History of the UNHCR
Over the 63-year history of the UNHCR, the staff, budget, legal framework, NGO network, geographic scope and expertise of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has expanded. Despite the initially ambitious goal of solving all refugee problems in three years, the extended mandate of the UNHCR speaks to the consistent problem of refugees, internally displaced persons, asylum seekers, and stateless peoples.

WWII left around 400,000 people homeless refugees strewn across Europe. In 1950, the ambitious new global institution, the UN, created the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) under a three-year mandate to complete its work and then disband. With only 34 staff members and a $300,000 first-year budget, the UN quickly realized the magnitude of the problem far outweighed the resources of the body. A year after its inception, a legal foundation for assisting refugees was set up to establish a legal framework under which refugees can claim international rights. In recognition of the innovative humanitarianism the UNHCR performed, the new organization won the 1954 Nobel Peace Prize.

When the Soviets put down the Hungarian revolution in 1956, an outpouring of refugees into neighboring countries was a humanitarian emergency. The decolonization of Africa in the 1960s and pursuant demarcation of sovereign state boundaries “produced the first of that continent’s numerous refugee crises needing UNHCR intervention.” Through the 1970s and 1980s, the UNHCR advocated and assisted refugees in Asia and Latin America. In 1981 the UNHCR again won the Nobel Peace Prize for “assistance to refugees, with the citation noting the political obstacles facing the organization.”

When the Berlin Wall fell and proxy wars ended, governments previously ‘shored up’ by foreign assistance were weakened. This allowed the “proliferation of identity-based conflicts” causing new refugee problems. The 1990s brought the refugee emergencies full circle back to Africa and Europe with the wars in the Balkans. Throughout the 21st century, the UNHCR has been assisting refugees in the extremely sensitive crises of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia.

The UNHCR also expanded to assist internally displaced persons and stateless peoples—a politically divisive issue. Stateless peoples are frequently overlooked and denied basic human rights because they do not have citizenship. Fortunately, in some regions, regional agreements have strengthened the 1951 mandate.

As population movement becomes more complex so does the refugee situation. Approximately 150 million people live outside their country of birth. 10% of these people are refugees. This amounts to about 1 out of 400 people worldwide. Most often, refugees are created from violent conflict and recent research and practitioners’ experiences show humanitarian aid can no longer be considered independent of a conflict. Often, conflicting factions see the humanitarian body as supporting one side or the other making the aid workers and aid vulnerable to attack and manipulation.

Fortunately, the UNHCR has reflected the growing problem by growing size, scope, and depth of action. In 2012, the UNHCR had a budget of $3.59 billion and a staff of 7,685 based in the Geneva headquarters, 126 countries within which 135 main offices operate and 279 remote field offices function. Of the 43 million people uprooted worldwide, the UNHCR supports 33.9 million ‘people of concern.’ The two largest groups are internally displaced persons (14.7 million people) and refugees (10.5 million persons). The remaining group’s returnees (3.1 million), stateless people (3.5 million), asylum seekers (837,000) and ‘other’ (1.3 million).

Katherine Zobre
Sources: UNHCR History , The State of the World’s Refugees 2000
Photo: UNHCR


History of the IMF
The IMF, or International Monetary Fund, was founded in July of 1944 at the International Monetary and Financial Conference, in New Hampshire. The organization was entered into force in 1945, and the laws were adopted in March of 1946. In the months following the organization’s creation, executive directors and the first managing director, Camille Gutt of Belgium, were elected.

The harsh economic circumstances of the 1930’s and 40’s led the founders of the IMF to plan an institution charged with overseeing the international monetary system in order to prevent self-defeating financial policies. The formation of the IMF would ensure that exchange rate stability was maintained and encourage its member countries to eliminate exchange restrictions that could potentially hinder or complicate trade. In March of 1947, France became the first country to borrow from the IMF.


The IMF: A Cornerstone of the Global Economy

Between 1945 and 1971, member nations of the IMF agreed to keep their exchange rates at a level that could be adjusted only to correct disequilibrium in the balance of payments and only with the IMF’s consent. This system, known as the Bretton Woods system, remained in place until 1971 when the US suspended the convertibility of USD into gold.

After the collapse of the Bretton Woods system, IMF members have been free to choose any form of exchange agreement they wish, other than pegging their currency on gold. Countries are free to allow their currency to float freely, peg it to a different currency, adopt another country’s currency, or other methods.  The IMF’s transition to floating exchange rates made it easier for economies to adjust to external shocks.

The IMF has since been redefined by the major global economic crises around the world. Since the mid-1970s, the IMF has helped many of the world’s poorest countries by providing concessional loan programs. These programs came during the oil crisis of the 1970s. The oil crisis forced many countries to borrow from commercial banks, which led to interest rate increases, and subsequently, an international debt crisis. The soaring interest rates caused poorer, developing, and non-oil-producing countries to pay roughly $22 billion dollars between 1978-81.

The financial crisis continued to worsen into 1982, when the IMF coordinated global response, realizing that nobody would benefit if the country after the country failed to repay its debts. This strategy calmed the initial panic; however, it also highlighted the long road needed to eliminate the problem.

After the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, the organization witnessed its greatest influx of member states since the 1960s. The IMF was essential in assisting countries from the Soviet Bloc transition from central planning to market-driven policies. After several years of intense reform and IMF guidance, most economies had transitioned to market economy status.

In 1997, the Asian financial crisis taught the IMF several important things. First, they would need to pay a great deal more attention to weaknesses in countries’ banking sectors and to the effects those weaknesses had on their macroeconomic stability.  The IMF also realized that the institutional prerequisites for successful liberalization of international capital flows were more daunting than they had realized. And finally, the IMF realized that they needed to re-evaluate how fiscal policy should be adjusted in a time of economic crisis.

The global economic crisis of 2008 was preceded by large imbalances in global capital flows. This financial crisis uncovered fragility in advanced markets. In response to the recognition that the IMF would be strained during this financial crisis, the fund lending capacity was tripled to $750 billion. They implemented a variety of lending policies and flexible credit lines to countries with strong economic fundamentals, while also assisting poorer, less developed nations.

The IMF has been and continues to be a quintessentially important monetary cornerstone of the international global economy. The IMF is responsible for many of the world’s most comprehensive and influential economic decisions of the 20th and 21st centuries. Without the IMF the global economy would be a drastically different place.

– Caitlin Zusy
Source IMF