UNRRA’s operational genius and institutional design

5   UNRRA’s operational genius and institutional design

Eli Karetny and Thomas G. Weiss

The experience of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) contains lessons not only as the first operational UN organization but also as a testing ground for the very notions of robust multilateralism and internationalism.1 This chapter explores the industrial-scale undertakings by some 12,000 international civil servants who assisted 11 million displaced persons in Germany alone, administered some $4 billion of assistance, coordinated the relief efforts of about 125 international private voluntary associations, and eased suffering in 23 war-torn societies of Europe and Asia. To contextualize the challenge and magnitude of the UNRRA experiment, a year of its operations would be at least $22 billion in current dollars, more than the approximately $18 billion in 2012 (the latest year for which data are available) of total humanitarian disbursements worldwide, public and private.2 The range of activities—from massive food and drug distribution to gigantic civil-engineering projects—is impressive. The geographical spread—across war-ravaged Europe and Asia—in a world without today’s communication and transportation technologies is humbling.3

UN founders sought to write the next chapter in the history of intergovernmental cooperation following the League of Nations. The second generation of intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) naturally looked to the first generation’s experience, including some of the mental constructs and biases.4 That era was a crucial stage in the evolution of humanitarian thinking and practice, a time described as a “way station between humanitarianism’s past and future,” when states became more involved in relief work in part because of strategic benefits.5 Principles now regarded as central to humanitarian action—impartiality, neutrality, and independence—began in 1865 with the establishment of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

World War I resulted in a dramatic growth in international humanitarian action, including the founding of Save the Children in 1919. The most substantial assistance came from the American Relief Administration (ARA), which operated from 1919 to 1923 under the leadership of future president Herbert Hoover. He understood that humanitarian assistance during the famine in Europe and Russia could help foster Western influence in what would in 1922 become the Soviet Union. Financed by the US government, the ARA operated as a private relief agency and was not a model for intergovernmental organizations, especially because of impressions about squandered resources and partiality.6

More relevant as a precedent was the League’s establishment of the High Commission for Russian Refugees (1920–22), headed by Fridtjof Nansen—Norway’s explorer, scientist, humanitarian, Nobel laureate. Strategic factors may have driven Western states to stress humanitarianism, but leaders and beneficiaries are central to the story of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution. Nansen later expanded his mandate to include Armenian and then other continental populations through the High Commission for Refugees. After his death in 1930, the League’s member states changed the name to the Nansen International Office for Refugees (1931–39).7 As high commissioner, he enlarged the geographic range of relief efforts and negotiated a set of refugee rights, which included travel documents (the Nansen passport), education, and employment (the International Labour Organization helped refugees find work).

These precedents were building blocks in 1943 for UNRRA. Just as Nansen’s efforts helped shape the early institutional attempts at international cooperation on refugees, UNRRA’s relief work and organizational improvements were decisively affected by Robert G.A. Jackson. This chapter begins with a brief overview of UNRRA before exploring his contributions. Part of the explanation for UNRRA’s performance involves more commonly accepted factors (US power and changing geostrategic interests), which are briefly discussed before examining another overlooked variable, the organization’s unusual design.

UNRRA, an overview

George Woodbridge tells UNRRA’s official history in three volumes published in 1950.8 He discussed four key characteristics: the actual “Work” of relief and rehabilitation; the intergovernmental machinery, or “Organization” of member states in the Governing Council and Central Committee; the “Administration” of international civil servants in headquarters and the field; and the “Concept” of multilateral cooperation guided by common interests. His perspective was that of governments or what some observers call the “First UN” of member states. His monumental work is the point of departure for anyone working on the topic—indeed, observers should wonder why there have been so few such documentary efforts for the work of intergovernmental bodies. Nonetheless, Woodbridge said too little about UNRRA staff (the “Second UN”) and almost nothing about nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), academics, policy experts, the media, and the private sector (the “Third UN”).9

According to the “Introduction” of the UNRRA Agreement, the United Nations determined that the population of liberated areas would immediately receive “aid and relief from their sufferings, food, clothing and shelter, aid in the prevention of pestilence and in the recovery of the health of the people.”10 Furthermore, “preparation and arrangements shall be made for the return of prisoners and exiles to their homes and for assistance in the resumption of urgently needed agricultural and industrial production and the restoration of essential services.” However, the agreement recognized that UNRRA had to be flexible and experimental and also function for a limited time. This design helped achieve its primary objectives and laid the groundwork for future intergovernmental organizations, many already on various drawing boards.

UNRRA’s end date was not predetermined, but operations were to cease after meeting wartime and postwar strategic and humanitarian needs. That UNRRA was not meant to last beyond the war and immediate postwar context in some ways enhanced its flexibility, ability to accomplish goals, and capacity to adapt. While many of its inputs and outputs were controversial, advocates and detractors alike would agree that its performance fell short of satisfying the longer-term hopes of those who saw it as a test for a more ambitious brand of international cooperation.

