Overestimation on Factors to UNHCR Mandate Shift

According to Betts, pressure for an international organization to change may not only come from the organization’s vertical relationships with states, but also from its horizontal relationships with other organizations. In the case of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Betts argues that changes in the external and the internal institutional environment were major forces that caused the expansion of the UNHCR mandate. However, Betts overestimates the effects of these forces.

First, as more and more organizations were founded with overlapping mission with the UNHCR, the UNHCR was pressured to adapt in order to compete for relevance and funding base. At the same time, through forming networks with these new organizations the UNHCR grew autonomous from its original constraints. Second, Betts suggests that leadership of the high commissioner was crucial in determining which path the UNHCR would pursue. The directive leadership structure of the UNHCR allowed time to time for the high commissioner to influence significantly in expanding the UNHCR mandate.

Betts, however, underestimates the constraining factor of bureaucracies. Betts provides the example of internally displaced persons (IDPs). In 2000, the United States proposed that the UNHCR takes as leading role in IDP protection. Initially, the UNHCR declined, however, and Betts suggests internal division as the cause of the decision. While the UNHCR Department of Operational Services supported the proposal, the Department of International Protection favored against it. Likewise, Betts disregards the extent to which bureaucracies can influence leadership decision-making. Betts should recognize that leadership is constrained by the bureaucratic interests it represents.

Betts in his argument overestimates the financial autonomy of the UNHCR. Although the UNHCR indeed grew independent from state influences through networking with other actors, Betts disregards the fact that support of major states accounts for a significant share of the UNHCR’s budget. In its UNHCR Global Report 2013, UNHCR reported that contributions from the United States, Japan, and the European Union accounted for 52 per cent. While the UNHCR relies greatly on financial support of major states for funding of its programs, other sources of income would remain insignificant.

Betts provides compelling explanations on what could account for the changes the UNHCR mandate has gone through in the course of time. Betts’ argument is significant in that it provides alternative explanations to conventional international relations view, which credits states for any changes in an international organization. However, Betts must provide explanations on how the factors he has identified would have a greater force than conventional factors.


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