The New Paradigm of National Ownership: Some Thoughts on GCR Draft 3

The Global Compact on Refugees has evolved from its point of origin as Annex 1 in the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. The thrust of the CRRF, as initially conceived, was to enhance multi-stakeholder planning and response to large-scale refugee movements and protracted situations. It was based on the recognition that humanitarian aid alone is not adequate for large flows and long-standing refugee populations. Crucial to a comprehensive approach would be the role of development actors, primary among them, the World Bank. The goal of jointly conceived and implemented programs was to enhance refugee self-reliance, which would reduce dependency and the need for humanitarian assistance and to foster refugee inclusion in local economies. Development of a CRRF also envisaged greater international responsibility-sharing, primarily in the form of helping refugees to move from countries of first asylum. The promotion of both refugee self-reliance and additional “legal pathways” would necessarily benefit hosting states, as would new and additional development assistance.

As the GCR has evolved, international “predictable and equitable” international responsibility-sharing continues to receive top billing. That goal has now been twinned with national ownership of comprehensive plans. Meanwhile, measures to achieve refugee self-reliance have all but disappeared.

The objectives of international responsibility-sharing and national ownership are not necessarily linked:  it is possible to conceive of a refugee regime that takes the burden off hosting states through collective action that ensures a fair distribution of refugees throughout the world and makes its top priority solutions to refugee situations.

But the linking of international responsibility-sharing and national ownership becomes clearer when the former is cashed out in terms of additional funding to hosting states—that is, non-hosting states share responsibility not be taking refugees but by sending funds to hosting governments.  This can be a win-win for all states involved:  hosting states receive a large influx of foreign funding directly (which differs from humanitarian funding that generally moves from states to international organizations to local service providers and never enters state coffers), while donor states can pursue policies that purport to more effectively assist refugees in countries of first asylum and therefore give them grounds for not supporting refugee onward movement. In this schema, refugees benefit primarily from continued assistance (now in the form of health and education services delivered through hosting state systems rather than those established by international organizations); the idea of refugee agency and empowerment is largely taken off the table.

The GCR represents, then, a possible paradigm shift in refugee protection and assistance.  Indeed, there is some degree of tension between the CRRF, which puts UNHCR at the center of coordinating comprehensive planning, and the Programme of Action, which is all about national leadership and ownership. (Hosting states develop comprehensive plans and request that UNHCR convenes a Support Platform, and nearly every provision offering additional support begins “States and relevant stakeholders will contribute resources and expertise to . . . [enhance national hosting states efforts in education, health, etc].”)

The move to a focus on national ownership is, in some respects, a positive development.  It is, in fact, how the framers of the refugee regime in the 1950s hoped the system would work.  Hosting states would be the primary providers of protection by respecting the rights enshrined in the 1951 Convention, and UNHCR would provide international protection where state protection was not forthcoming. The rights provided in the Convention would foster refugee self-reliance; the massive assistance programs we associate with the refugee regime today were not anticipated.  It is consistent with this vision that the international community might look to hosting states as the primary guarantors of refugee well-being and would help them to ensure that refugees have access to state social welfare and education systems.

Furthermore, hosting states have good cause to be asking much more of the international community.  A rather small group of states has hosted the majority of the world’s refugees for many years, and funding from non-hosting states has been woefully inadequate.  UNHCR’s “need-based” budget is generally funded at about half of what is required to provide refugees with basic services.  If non-hosting states are unwilling to increase by a significant degree the number of refugees they will take for resettlement, then they have a responsibility to do far more to help refugees in the states in which they reside.

But the shift to national ownership is not without risks.  First, there is the question of the capacity of hosting states for comprehensive planning that involves numerous international humanitarian and development stake-holders. Second, there are concerns about accountability: as noted, the GCR envisions significant new funding going directly to hosting states to improve health and education systems and to promote training for livelihoods.  How will donors monitor that the funds will be spent to benefit refugees as well as host community members?  Third, how will refugee protection fit into the new paradigm?  If UNHCR is coordinating a comprehensive plan, there can be some degree of assurance that protection will be a central feature. What will ensure that hosting states adequately secure the rights guaranteed by the 1951 Convention?  This will be a particular problem in hosting states that are not signatories to the Convention.

These questions suggest that the GCR, in its final draft, should establish some “guard rails” as it moves toward a regime primarily based on national ownership.  For example, the “Follow up and Review” section could include language that specific attention will be paid to hosting state accountability. Another approach would be to condition additional development funding on compliance with international protection norms. Neither of these protections would conflict with the GCR’s promise not to establish new binding norms.

The Programme of Action is now a long way from the inspiring commitments of the New York Declaration.  Perhaps this is natural. To paraphrase a U.S. statesman, declarations can be written in poetry but implementation plans will be written in prose.  But in an unexpected way, the Programme of Action has become a document primarily concerned with assistance to hosting states rather than one establishing programs to help refugees rebuild their lives.

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