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United Nations staff and their families

A sad day as more details come in; although also some good news as well, survivors confirmed. A Facebook group has been established to allow people to discuss the whereabouts of the missing, and already has hundreds of members. In this era, the UN – as others – has turned to social media.

Haiti’s wider tragedy, the plight of millions of ordinary Haitians, will rightfully remain the focus of the headlines, but for the United Nations this is also a very personal crisis, leading to the loss of many many staff; people who dedicated their lives to trying to make a difference. It may seem a small drop in a large ocean, but is deeply meaningful for our community.

Right now, the focus remains on trying to save what survivors may remain, and to put in place systems to care for the dispossessed. This is entirely right. The UN has two related, but separate, jobs: to alleviate the suffering of Haitians as a whole, and a duty of care to its own staff. It is a very stressful time; many people are in deep shock. There has been an outpouring of offers to help from throughout the system and it is doing what it can given the logistical challenge. Communications remain limited.

In the longer term, I suspect that the UN will face some important questions regarding the issue of the UN families there. Haiti was a non-family duty station, but in practice – as the country grew more stable – many did in fact have close relatives in the country. Husbands, wives, small children. Even Mr Annabi, the head of mission, stayed ther with his wife.

I believe this was positive. UN officials are people too, and the presence of families, children, helps keep a community healthy. The cost of cutting off internationals from ‘normal’ social life can be severe, leading sometimes to behaviour which undermines the job they are asked to do. But for various reasons, there was reluctance to formally acknowledge that.

As a matter of policy, the UN system actually has differing standards on families. For the funds and programmes, staff on a non-family duty posting are given extra resources to support their families out of the country. The United Nations peacekeeping department hoped for similar treatment, but major donors – with the United States in the lead – denied this. On an official level, therefore, it would appear that the US and others back a policy that discourages peacekeepers from having a family.

In practice, civilian peacekeepers often have a painful choice: don’t have a family (a route taken by many very good people, but with consequences for organisational culture), leave them thousands of miles away with no support, or bring them along in contravention of the rules. This makes life particularly difficult for women, at a time when the UN is supposed to be improving its gender balance.

Certainly there are many places where it would simply be impractical to keep a family, but Haiti at this time was not one of them, and the system informally allowed its staff to live a normal life. The fact that the head of the mission had his wife there underlined this. This was a good thing.

Then tragedy struck.

We have learned of dreadful cases of families split, where some survived and others did not. One story in particular haunts us. I cannot go into details.

The problem is, because of Haiti’s official status as a non-family duty station, the system is not really designed to look after its families in a case like this.

Currently, officials are working night and day to salvage what they can. Informal networks have been quick to rally around families. People have been very supportive. Individuals have gone out of their way to help, performing some gruelling tasks.

But on a systematic basis, I believe this may be a wake-up call. At the very least, the UN’s donors, in my opinion, should accept reality and provide UN peacekeeping with the wherewithal to properly support the families who have been destroyed.

An alternative reaction could be to crack down on the family issue. No more family members, even informally. Personally, I believe this would be misguided.

Instead, I would hope that the United States and others admit that peacekeeping is here to stay, and put in place better systems to account for the fact those peacekeepers have spouses and children.

The world needs peacekeepers. It asks them to do extraordinary things in the most difficult places on earth. I think it is only right to accept that some will marry and have children, and to support them in that choice.

So, a simple plea. Despite formal policy, several UN families were in Haiti during this tragedy and have been devastated. This is the reality. Everything possible must be done to administer to their needs, not just now, but for the rest of their lives.