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UN and INGO experiences of coordination in Jordan

By Alex Tyler and Jack Byrne

Alex Tyler is Inter-Sector Coordinator for UNHCR Jordan

Jack Byrne is Country Director for IRC and Chair of the INGO Forum for Jordan

As of July 2014, there are now over 600,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan; with up to 80,000 in camps, and 520,000 in urban and rural areas. The Government of Jordan, civil society and the international community have all stepped up to meet the enormous needs, both of refugees and of the Jordanian communities1 affected by the crisis. The Jordan Refugee Response is the broad frame for these. 

Under the leadership of the Government of Jordan and coordinated by UNHCR, the Jordan Refugee Response is a collaborative effort between the donor community, United Nations (UN) agencies, international and national non-governmental organisations (NGOs), community-based organisations, refugees and Jordanian communities.

All levels of the Government of Jordan are engaged in the response, from the Office of the Prime Minister, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation (MOPIC), to the line ministries working with each of the sectors, and the governorates and municipalities in refugee-affected areas. In 2014, the Ministry of Interior created the Syrian Refugee Assistance Directorate (SRAD), which is the primary government entity for the coordination of refugee issues in the country.  

From an inter-agency perspective, the main strategic framework for the response is the Jordan chapter of the Regional Response Plan (RRP)2.  In 2014, 64 partners have appealed for a total of USD 1 Billion through the RRP. Delivery is organised through eight sectors— Cash, Education, Food Security, Health, Non-Food Items (NFIs), Protection, Shelter, and Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH). The sectors are linked through an Inter-Sector Working Group (ISWG) – a meeting of sector chairs with the aim to encourage synergies between sectors – which in turn reports up to the heads of UN and NGOs who meet together in the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF). Nutrition, together with Reproductive Health and Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Services (MHPSS), are sub-sectors of Health.

Complementary yet independent from these structures, the International NGO (INGO) Forum sets common policies and pursues advocacy initiatives, based on consensus among the NGO community. There are currently 53 INGOs signed up to the INGO Forum. 

The scale of the refugee response and the myriad of partners and structures involved provide a glimpse into the complexities and challenges faced in achieving effective coordination. This is a massive operation, with staffing numbers well into the thousands. Each organisation has also experienced a significant expansion in staff compared to two years ago. UNHCR alone has grown from around 100 staff in 2012 to now almost 700 staff by mid-2014. 

Refugee Coordination pre-dates the Transformative Agenda3 and is distinct from the Cluster system. More recently it has been reaffirmed at the global level through the Refugee Coordination Model4. In short, in collaboration with the Government of Jordan and mandated by the UN General Assembly, UNHCR remains the coordinating organisation for the entire response. The time-line for UNHCR’s engagement stretches well beyond the emergency phase. It also includes longer term care and maintenance, as well as the pursuit of durable solutions, through voluntary repatriation, local reintegration or resettlement to a third country. 

At the same time, there are many parallels with the Cluster system. Key operational UN agencies – especially WFP, UNICEF, WHO and UNFPA – manage sectors in which they have specific expertise. While UNHCR remains overall the ‘agency of last resort’, other UN agencies are committed to delivery in their sectors, both through their own mandates and through a series of global and national memoranda of understanding with UNHCR.  International and national NGOs are crucial at all levels of the response – from strategic leadership down to the daily delivery of protection and assistance to refugees and Jordanian communities. 

The Cluster system has also set the tone for what is expected from coordination; in many respects contributing to the professionalisation of coordination as a function within aid work. The efforts of Global Clusters and the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) have defined standards and guidelines, many of which are applicable in refugee situations. They have also tried and tested coordination structures and appeal mechanisms – developing best practices that have also been adapted by UNHCR and partners across the region affected by the Syria crisis.  

For instance, adapting best practices, the process resulting in Jordan’s RRP has been robust. Three months of inclusive planning at the strategic and sector levels resulted in a clear strategy, peer-reviewed by sector chairs, and built on over 1,200 projects or activities of the 64 appealing partners. 

Professionalising coordination clearly has many benefits – more efficient systems, reducing duplication and better serving partners’ information needs. It also brings some risks. While UNHCR and many other organisations now have dedicated coordination staff in Jordan, the danger is that coordination structures become heavy, overbearing on organisations’ independence and, at worst, self-serving and dislocated from the realities faced by staff at field level and from the people we are trying to help. The proliferation of coordination structures – the ‘task force disease’ – can itself be counter-productive. Too many meetings are particularly onerous on the smaller international and national NGOs, who do not have the staffing levels necessary to attend them all. One risk is that some partners opt-out of these meetings, or send junior staff. This can result in actual decision making being further skewed towards the larger organisations. 

In Jordan, we have an oft repeated mantra to keep coordination to the “minimum necessary to facilitate collective action”, and that each new structure or process proposed needs to demonstrate a clear added value. We have tried various ways to meet this standard. First, regular anonymous surveys are conducted with sector members to canvass opinion on the performance of the sectors in general, and also to elicit feedback from sector members on how coordination structures can be improved or streamlined5. Secondly, the INGO forum has a seat on the Inter-Sector Working Group, and is consulted on design of these structures. The recent roll out of coordination fora in three governorates of Mafraq, Irbid and Amman only went ahead after extensive discussions with and within the INGO forum. It has to be said that we are not there yet, and often find ourselves well beyond the line of ‘the minimum necessary’, but will go through regular ‘retrenchment’ of meetings to keep this under control. 

