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News > Pangbournian Stories > Book Reviews > As It Happened by Nicholas Morris (54-59)

As It Happened by Nicholas Morris (54-59)

Nicholas Morris (54-59), an Australian, began to work as a staff member of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 1973 following a 14-year career as an officer in the Royal Navy.
6 Jan 2020
Written by Robin Knight
Book Reviews

Nicholas Morris (54-59), an Australian, began to work as a staff member of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 1973 following a 14-year career as an officer in the Royal Navy. By the time he retired from UNHCR in 2001 he was one of the agency’s most senior officials and its Inspector General across worldwide operations in more than 130 countries. During those 28 years he had field assignments in Asia, Europe and Africa including a spell as Chief of Mission in Rhodesia before Zimbabwe’s independence. In the 1990s his focus was on the Mideast and the Balkans including three years as the Special UNHCR Envoy for Albania and the former Yugoslavia. In this book he draws together six accounts covering his experiences in humanitarian crises in Cyprus, Namibia, Rhodesia and the Persian/Arabian Gulf plus an account of the two years 1989-90 when the UNHCR was in institutional crisis and effectively under direct administration by UN New York.

Reading with the distinct advantage of hindsight, none of these episodes is encouraging. Decades after Morris wrote his reports, there are still refugees, internally displaced persons and divided, fractured communities in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Cyprus, the Balkans and across the Gulf region. By the UNHCR’s own estimates, more people than ever before – about 37,000 – are being forced to flee their homes each day. Three-quarters of refugees come from seven countries – Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, North Sudan, Myanmar, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In total, as the 2020s began, some 72 million people worldwide were classified by the UNHCR as refugees compared to 14 million 40 years earlier. 

In such an environment, only the optimist can keep believing in long term improvements. In the mid-1980s, when the UNHCR faced a funding crisis, its annual expenditure was about $400 million. In 2019 it was a staggering $8.7 billion – 22 times higher. Possibly the most revelatory of the chapters in this book concerns “UNHCR in crisis 1989-90” since so many of the issues at stake then, when Morris was a member of two task forces set up to aid examination of every aspect of UNHCR’s work, seem relevant today. To some degree, this is a ‘who hit whom’ account of a series of challenges that threatened then to engulf the agency. But on closer reading it becomes apparent that the global lack of consensus on just about everything to do with the United Nations and refugees – one which is more deep-seated now than it was then – is at the bottom of the “crisis.”

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Nicholas Morris

Nicholas Morris, while a true believer in the UN system and the ability of UNHCR to ameliorate the worst humanitarian aspects of the global refugee situation, is far from unaware of the weaknesses and contradictions involved in the UNHCR’s work and unafraid to say so. Personality clashes, envy, conflicting budgetary demands, turf wars, suddenly changing political priorities – all the usual stuff of large organisations but made several times worse by cultural or national or ideological rivalries, crop up repeatedly in the book. Some of the initial contrasts Morris found on leaving the Navy to work for a global bureaucracy are illuminating – handling money; working within a budget; involving oneself less in the personal circumstances of staff members; delegating responsibility; handling media queries; chartering aircraft. Most UNHCR operations are never routine – conditions vary too much even if the broad challenge is the same. 

This, in short, is a balanced and fair volume about the crises described – an insider’s account for the academic expert – but also a primer for all who wonder from the outside at the morass that so often seems to be the United Nations and its principle agencies, and for anyone thinking about a career in disaster relief. Idealists will be pleased by how much the UNHCR has been able to achieve even if its influence can be over-estimated while sceptics will be able to find plenty of grist for their mills. The style is factual with generally enough colour and detail, often taken from letters, diaries and 42 notebooks that Morris kept, to sustain the narrative. “These records are not just for senior colleagues nor limited to matters of great significance,” Morris told a UNHCR Archives meeting in 2018. “I never expected that they would finish up as they have done.” He does himself less than justice after a fascinating career. As It Happened will be a valuable resource inside and outside UNHCR for many years to come.

by ROBIN KNIGHT

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