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Coordination in the Field v. the “Policy Wonkasphere”

Normally, I would have posted this on my other blog. But seeing as my friend Scott, who until recently scorned everyone and everything  to do with blogging and other social media, has taken up the cause, I thought I would elbow him off his soap box for a minute or two.

I have just spent a week in Juba, South Sudan and I have been reminded of a thing or two of the culture and workplace of UN peace operations: and its impact on so called “Coordination”.  Half the Amazon has been cut down in the production of reams of reports on the importance and merits of coordination – there is even a “Coordination Practice Network“.

Juba Airport 3 May 2010

Coordinate this, coordinate that.  Task Force, Working Group, Joint Assessment Mission, Steering Committee, Project Advisory Board, Joint Donor Team, Multi Donor Trust Fund – everyone needs to have a seat at the table.  In the end it is a wonder anything gets done – truth be told it rarely does.  I have sat on dozens of such bodies.  Breathlessly, coordinating here and there.  Wheels spinning in the mud.

As for the culture of UN peace operations.

For anyone who has worked in a UN peace operation you will know that who you know is important.  It is the currency of the mission, and is how things get done. What you know is usually too complicated to be considered useful. People jealously guard their information, it is often the only thing that keeps them in the job.

A couple of open secrets.  On the occasions I have worked in a UN peace operation – it is often the waste paper bin or the photocopier where people loiter, hoping to pick up a sheet of documentation that is lost in the wave of A4 drifting around.  Also I noticed that people, including myself, became adept at reading upside down.

Set against this backdrop is the holy mantra of “thou shalt coordinate” resonating from New York to the most distant Field Office.  People horde information in UN peace operations, sharing it is not part of the culture.

In preparation for my visit to Sudan I made contact with old friends and colleagues inside the UN system in New York, Khartoum and Juba (including a few in Dili, Kabul and Port-au-Prince – and one or two on neighbouring planets).  All of this was in an effort to get an UNMIS (United Nations Mission in the Sudan) mission directory so as to arrange meetings.  What is a mission directory?  Names, positions, phone numbers, email addresses (the good ones include donor/diplomat/government/NGO contact information as well).  In a place where everything has broken down, knowing who is doing what, and how to find them is important information.

So what was the result?

  • I emailed UNMIS on its generic email, and got no response.
  • Several friends in DPKO New York told me: “We do not have it, I will ask UNMIS.”  Some days later, they add, “Sorry, they don’t have it – you know how it is.”
  • Two friends in UNMIS in Khartoum told me it does not exist, but then one managed to pull the Mission Directory off lotus notes in the most unwieldy excel format of over 3,600 staff entries. Virtually useless.

UNMIS Directory - Information is Power

  • I eventually got a ramshackle directory from a woman working for a USAID granteee in Juba. For donors, NGOs – just 3 UNMIS names on it.
  • After sending around 150 emails to virtually every corner of the planet, I did manage to organise 3-4 meetings with key UNMIS staff in Juba.  All of which were very positive experiences.  You may think this untrue but all were smart, dedicated and switched on people.
  • UN OCHA and UNJLC  provided a goldmine of who is doing what, where and when information, but only once on the ground.

Interestingly, UNMIS, UNDP, and UN OCHA compounds are all in different locations across town.  You know what they say – location, location, location.  Often time, people I thought might know eachother, or at least have a working relationship, in fact had little or no contact.

As for workplace:

South Sudan is a tough place, as are many similar areas in which UN peace operations work. Its first paved roads were only laid down less than 2 years ago.  UN staff and others lived in tents from 2005-2007.  Despite the Comprehensive Peace Agreement South Sudan is still at war with the North – in spirit, if not always in fact.  Increasingly, the South suffers internal conflict.

People carry around 2-3 mobile phones each – Vivacel, Gemtel, Zain.  None of them are especially reliable – and none of them seem to be able to call other local networks.  My driver, a Ugandan chap noted how screwed up it is.  As he was telling me this I was watching a UN guy juggle two phones at the UNMIS gate.  Across the entry barrier a local security guy was swapping phones numbers with a colleague – 6 phones between the two of them.

Such is the level of coordinaton in the local telecommunications sector. Its not an easy place to work, let alone coordinate.

Meanwhile the High Priests of “Policy Wonkasphere” in New York and elsewhere continue drafting  policy reports ad nauseum.  Espousing the merits of coordination in places where its not often possible, and by people who are not really that interested.  But at least they do at least succeed in chewing up the resources which will save us from cooking ourselves. I wonder what the carbon footprint is of the “Policy Wonkasphere”.

Having said all that UNMIS costs 1 billion USD/year.  You would think that a mission directory would be possible.  Perhaps it might be by 2011, once they co-locate in the long planned construction of “UN House” in Juba, some 7 years after arriving in country?

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  1. K says:

    Your blog is so spot on! I worked in the advance mission and basically left in disgust after 2 years. There is no accountability on how that US$1 billion was spent annually. Staff who worked their ass-off got shafted (remember the scandal of 2006 when staff who could make a difference got suspended). Situation is still the same, not just in UNMIS but other duty stations, other Agencies. Will it change? Really?? How many reforms now?

  2. Edward Rees says:


    Thanks for your comments. I tend to agree.

    But lets remember it takes a long time to turn a big ship around. Are you up the for the effort? Please keep following the blog with your comments. Would love to hear more from you. By way of example. 4 years ago, no one wanted to talk about cooperating with but now there is a line up!

  3. Karlito Nunes says:

    Teaching accountability system for local people on how to spent US$… on projects and programming but not become exemplars to the local people to do so! Is it calling “money industry” in UN Mission?

  4. […] first PDT HQ blog post on UN Coordination – Juba […]

  5. Wayne says:

    Coordination without communication is chaos.

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