Interview: Reflections on a career in peace operations

Peace Operations Blog

The Death of Two Staff Members to Ebola Was My Most Difficult Moment.

Karin Landgren was the Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) overseeing the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) when in 2014 the Ebola epidemic struck the West African nation. Landgren calls it her most challenging time over a long and distinguished international career that began at The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), including working in the wake of the Rwanda genocide. The leadership position in Liberia was also the apex of Landgren’s work on peace operations that included appointments in Nepal and Burundi, where as SRSG she headed two special political missions as they wound up and began the difficult transition to peacebuilding.

Landgren harnessed this breadth of experience when leading UNMIL, a peacekeeping mission most at threat from a disease rather than armed combatants. Completion of her assignment in early July coincided with the launch of Uniting Our Strengths for Peace, a report by the High-level Independent Panel on UN Peace Operations (HIPPO). In an interview with CIC Deputy Director Jim Della-Giacoma, Landgren emphasized the importance of the panel’s emphasis on political analysis, strategy and strengthening the field orientation of UN peace operations. The following is an edited transcript of this conversation.

Jim Della-Giacoma: The High-level Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) has produced its report Uniting Our Strengths for Peace. It is a lengthy document with much detail. Can you start by reflecting on what you regard as some of the important points from this report?

Karin Landgren: Finding peaceful resolutions and preventing the escalation of crisis is the core business of the UN. Every country, every region is somewhere on that continuum from stability to fragility to complete breakdown, and as the UN we need to be on top of that.

There are a few points of entry to this. One way is more active political analysis with partners. The UN shouldn’t feel that it needs do this on its own. More could be done to reach out to partners for these analyses on the range of issues relevant to conflict prevention and resolution – political, security, human rights, social and economic factors. I’ve just come from a discussion on the structure of the Liberian economy, which I see as an impediment to ending that country’s fragility. Liberia is still running on a pre-war economic model, an enclave economy that benefits a small elite. Tell me that is not a socio-political problem? And yet when I raised the economy at a meeting on peace consolidation, a colleague told me that participants’ eyes glazed over, as if the economy were a separate matter from stability. It’s essential that the UN get the political analysis right.

A second and related issue is, at what point does a peacekeeping operation transition? This is an active question for us right now in Liberia. Sometimes one hears from the Council that “it has been over ten years”, as if ten years were an outer limit to a peacekeeping operation. Or, that “the country has held two successful presidential elections”. Strong political analysis can get us away from formulaic approaches to transition, and towards thinking of transition as part of the overall political strategy.

JDG: Are you saying that these decisions are solely based on factors found here or in the UN Security Council in New York rather than any analysis of what’s going on in the Liberian economy?

KL: These decisions aren’t bereft of analysis, no, but many pressures are brought to bear on Mission drawdown. Liberia’s own fragility and its incomplete reconciliation have not always been front and center.

A third issue around political strategies and necessary change is the number of actors crowding for space both inside and outside the UN, especially in post-conflict situations. One day it’s crowded − and then suddenly the caravan moves on. That was the situation in Liberia, pre-Ebola: after the Ivorian emergency subsided, few UN and NGO partners remained outside the capital. How do we attain a political strategy that also drives the agencies, funds and programs in a given country’s situation? How can this become true UN coherence, rather than the supply-side thinking that is still dominant? The agencies, funds and programs do excellent work, but we haven’t yet moved to a UN approach that’s more than the sum of its parts. We have an excellent country team in Monrovia, and could do even more with stronger UN integration. We’re not there yet.

JDG: Uniting Our Strengths for Peace argues for a more field-focused and people-centered approach to peace operations. Having just come from three years in Liberia, is there anything in the report that you think could have an impact on the lives of people in those countries where there are UN peace operations?

KL: The most striking recommendation in that regard is on engaging with communities. That’s also one of the biggest challenges for peacekeeping, where staff risk being insulated − not just in the white cars and all, but because of real danger. How do we talk to local communities? How do we know we’re talking to the right people? If Ebola taught us one thing it was the importance of supporting change at community level. There were evident benefits of encouraging behavioral changes, and also of discouraging rumours and false beliefs. Communities in Lofa that thought Ebola was brought by Muslims, for instance. For successful engagement with local communities, the role of partners is essential, reaching out to experts, including anthropologists, who have invested their lives studying the country. I was with UNHCR at the time of the Rwandan genocide and remember when HCR engaged with Gerard Prunier to expand the organisation’s understanding of that crisis and the way forward. National expertise is the most valuable, in this regard, as long as one takes care not to expose local contacts and sources to added risk.

