In many parts of Madagascar, children go to school because they receive food there but after school, they spend the rest of the day fetching water. Photo: IOM / Natalie Oren 2017

IOM: The Proximity Agency

As an Organization, we pride ourselves on the size of our footprint and for being close-to-the-ground. Yet, I would argue that what defines us is not so much our footprint, but rather how we implement proximity as a way of being, an everyday attitude, and the key marker of how we work. 

Our introductory public information material presents us as “highly decentralized”, which allows IOM, the UN Migration Agency, to be ‘’closer to where the needs are”. Our Director General, William Lacy Swing, often describes IOM as the “Proximity Agency”.  

Numbers support this description. Some 97 per cent of our 10,000+ strong global workforce is based in the field. Our annual budget of USD 1.7 billion is spent mostly on projects in the countries we operate in. We have over 390 Offices in more than 110 countries, serving the ever more complex needs of our Member States and migrants in an increasingly challenging international environment. 

However, we are hardly unique in this regard. UNICEF is present in 190 countries, UNDP maintains Offices in 177 countries, and WHO has a foothold in over 150 countries. Our budget, while certainly impressive, is only about a quarter of WFP’s, and a third of our sister agency, UNHCR. In the same vein, if our staffing is significant, we could almost all squeeze into the 28-floor UN New York City headquarters.  

Slash-and-burn agriculture fertilizes the soil but leads to desertification. The IOM Development Fund helps the Malagasy government to conceive new sustainable solutions. Photo: IOM / Natalie Oren 2017

Zoom out of the UN system for a moment, and our numbers are even more humbling. Doctors without Borders employs 37,000 personnel, the Lufthansa Group has a workforce of 130,000 worldwide, and McDonald’s has 420,000 personnel on its payroll globally. 

In the realm of Government spending, our annual budget is roughly equal to the GDP of San Marino, a country of 62 square kilometres, and would cover only 45 days of public farming subsidies in Japan. If you were to invest the IOM annual budget, it would cover just 75 kilometres of high-speed rail lines in France, or would have barely financed half of the 2016 United States’ presidential candidate’s campaign expenses. 

How crazy is that? We’d all fit into one big building, and our budget would be exhausted on less than two months’ worth of farming subsidies in a country where farming is fairly insignificant. But despite all this, we have a global reach and are present on the ground. How so? 

To be frank, this is not a question I have personally thought about too much. It might not matter as long as we can claim that we do what is necessary, in the most appropriate way, with the means that are made available to us, and without any need for glorification. 

Well, it does actually matter. We live in an era of unprecedented distrust of multilateralism. The UN system, under the leadership of Secretary General Antonio Guterres, is steaming through a wide-range of efforts to rethink how to deliver support so countries can achieve internationally agreed development goals, including through “needs-based tailored country presence […]”. 

While reading key UN reform documents, one could understand that the reason for “positioning the UN […] in a coherent and integrated manner” is that the system is ill-positioned, incoherent and disintegrated. Similarly, one could read between the lines that when Member States are recognizing that this “requires a UN that is more strategic, accountable, transparent, efficient, effective and results-oriented”, they are taking stock of the fact that it is presently ad hoc, unaccountable, and lacking in transparency, efficiency and effectiveness.  

Damning as it is, it demands a moment of reflection from all of us, wherever we sit in the galaxy of UN organograms. With all of our flaws and imperfections – and we have many, as does every man-made organization – what may make us what we are as IOM is not so much the actual footprint, but rather our particular way of implementing proximity as a way of being. 

Malagasy women cover their faces with a mixture of clay and cinnamon to protect the skin from sun and dust. Photo: IOM / Natalie Oren 2017

This realization struck me recently on a flight back from Comoros to Madagascar, a country I cover in my capacity as Chief of Mission to Madagascar. We opened our first Office there in January of this year, inaugurating our presence in yet another country.  

In both places, my main responsibility has been to determine whether an IOM local presence is necessary, and what support, if any, our stakeholders may need from us. The assumption that the response to the first question is a firm yes is not a wild guess. Migration is a global phenomenon concerning all states, presenting them all with unique sets of opportunities and challenges. 

I have shuttled between Madagascar and Comoros 11 times during the past 17 months. Sipping a cup of coffee 33,000 feet high on those flights has become my de facto time for reflection. 

Comoros is on the fringe of our intellectual maps, and for most people, it is off the actual map, plain and simple. Comoros became a Member State in 2011, yet, I don’t have the slightest doubt that our cooperation with Comoros and Comorian migrants has improved more in the past 17 months than through the country’s previous seven years of membership. 

My actual presence has been the key factor to that. Just as a problem is not a problem until it becomes one, you don’t find something until you look for it. Our presence surrounds stakeholders with a wealth of global and comparative policy and operational expertise from which they can shape solutions adapted to their own local contexts. Our presence ensures that the global discussion we have on migration is informed by the differentiated realities on the ground. 

By being there, I have progressively developed my understanding of the situation. I built thoughts from new elements of context piling up. I probably formed some wrong understandings and poorly connected some of the dots at the start, but with every new visit, I refined that understanding a little more, and always for the better. 

The general public demands, justifiably so, a transparent and accountable UN system, but the benchmark should not be monetary or in the form of skimming our local presence. The reality is that we already are a small fit for the grand global ambitions we have. The benchmark should be our capacity to understand the needs on the ground, and our capacity to translate those needs into actions and results. 

IOM pursues a field-based approach as we believe that this is the most feasible way of serving our Member States effectively and efficiently. There are many ways to rationalize UN’s work. Reducing the physical presence of agencies should be the last resort. If IOM’s mandate is to serve, proximity is a way of being. If anything, we need more of it, not less. 

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Daniel Silva y Poveda is the Chief of Mission of IOM Madagascar