The UN on the Ground The Stanley Foundation
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Project Summary

From October 2001 to July 2003, a group of experienced humanitarian professionals and diplomats from inside and outside the United Nations met regularly to discuss the challenges that humanitarian agencies confront in war zones. Participants in the Stanley Foundation's UN on the Ground project stressed the importance of understanding local actors and other aspects of the conflict environment. The group developed 11 practical proposals to boost the effectiveness of UN agencies, minimize unintended consequences, and make aid programs more sustainable.

In the months since the October 2003 release of the UN on the Ground report, the project leaders have developed a five-point agenda of measures to give different elements of the UN system sounder background for their decisions.


One feature of the United Nations' system of humanitarian relief and protection is that it is a web whose connections run from the high politics of member states all they way out to villages and refugee camps. The UN on the Ground project structured its discussions to reflect these multiple layers. The project's first phase focused on a "bottom-up" agenda of operational issues in the field, while the second phase took a "top-down" approach and discussed how the headquarters of the humanitarian agencies and the UN's Secretariat and diplomatic councils in New York could support operational needs.

Much of the UN on the Ground discussions focused on the critical importance of information and analysis—particularly regarding local actors—as a basis for humanitarians' key tactical and strategic judgments. In the simplest terms, the aim is to avoid or marginalize spoilers who use and abuse local populations and to bolster those legitimate interlocutors who contribute to peace, development, and humanitarian capacities. Thus, within the project's "bottom-up" phase, there were separate discussions regarding how to deal with local actors who rule by force and how to build the capacity of the local agencies that are humanitarians' natural allies.

The Stanley Foundation commissioned a series of papers to serve as the basis of discussion. Davidson College political scientist Ken Menkhaus wrote about warlords and other armed elements. Independent consultant John Fawcett drew up an initial set of proposed recommendations for how to deal with armed local actors. Kim Maynard of the Cuny Center for the Study of Societies in Crisis wrote an analysis and set of prescriptions for the challenges of capacity building. And a paper by Columbia University's Edward C. Luck examined the UN's intricate decision-making and administrative structures.

The discussions were chaired by Thomas G. Weiss, presidential professor and director of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Conference Report

UN on the Ground

List of Participants

Commissioned papers

Ken Menkhaus

  • Relief and Protection: The Role of Non-State Actors

  • Assessing Non-State Actors
  • John Fawcett

  • Practical Suggestions for Dealing with Non-State Actors: Bottom-Up Perspective
  • Kim Maynard

  • Capacity Building in Non-State Actors: The Potential for Positive Influence

  • The Potential for Positive Influence: Suggestions for Building the Capacity of Non-State Actors
  • Edward Luck

  • Reforming the UN's Humanitarian Machinery: Sisyphus Revisited?
  • Human Relief and Protection Program | Publications
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    Project Coordinator

    David Shorr
    Phone: 563-264-1500
    Fax: 563-264-0864

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    Muscatine, IA 52761 USA