JDG: What about conducting public opinion research? Some peace operations around the world have tried such techniques. Have you used them and, if so, how did you incorporate them into your decision-making?

KL: Yes − in Burundi we worked with Afrobarometer, as I recall. BNUB [the United Nations Office in Burundi], the Special Political Mission I headed, had developed benchmarks with the government, and many of them lacked baselines. The mission needed to gather data and opinions from scratch. In the end, the government was on board with this polling, and the results were useful in helping BNUB understand where work needed to focus. In Liberia, UNMIL has sampled opinion in locations where the Mission has already drawn down, seeking to understand whether the public’s sense of security has changed with the Mission’s local absence. I absolutely endorse having more social science research.

JDG: What kind of community outreach did you do?

KL: Personally, I traveled a lot. One of the great assets of UNMIL was that in addition to its military and police presence, we had a civilian office in every one of Liberia’s fifteen counties. These offices developed strong local relationships with superintendents, NGOs, peace committees, women’s groups, representatives of religious groups, of youth and others. UNMIL had also been promoting the establishment of county security councils. At the time of Ebola, UNMIL was the outfit on the ground that had national reach, local contacts and trust. These were assets UNMEER [the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response] and WHO could plug right into. I would meet with these individuals and groups, and also counted on the UNMIL county offices to keep an ear to the ground and report back. One good initiative was UNMIL’s use of Quick Impact Projects. QIPs aren’t new, but UNMIL stepped that up and sought more local involvement in decisions. And when Ebola hit, we turned all our QIPs to Ebola support.

JDG: What kind of projects were these?

KL: They were tracing projects, communications initiatives, or providing supplies. They were whatever the local superintendent and community said they needed most to respond better to Ebola. It differed all over the country. I do think that missions need more programmatic resources in general. But missions aren’t necessarily set up to manage projects. It’s useful to have mission staff from agencies where projects are their bread and butter. There can be a disconnect between the country team having the resources and the project capacity, while the mission has been mandated with the strategic lead on a particular issue. UNMIL sought in the current budget to double our QIPs funding from $1 million to $2 million, and we got it. This shows a change in understanding of needs of peacekeeping missions. Just a few years ago Security Council members were more sceptical about peacekeeping’s use of QIPs, seeing that as development work. The ACABQ [Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions] and 5th Committee have understood the importance for peace operations to have this resource.

JDG: The World Development Report of 2011 tells us moving from conflict to stability is a long-term project. The average life of a UN peace operation is increasing and is now about 15 years. We recently also witnessed violence return to Burundi. How long does it take to create peace and stability?

KL: Burundi is problematic for drawing broader lessons, I would suggest, in that the current developments are so directly related to the president himself. Had he stepped aside, done something akin to what [former Nigerian President] Goodluck Jonathan did, he would certainly have cemented his place in history as a visionary leader. The East African Community is in some ways a model of a regional arrangement, and has been supportive of Burundi’s movement towards long-term stability. But ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States] has found it easier than the EAC [East African Community] to discuss presidential term limits.

How long is long enough (for peace and stability)? I would like to see the Security Council not chop and change mandates too often. We’re seeing better-crafted mandates, but still they can be overly heavy. One should remember, though, that a mandate is also a communications tool. The Council has moods, too. There was a period a few years ago when they were very keen on benchmarking, which I’ve found useful in both Burundi and Liberia. Another Security Council initiative a couple of years ago directed missions to review the transfer of tasks from the mission to the UN country team. This was less productive, since peacekeeping missions aren’t generally engaged in tasks that can readily be handed off to a UN agency, fund or program not mandated by the Security Council. But both initiatives go in the direction of recognizing the range of potential drivers of conflict, as well as the need for seamless transitions involving other UN actors.

JDG: What were some of the specific lessons you learnt from leading UNMIL during the Ebola crisis?

