“Risk-Aversion with the United Nations”

In March 2013, a coup took place in the Central African Republic (CAR). Following a rebel attack on the capital of CAR, the president fled, and rebels took control of the government. The situation in the capital became dismal, with rebels “looting, abducting, raping and killing — even breaking into an orphanage to steal whatever they could, according to Amnesty International”. In response to the precarious situation, the United Nations prepared to evacuate its non-essential staff members.

In the course of 2013, the UN redeployed its staff members. Redeployment has, according to the president of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders), not resulted in effective operations. In an open letter to the United Nations, the president of MSF complained of the “unacceptable performance of the United Nations humanitarian system in the Central African Republic”. He argued that the UN produces “extremely risk-averse analyses.”

The MSF president claimed that these risk-averse analyses have had an adverse effect on humanitarian assistance: they “remain the main stumbling block and a constant excuse for UN agencies to postpone required timely scale-up of resources.” To illustrate the problem, the president explained: “Following the fighting in Bossangoa, the UN remained on security lock-down for days, abandoning the more than 30,000 displaced persons in the main Bossangoa camps, while MSF and ACF teams move through the city to provide emergency assistance.”

Observations of UN risk-aversion are not unusual. A policy report on the UN Mission in South Sudan speaks of “a culture of ‘extreme risk-averseness’, ‘navel-gazing’ and the prevalence of a ‘can’t-do mentality.’” A report on the UN mission in Lebanon, written shortly after the withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon in 2000, explains that “the UN wants to avoid high risk to its peacekeepers.” The report speaks of a “risk-aversion strategy.” Many more examples of claims regarding risk-averse behavior exist in the context of past and present UN missions in Rwanda, Bosnia, Congo, and other places.

The persistence of claims regarding UN risk aversion justifies attention to the issue. Is there indeed “a culture of ‘extreme risk-averseness’”? If so, what does it look like? Could it be that claims of risk aversion are a matter of ‘misinterpretation’? Could it be that the absence of action in particular cases simply results from a lack of resources rather than fear? And who are the ‘risk-averse’ actors that the criticasters are talking about? Are these the political leaders who prepare mandates for UN operations, the chiefs of the respective missions, or the UN personnel working on the ground?

In the past, scholars have primarily focused on the organizational or political level when addressing the question of risk aversion. Recently, experts have drawn attention to UN personnel on the ground, suggesting that the problem of risk-aversion also exists at this level. But so far, experts have not yet satisfactorily explained risk-aversion on the ground. Experts have failed to systematically map action and inaction. And in most cases, they have not gone beyond the simple claim that there is a culture of risk-aversion on the ground. Even if this culture is there, how did it come about, is it the same across missions, and does it have a similar effect on all UN civilian and military workers? We need systematic research to answer these questions. Such research is important for the UN and critical for the men and women who depend on UN assistance.

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