The 'bilateralisation' of humanitarian response: trends in the financial, contractual and managerial environment of official humanitarian aid

Research reports and studies
September 2002
Joanna Macrae

The term ‘bilateralisation’ entered common usage in the humanitarian lexicon in 1999. The international response to the Kosovo crisis effectively and deliberately sidelined the UN, and UNHCR in particular. Rather than investing primarily in the familiar UN-led framework of strategic and operational coordination, donors themselves assumed a number of key responsibilities for humanitarian response. In particular, they:


• contracted NGOs themselves, by-passing UN ‘middlemen’;
• undertook assessments of need and formulated strategies for their humanitarian response;
• established field offices to coordinate their response;
• fielded operational personnel from civil and military departments; and
• liaised directly with relevant governments regarding key issues concerning refugees, including site planning and protection.

While the response to the Kosovo crisis exemplified bilateralisation, the phenomenon was not born there. Official donors (including the European Commission) have been experimenting with new ways of engaging more directly in the humanitarian arena for nearly a decade. With the partial exception of donor operationality, this trend looks likely to continue, and to deepen.

This paper describes the phenomenon of the ‘bilateralisation’ of humanitarian response, and assesses its implications for UNHCR. It draws on a review of documentation from UNHCR and a series of interviews with a number of UNHCR staff. This research has both informed and been informed by a larger study by the Overseas Development Institute, which reported in Autumn/Winter 2002.


The remainder of this report is divided into four sections. Section 2 reviews the definition, origins and implications of the ‘bilateralisation’ of humanitarian response. Section 3 looks at the trend towards the bilateralisation of humanitarian aid spending. Section 4 examines the evolution of donors’ strategies for contracting their operational partners and for managing these contracts. Section 5 concludes the paper with an analysis of the implications for UNHCR

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