KL: UNMIL’s response was clear: we needed to remain in Liberia, while protecting our personnel and giving maximum support to the crisis − which went beyond a health crisis. We heard from some senior UN actors that the time of Ebola was not a time for state-building, but only for emergency response. That was incorrect. Ebola turned out to be a useful time to work on and advocate for state-building: the needs, the lessons, were so striking, they gave a push to decentralization in Liberia, for example. The capital, Monrovia, was a bottleneck for Ebola response. Ebola also led UNMIL and the Government to implement a very practical approach to decongesting prisons by reducing pre-trial detention. There was a great fear of Ebola entering overcrowded prison environments packed with pre-trial detainees who make up about 70 per cent of the prison population. That the crisis gave clarity and focus to investments needed in state-building was a silver lining. It was hard to argue over structural reasons for Liberia’s weak capacity to respond to a shock of this nature.

JDG: How did other aspects of the mission adapt to Ebola?

KL: The mission’s structure didn’t change, but I convened our Crisis Management Team daily, and the heads of UN Country Team members weekly. We needed to adapt our exposure and strengthen the knowledge and confidence of our personnel, because my first task was making it possible for UNMIL to remain present and effective.

We also needed to persuade the capitals of troop- and police-contributing countries [TCCs/PCCs] that Ebola was a manageable risk, because we needed their people to stay. Some TCCs contemplated pulling their people out. Much as I may have told everyone that we signed up for a degree of risk when we signed up for peacekeeping, nobody felt they had signed up for a risk like Ebola. But this would have been the wrong moment to abandon Liberia. Discussing how to stay was consistent with current UN security policy.

Ebola revealed a level of national fragility. There were some security incidents, there was public mistrust, there was popular dissatisfaction with the failure promptly to collect the dead. The Liberian security sector itself was being deployed nationally, but often lacked protective equipment and training. At a very practical level UNMIL gave logistical support, training and supplies to our counterparts, and stepped up logistics support to the UN family as well. UNMIL Radio, which reaches 85% of Liberia and is highly trusted, quickly began broadcasting Ebola information in 17 languages, including Liberian English. UNMIL provided advice to the government at central and county level. We worked with non-UN organizations like Médecins Sans Frontières and the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and members of the UN family to review what ought to be done. No one had seen an epidemic like this before. It didn’t fulfill WHO’s prediction that it would flare and then burn itself out. There was learning and adaptation on everyone’s part.

We adapted our human rights monitoring, starting up an Ebola Rights Watch. Several direct and indirect consequences of Ebola had human rights implications, whether it was the army being called out, the state of emergency declaration, the ostracism experienced by Ebola victims, or rumor-mongering to the detriment of some communities.

JDG: And were you able to manage the risk [to staff]?

KL: Yes, up to a point. We kept all our thousands of personnel safe for six months. We were challenged in obtaining rapid response to UNMIL’s increased medical support needs, including guarantees of MEDEVAC [medical evacuation]. An eye-opener was the U.S. evacuating two of its nationals from Liberia at the end of July 2014. Up until that moment, the general sense was that one didn’t move people with Ebola, and certainly not to an Ebola-free country. With that one gesture, the U.S. showed that this could be done safely − and it was the right thing to do. This helped advance discussions UNMIL was having with Headquarters. Mind you it still took our Headquarters a while to sort out the MEDEVAC question and I would have liked greater alacrity on that score.

There is a variable with Ebola that you cannot control for, and that is whether people are telling the truth about having had risky contacts. Ebola monitoring relies on self-reporting. At UNMIL, we couldn’t monitor what people did outside working hours. One staff member denied any risk of exposure, and came to the UNMIL premises on the day she died; our UNMIL lab technician became infected, we assume in the course of responding to her. In the space of about two weeks we lost two colleagues. That was simply devastating. By the time our lab technician passed away in mid-October, the epidemic was declining. In December, we had two further Ebola cases among our personnel, both of whom survived. The death of two staff members to Ebola was my most difficult moment in the mission.

JDG: Your career in peace operations includes a number of missions in transition. What reflections do you have on the evolution from peacekeeping to peace building? How do we sustain the peace?

KL: Often sustaining the peace is about strengthening national institutions and public trust in those institutions − whether this means participatory political processes, the rule of law, having a viable security sector, or translating core elements of peace agreements into constitutional reform. These require the support of many partners. We shouldn’t really refer to just Peacebuilding Commissions, Peacebuilding Support Offices, and the Peacebuilding Fund when talking about the UN’s peacebuilding architecture. That’s too limiting to constitute the UN’s entire peacebuilding machinery. Peacebuilding is a bigger, broader and more inclusive job.