Key provisions in the agreement helped UNRRA manage four challenges that still confront today’s intergovernmental organizations. The first three are treated in another essay,11 which highlights how UNRRA managed complex tensions. The first was leadership and commitments, which focused on what Edward Luck called America’s “mixed messages,”12 the tension between US multilateral leadership and ambivalence toward the very concept of international organization. The second was strategic goals and humanitarian action; while wartime demands ensured respect for national sovereignty, they also promoted redefinitions of vital interests that sustained an unusual degree of international cooperation. The third consisted of oversight and collaboration with NGOs because UNRRA orchestrated the activities of private voluntary agencies without over-centralization.

This chapter’s main purpose is to explore a fourth tension, the impact of institutional design and structure. First, however, it investigates how Robert Jackson transformed UNRRA after early stumbling threatened to destroy it. Substantial analytical attention has been paid to the organization’s political leadership in dealing with the US Congress—especially to lobbying by the first two directors-general, Herbert Lehman and Fiorello LaGuardia. Without demeaning their contributions or implying that UNRRA’s relief workers at numerous levels were inconsequential, we emphasize UNRRA’s operational leadership.

Logistical genius

Jackson’s early wartime experience demonstrated and reinforced skills that would later serve him well as he took charge of a struggling UNRRA. A product of the Royal Australian Navy who transferred to the Royal Navy in 1937, “Jacko” rejected the view of most in the British government that Malta, despite its importance as a naval base, could not be defended against a sustained air attack. He was variously called “the master of logistics” and “the man who saved Malta.”13 According to Jackson’s notes, the basic strategy required for Malta to withstand the Axis siege was that the “civilian population must be protected and provided with essentials” like food, fuel, and other basic commodities, which would be difficult to resupply after reserves had been depleted. Without the cooperation and support of the local population, “no defence would be possible.” This experience prepared him for subsequent relief efforts in part because of the logistical challenges of coordinating limited supplies but also because of the entwined logics of humanitarian action and military strategy.

Barely in his thirties, Jackson later commanded the Middle East Supply Centre (MESC) in Cairo, which was tasked with stopping nonessential civilian imports that had been taking up vital shipping space, clogging the ports, and complicating unnecessarily the resupply of British forces. As director-general, Jackson ensured that the MESC performed its core functions of developing local production of food and materials through the cooperation of individual Middle Eastern governments, and that imports were obtained from the nearest source. The operation made certain that demand for civilian imports was restricted to essentials, assisted Middle Eastern governments in control and distribution so that imports were put to the best use, and provided a nexus for the exchange of information on problems of agricultural and industrial production and distribution. At MESC, Jackson’s military logistical acumen for command organization was necessarily supplemented by honing his civilian administrative and diplomatic skills, which were then directly transferred to UNRRA—indeed, they were later on display during massive UN operations in Bangladesh and Cambodia.14

Jackson’s transformative role in UNRRA is acknowledged, but analysts have paid insufficient attention to the actual mechanics of his leadership. Early difficulties related to personnel problems, supply challenges, and insufficient funding. Many viewed UNRRA’s debut as a botched experiment, and so Jackson’s reputation made him an obvious recruit to come to the rescue. He assumed operational leadership of UNRRA on 7 May 1945, the day of German surrender, and oversaw crucial organizational changes including the recruitment of international civil servants; a second 1 percent contribution from donors (especially difficult was a reluctant US Congress); the transition from military command (and a strategy for resource maximization) to a more humanitarian conception of self-government; the expanded understanding of rehabilitation (including psychological rehabilitation); and the reorganization of key elements of UNRRA’s structure (including a shift toward increased centralization in some functions along with an increased emphasis on localization in other areas).

Jackson was asked to assess the nature of the problems that threatened people as well as the organization that was succoring them. After having submitted his report, he was named director of UNRRA’s European Regional Office (ERO)—by far the most important theater, accounting for five-sixths of expenses.15 UNRRA’s dire situation was evident from his notes. It “is in a very dangerous condition,” he wrote in the concluding statements of his first memo after coming on board, and “there is a great danger that the organization will collapse and become an international scandal.”16 While such a failure “would undoubtedly create chaotic conditions in those countries which now rely on UNRRA for their supplies, the political results would be even worse.” Jackson understood the greatest challenge as restoring confidence in the very idea of multilateral cooperation. The knock-on effects of failure would be catastrophic: “should this, the first of the new international organizations fail, then people all over the world will most certainly lose confidence in the United Nations concept as a whole.”17

His view that UNRRA was in danger of collapse was reinforced by Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer, John Anderson, in a memorandum to US secretary of state Edward Stettinius. “The administration is in complete disorder,” Anderson lamented, and “there is no system of authority or discipline, work is uncoordinated, there is a serious lack of good personnel in key positions, money is being uselessly squandered, there is no proper planning of major operations.” Exacerbating matters was the “growing loss of American interest in UNRRA,” which reflected the “marked tendency in America to think of the relief problem in national rather than international terms.”18 Washington’s wavering commitment reflected historical ambivalence toward intergovernmental organizations of all stripes. Curiously, American efforts were central to founding and sustaining the organization but also to what many saw as UNRRA’s premature death. Harnessing Washington’s support for, and mollifying its resistance to, UNRRA remained a consistent challenge for Jackson as well as for the more political directors-general.