Investing in Information Management as a coordination service has been important, both to facilitate planning and implementation by partners, and to shift coordination meetings from long, round-the-table sessions, to being more focused on both strategy development and problem-solving. The Jordan response uses a number of portals and platforms to keep partners updated. An example is ActivityInfo6 - an online platform for planning activities and reporting achievements against pre-defined indicators. Originally developed by UNICEF in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), ActivityInfo allows partners to log their own activities and check what everyone else is doing and where7. Used well it is a transparent system designed to empower partners, enabling them to conduct simple gap analysis, generating maps and charts for their activities and for a geographical area or for the sector as a whole. UNHCR is aware that partners need some initial support and training to be able to use its full potential. With high staff turnover this can be a challenge in itself.  

From the INGO perspective

The Jordan INGO Forum came together as an informal group of the handful of organisations that had been operating in Jordan before the onset of the Syrian crisis. It has gradually played a much larger role in overall crisis coordination as more and more INGOs established themselves in Amman – with the largest INGOs establishing both a country and regional offices in the capital city. Establishment of the Forum was not at the behest of donors or UN agencies but rather was an organic process to meet the needs of members, at first around safety, security, advocacy and information sharing, and then to be important stakeholders at the table with the UN, the government of Jordan, and with donors. The thirteen largest INGOs operating in Jordan programme well over $100 million in humanitarian activities to aid refugees and vulnerable Jordanians and are some of the most operational actors in the crisis.

Forum leadership and representation went through a number of iterations, from an informal Chair and Co-Chair that facilitated monthly meetings, to its present structure of a Chair and four Steering Committee members. At the strategic levels, these five people represent INGOs on the Inter-Agency Task Force, the Humanitarian Country Team, the Inter-Sector working Groups, monthly meetings with donors, and with the government of Jordan, mainly through interaction with the MOPIC.

Despite having a legitimate place at the table, achieving meaningful INGO representation within existing and new coordination structures remains a challenge. Some INGOs manage larger budgets and certainly have greater operational capacity than many of the smaller UN agencies. Conversely, many INGOs are short-term responders with rapid staff turnover, and do not have the resources to dedicate to the Forum or to the multitude of coordination meetings that take place on a daily basis. A particular challenge for INGOs and the UN alike are new coordination mechanisms underway from various stakeholders, which tend to hinder implementation of what has already been agreed to and blur the lines around who is doing what. Additional layers of coordination need strong justification and buy-in from all involved; otherwise there is the risk of alienating donor agencies who fund these mechanisms and of drifting farther from the real purpose of our collective response, which is to assist those affected by the crisis.

It is widely acknowledged among the humanitarian community that in Jordan, coordination and communication between and among INGOs and their counterparts in the UN works well relative to coordination structures in other countries in the region. It is critical that INGOs continue to advocate for issues that affect their ability to operate with neutrality, to choose well-informed representatives to speak for the collective, and to engage actively with the UN and the government of Jordan to protect humanitarian space in the face of concerns over safety and security, which, while unarguable, will have negative effects for Syrians seeking refuge in Jordan and for Syrians already here.

To conclude, there are traditional rivalries between some organisations – both at the UN level and among INGOs. Organisations do compete for funds and for responsibilities over different sectors. While organisations do of course recognise that pursuing common goals collectively is the most effective way to serve refugees’ needs, there is an ever present jostling for space between the partners. Coordination cannot be blind to this, or the pursuit of the overall goals may be negatively affected. It is key that structures are balanced, built on mutual respect, consultative and do provide space for visibility and independence of organisations.  At the same time, no one organisation can go it alone, and expect to deliver an impact beyond their own project. The strength of the Jordan Refugee Response is that it recognises greater benefits come from collective action of all the organisations involved, each bringing to the table their own skills and expertise in a genuinely inclusive manner. 

More information on refugee coordination in Jordan can be found through the Jordan country pages at http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/country.php?id=107 and in the draft Coordination Briefing Kit at http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/download.php?id=6379

Show footnotes

1 The response to vulnerable Jordanian populations is built into every project approved by the Government of Jordan; it is mandated that each project responding to refugees must respond to vulnerable host populations. In recognition of the need to ensure Jordanian communities are effectively assisted, both the RRP strategies in 2013 and 2014 have explicitly targeted host communities. In 2014, over 700,000 Jordanians are benefiting from the RRP.

2Available at http://www.unhcr.org/syriarrp6/ 

3 For more information, see www.humanitarianinfo.org

4 UNHCR, Refugee Coordination Model, November 2013, available at http://www.unhcr.org/53679e2c9.pdf

5 See the latest survey results at http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/download.php?id=6158

6 For Jordan, Activityinfo is accessed through the URL www.syrianrefugeeresponse.org

See Claire Barnhoorn (2014). Spreading around the globe: ActivityInfo. Field Exchange 47, April 2014. p51. www.ennonline.net/fex/47/spreading 

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Reference this page

Alex Tyler and Jack Byrne (2015). UN and INGO experiences of coordination in Jordan. Field Exchange 48, November 2014. p105. www.ennonline.net/fex/48/unandingo