Smooth and seamless transitions are where the rubber meets the roads in terms of Headquarters structures. The UN now has different models of follow-on presence to a peacekeeping mission. We need to get away from saying, “This is now shifting from being a peacekeeping operation to being a special political mission.” Instead of going straight to those categories, which can trigger templated thinking, the design of an evolving UN presence should begin with the analysis of the country’s changing need for UN support. Categorization can come later. I would like to see transitions planned early and with all UN actors in the room − including the agencies, funds and programs.

JDG: You’ve come up through the agencies and have had a number of appointments in different countries. How did you acquire the experience to be an SRSG? Looking back, which were the most valuable moments that prepared you for this leadership role?

KL: I’ve spent over sixteen years in the field, and started my career with UNHCR. That was extremely valuable partly because UNHCR is so field-oriented. The assumption is that the field is the center of gravity; it’s where you’re delivering, where refugees are being protected or not. It’s the fieldwork by which the organisation will be judged. The headquarters enterprise is in support of the field, and it has surprised me that anybody could think differently about this. The HIPPO report makes valuable recommendations around having a stronger field orientation.

With HCR as well − working on humanitarian issues that were highly political, and were matters of life and death − one could be in the field as a P1 or P2 and be in charge of making a critical difference to someone’s survival and protection. I saw some of the best of the UN while working with UNHCR. Another valuable experience was working together with the military peacekeepers during the war in former Yugoslavia, in the early 1990s. Coming from a human rights and humanitarian background, I approached that engagement with some hesitation, and was surprised at what I found. When the military were good they were really great, efficient, prompt, and sometimes more straightforward than working with civilians. So the whole field orientation, the protection orientation, the human rights and refugee protection aspects, and the conflict experience I think have stood me in very good stead.

Field orientation also means rotation. The expectation that just about everyone should rotate is also a practical expression of giving priority to the field. I would like to take rotation thinking further and see rotation among the main field-based agencies and the Secretariat as well, and UN field missions. This would give us a strong mix of skills, while also helping bridge the gaps in understanding that can arise between agencies, funds and programs and peace operations.

Early in my career I headed the UNHCR staff representatives, so I have a sort of industrial relations perspective that comes in handy when running a large mission or negotiating in any way. HCR gave a lot of leeway to its representatives in the field, backing their decisions. UN peace operations need this, too. It’s frustrating being second-guessed by Headquarters. The Secretary General has told us: “SRSG’s, you are the captains of your ship, you are the CEOs of your operations.” Headquarters needs to get fully behind this idea. It’s painful for an SRSG to read the HIPPO criticism of the calibre of field leadership. But if that’s the view, then the UN has to invest more in that leadership.

Collegiality is important, too. We cannot achieve lasting results through command and control, through directives. We advance by a shared sense of the enterprise and of the desired outcomes. One needs a high degree of unity within the field mission, because who knows the hour or the day when a crisis may hit you. Will your people be with you then? One of my most useful experiences in Liberia, as a mission manager, was meeting with my Liberian staff in small groups. Until then, there had only been town hall-type meetings. UNMIL has about a thousand national staff. I learned a lot about my national colleagues, and about strengthening communication within the mission. This dialogue started six or seven months before the Ebola crisis and gave me a stronger basis for communicating with all staff later about Ebola. Personal communication and predictability by mission leadership help create trust, and people do their best work in a climate of trust.

JDG: How do we have more women participate in peace operations?

KL: Right, the numbers are very poor. As I recall, the HIPPO report says things are looking much better than they were in 2007, but even so, in 2015 only 13 per cent of senior field appointments have been women. Somewhere I saw an argument about it being difficult to find women able to step into field posts − but the statistics on Headquarters appointments are no better.

Peace operations can be a challenging environment, both practically and politically. Not only for women, of course, but I’ve observed when interviewing as part of appointments panels that male candidates in general bring more reflection about their own past leadership roles and profiles. Forgive the generalization, but women will often say “We as an organization delivered …” or “I was part of a team that did X … ”. Men are more prone, it seems to me, to identify their personal leadership experiences. As an SRSG one can’t be too shy about one’s personal leadership role. The job involves leading a lot of people. I encourage senior women in the UN to reflect and obtain feedback and encouragement on their qualities as leaders.

Karin Landgren is a non-resident visiting fellow at the Center on International Cooperation.

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