Some of his earliest notes highlight the measures necessary to make UNRRA effective. Of the six primary tasks, three required cooperation among great powers, namely the need to: “obtain efficient officials to direct the work of the organization”; “modify and streamline the international organization and administration”; and “ensure that UNRRA is given reasonably good allocations of available world supplies, especially transport.” However, Jackson also recognized the centrality of economic and military calculations in promoting collaboration, which he hoped would eventually attract Moscow but absolutely necessitated at least Washington’s and London’s active support. UNRRA had to, he continued, “[o]btain an (even unofficial) Anglo-American understanding that further financial support will be forthcoming if UNRRA does a reasonably good job of work”; “ensure effective support from the British and American armies”; and “if possible, obtain Soviet support for the organization (and, if this is not forthcoming to go ahead regardless).”19

Given total authority as the deputy for operations by UNRRA’s first director-general, Herbert Lehman, Jackson began his drastic reorganization by streamlining and centralizing authority.20 He viewed Washington headquarters as inefficient, unfocused, and bloated; but it could usefully concentrate on overall policy development.21 That office continued to have responsibility for providing supplies and shipping, because in the US capital were the Anglo-American Combined Boards—the US and UK joint wartime agency that aimed to maximize the utilization of productive resources, food, and raw materials; reduce the demands on shipping; and ensure both civilian and military needs. The Washington office also retained ultimate financial control. Missions were established from the start in all countries where UNRRA operated with the exception of Czechoslovakia and Poland, but Jackson pushed to have missions there as well as in Belarus and Ukraine in an effort to maintain Soviet support for UNRRA. As part of reorganizing the Washington office, Jackson insisted that full authority for controlling UNRRA’s missions in Europe be delegated to the ERO in London, based in Portland Place alongside the British Broadcasting Corporation. This change streamlined decision making and vested authority in seasoned administrators closer to the actual location of operations. Jackson’s notes emphasized the importance of improving UNRRA’s public relations. Overly high early expectations along with operational failures and high-decibel criticism had led many, especially in the United States, to question UNRRA’s value. Its weaknesses provided easy opportunities for those never reconciled to Roosevelt’s internationalist project. Jackson understood the crucial importance of maintaining broad-gauged public support, which provided leverage when commitments by member governments wavered.

The ERO published an article in January 1946 detailing how a reorganized UNRRA would manage the transition from wartime to postwar operations. The principal donors—the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada—had promised to make a second 1 percent contribution. The public was reminded that “in each country’s contribution not more than ten percent is in foreign exchange … the contributions, like those of Lend-lease, were intended to be wheat, seeds, medicines, coal, sugar, motor lorries, wool, cotton, or, notably for Britain, shipping.”22 The sales pitch for humanitarian assistance was infused with economic calculations: relief and rehabilitation would help recipients and also benefit domestic producers.

The transition from military to civilian administration in the ashes of war was challenging and involved ongoing headaches. Yet as UNRRA took over responsibilities from Allied military forces in many liberated territories, Jackson’s office reminded the public that UNRRA did more than run assembly centers and offer health and welfare services. It also “provides amenity supplies like cigarettes, chocolate, cobbler sets, sewing sets, toilet articles, and other goods which make all the difference between a transient camp and a tolerable community.” Fostering a sense of community was part of UNRRA’s publicized motto to “help people help themselves.” This ethos was motivated by the logic of resource efficiency as much as democracy promotion, which was understood differently by Allied military forces and UNRRA field teams, who sometimes clashed about the trade-offs but often managed to work together.23

Jackson interpreted UNRRA’s mandate as limited so that its goals were achievable. Rehabilitation came to be associated with psychological and economic empowerment through employment, job training, and community projects for displaced persons in self-governed assembly centers, where “UNRRA workers, by developing a complex liaison with the people of the centres, with Military Government, with the local burgomeisters, have ‘made a little go a long way’.”24

Although the end of hostilities freed-up access to military stockpiles, supply challenges and institutional turf battles persisted. The ERO pointed out that UNRRA was the “largest export undertaking the world has ever seen”25—and it still has that record. UNRRA’s struggles were intensified due to the global shortage of basic supplies, but its greatest challenge came from the transportation bottlenecks and infrastructural destruction from the war. “All along the seaboard of liberated Europe the Germans left ports blocked or otherwise rendered useless, and docks and harbour installations destroyed.” Exacerbating the problem of getting supplies away from the ports to needed areas were “blown-up bridges, torn-up railway tracks, vanished draft animals, and destroyed or stolen trucks [that] resulted in the complete breakdown of the inland transport system when supplies started to flow in.”26

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