Saturday, June 1, 2013

Radar on Steroids

When I tell people that I’m the Head of the Resident Coordinator Office in Lao PDR, they tend to either think I’m in charge of a dormitory set up for UN staff or they wish me well and slowly back away to avoid the deadly dull explanation that’s bound to follow. As many of you may be about to do with this blog. But stop! I promise a summary that’s both educational and fun. But then, I tend to promise many things.

Frank Sinatra once sang that love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage – you can’t have one without the other. The same is true for the UN Resident Coordinator and the Resident Coordinator Office that supports her or him. In most countries, the RC has two roles, as representative of the entire UN on behalf of the UN Secretary General and as the lead person for one of its larger agencies, the UN Development Programme. With over a dozen other UN agencies in the country and more outside, the RC is in a position of having to represent the UNDP while also providing governance to the others. A tricky role to hold, as the potential for conflicts of interest is great. To deal with this, the UN has developed the following system:

One thing you learn early on here – the UN loves its acronyms, so if you don’t, you’re SOL . As can be seen from the above diagram, a division between the two roles for the RC has been developed to maintain the distinction in the governance of the work to be done. To support the RC on the UNDP side, this means two deputies being assigned to the sheriff, er, I mean, RC, one for Programmes and one for Operations, to ensure the RC manages the work of the UNDP just the same as the other Heads of Agencies. On the other side of the firewall, there’s me and my staff, the Resident Coordinator Office. As firewalls go, it’s a friendly one, with regular interaction and only occasional confusion about where a particular issue needs to go.

So, that’s the division. But practically speaking, what is the role of the RC (and the RCO) in the work to be done? Here’s an overview:

So, there are primarily three areas of concentration. The Development side focuses on initiatives to support the country, generally on a longer-term basis, for anything from health to crime prevention to education. The Humanitarian response is dedicated to dealing with emergency preparation and response for crises such as flooding, typhoons and disease outbreak. And the security wing monitors and responds to dangers, whether man-made or otherwise. Seems fairly straight-forward, right? Next slide, please:
Boom goes the acronym dynamite! I won’t attempt to summarize the groups that are set out above, as I think it might cause the blog to melt down. Suffice to say that each of the groups listed under the headings above have their own mandates, and especially on the development side, this means they have their own ongoing workloads managed by their particular leads who in turn report up to the Resident Coordinator.  But to give a greater sense of the complexity of the system, if we take one of the groups shown above, the UN Country Team, and break it down further to show the agencies involved, we get the following:
Some of the agencies are instantly recognizable, such as UNICEF and WHO, as they tend to have a high profile in the public eye. Others, like UNAIDS, UN-Habitat and UNWomen, are less well known, but hints to their mandates can be found in their names. And finally, there are the agencies such as UNODC (drugs and crime), FAO (Agriculture) and IOM (Migration), which require a bit more investigation. The most important thing from a coordinator’s point of view is that each of these agencies run independently and have their own set of goals to achieve while still needing to work together on common objectives for the UN as a whole.
You may note from some of the diagrams above that the RCO is shown as a branch to the RC, and this is an accurate portrayal of the office. To use a reference point from the TV series M*A*S*H that some of you will recall, the RCO is the Radar O’Reilly to the RC’s Colonel Potter, an assistant who goes beyond being an assistant, anticipating and dealing with things before they require the attention of the commander-in-chief as well as responding to those things that do make it to his desk. I haven’t reached the point of hearing the helicopters before anyone else, but I’m getting there. The Radar analogy doesn’t quite capture the breadth of responsibilities for the office, as some of the RC’s duties are often delegated to the RCO, including chairing the committees responding to emergencies, so there is a level of independence granted to the office in achieving the objectives. So, the RCO is like Radar on steroids.
Any questions? I know I still have many, as I work my way through the responsibilities of this position. I hope to be able to share more in the future regarding the work I’ll be doing. I can see already that it will be a job that will likely fascinate and frustrate in equal measure, depending on the day (or sometimes, the hour of the day).