some time now, we know that limited humanitarian responses to large refugee and IDP movements are not good for development. Definitely not for those people who are displaced, but mostly equally for surrounding communities. I actually developed a role-play simulation on the reasons for and against refugee camps and participants understand quite clearly the mix of international development and human rights logic with local politics and interests.

Addressing the shortcomings of classic humanitarian approaches, different UN agencies have been very strong in advocating for a more development-based strategy. For example, in the Syrian context, there has been the 3RP, the regional refugee and resilience plan, which is headed by UNDP and UNHCR, with I think, about 270 partners. It’s implemented in Syria’s neighboring countries, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, and Egypt. In addition to each country’s national plan there's a regional plan, which focuses not only on the humanitarian side but also development side. UNDP has been leading these efforts to provide livelihood support, skills, training, et cetera. But even there, we see that the implementation is hampered by a lot of challenges. Take Jordan. In the 2013 donor conference in London, Jordan pledged to give work permits to 200,000 Syrian refugees. They were very committed at the highest level of government. 

But, a year later, there were almost no permits for refugees, and everyone asked why. We did a project with Better Work Jordan, which is a collaboration between the International Labour Organization and the World Bank. BetterWork Jordan published a report that my students drafted on why Syrian refugees did not get more official work permits. There are many reasons why employers couldn't employ refugees or couldn't expand their production. The refugees could only work in the export-oriented zones, mostly in the garment sector. They couldn't work in other areas. There was a distance they had to travel. Refugees often didn't want these jobs for a variety of reasons. There were many bottlenecks in the bureaucratic procedure to get work permits. In brief, there were many challenges at the supply side, the demand side, as well as on the bureaucratic transaction side. 

These issues combined led to a situation in which this great policy that was mediated by the UN and other donors to actually empower refugees to be economic actors, didn't have the impact people had hoped for. While much of what the UN does can have important impacts, this shows that what can be done at the national level depends a lot on national priorities and politics. How politicians are afraid of negative impacts for the local voting populations. And then, of course, it has also to do with the commitment of the international donors to actually put in money to say, "Yes, we will not only give you minor funds to warehouse refugees but we will partner with you to empower them and your populations." Part of the agreement with Jordan that I mentioned was a pact with the EU. The EU said, "If refugees are employed you can export garments and other goods from export-oriented zones to us duty free." The idea was to use trade and the increase in production in the Jordanian garment sector as a way to increase employment opportunities for refugees. A great idea. 

But, you probably need to do more to help Jordanian products to be competitive on the EU market. There's also a time lag. Even if you open up the market right away, these products may not satisfy the EU standards for garments. So, there are many things that the partners need to do to support these endeavors and to really make sure that local leaders are not afraid that if they open the labor market, if they open chances for local integration, that in two years, donors will pull out. And then, they will get stuck with the additional population without the support financial community. So, that's where the UN can help a lot. But, without real commitments from large donor countries or any countries to resettle and share the responsibility for refugees, there's only that much the UN can do. 

Thank you so much for your time.