Evaluation of UNHCR’s Engagement with the Private Sector

Evaluation of UNHCR’s Engagement with the Private Sector

PrC completed research project to strengthen UNHCR’s understanding of how to better engage and work with the private sector beyond fundraising

During 2019, PrC’s managing director Marieke de Wal, together with researchers of the PPP Centre of the University of Geneva, Switzerland, and with the help of associate researcher Marije Balt, supported UNHCR in their organizational learning of working with the private sector in operational partnerships in order to better address the protection, assistance and solution needs of refugees and asylum seekers, returnees and stateless people.

You can read the report here.

Key research components

The research project used mixed methods to investigate several key components:

  • a stocktake of private sector engagements (PSEs) that are ongoing or occurred in the past two to three years;
  • a benchmarking exercise of similar agencies;
  • a literature review of trends in PSE beyond fundraising;
  • a case study of PSE in Malaysia; and
  • consultations with UNHCR Headquarters staff on strategic considerations and implications of UNHCR’s PSE in the future.

The World Humanitarian Summit, Global Compact on Refugees (GCR), New York Declaration, Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF), and 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development set the context for internal changes in UNHCR in order to tackle global challenges. These documents frame private sector engagement as necessary to reach global objectives when responding to refugee crises.

At the same time, private sector companies are increasingly seeking to expand their definition of 'value creation' at the heart of their business model from economic outcomes alone to contribute value to social and environmental concerns. Therefore, many seek to support UNHCR’s mandate to work in partnership to jointly find short-term and durable solutions for refugees and other persons of concern.

Key findings

Private sector engagement for operational purposes is undertaken across UNHCR. The organization engages with almost 250 private sector actors in over 60 countries for improving the protection and well-being of people of concern. The engagements are centered on promoting protection, self-reliance and meeting needs of refugees and other persons of concern.

The evaluation finds that many staff involved in PSE are highly passionate and committed to the work they are doing and can clearly see and articulate the goals of the partnership. These individuals tend to have previous experience working with/in the private sector, are innovative in their approach to operational programming, understand their political economic context, have a strong sense of what will work to achieve their goal and know also how to partner with other stakeholders, such as national and local government bodies.

Several factors hinder private sector engagement beyond fundraising. The annual planning cycle was reported as a challenge for designing longer-term interventions and targeting higher-level impact outcomes desired by private sector actors. The budgeting framework was also perceived by UNHCR staff as a challenge because the tendency is to prioritize activities that the organization is directly implementing.

The evaluation notes that in the literature, benchmarking and stocktake partnering with the private sector can include both financial contributions as well as operational partnership. Partnering can evolve, for example, with an operational goal in mind and at a later point lead to financial contributions to UNHCR and/or other partners and vice versa. Financial contributions may not always go to UNHCR, especially with the whole-of-society approach and UNHCR’s role as the convener/catalyst versus implementer.

Based on the literature and benchmarking, a helpful process appears to follow these steps: (a) define the impact goal; (b) identify the stakeholders that could contribute (from the public and/or private sector); and (c) negotiate the partnership type suited to achieving this aim. Renegotiating and evolving the partnership will then be done as needed to achieve the evolving goals for persons of concern.


The evaluation offers nine recommendations. At a foundational level, UNHCR should approach and measure partnering along a range of outcomes; decentralize partnership objective setting; strengthen working relationships across the organization; remove barriers (such as annual planning cycles and budgeting) and establish institutional incentives for partnering; meet staff’s capacity development needs in partnering with the private sector; demonstrate the same level of support for operational partnering as that given to fundraising; position the Shared Value Partnerships Unit (SPU) in PSP for global engagements, trade delegations, and “go/no-go” lists; develop a strong value proposition; and map which Headquarters departments partner with all types of partner, for what purposes and how. These are musts for the organization to better optimize its engagement with the private sector and meet current partnering demands and expectations.

First, as a matter of urgency, to improve UNHCR’s ability to achieve positive impacts for PoC and its internal efficiency and effectiveness, UNHCR should develop a professional orientation towards goal-driven partnering (not siloed by partner or stakeholder group). This requires creating a whole-of-organization strategy that rationalizes operational partnering support.

UNHCR should centralize support for partnering as a professional orientation and activity (rather than having each division or department develop its own guidance and support according to partner type). Therefore, the evaluation recommends that UNHCR first do a mapping of all types of partnerships in Headquarters and the support offered to other UNHCR staff across different partner types. This will bring understanding of the breadth and depth of partnerships held at HQ and the types of expertise that can be called on to support the field and technical staff.

It would be transformative for the organization to establish a Partnering Support Service dedicated to supporting HQ and field staff in developing single- and multi-stakeholder partnerships. Additionally, UNHCR has a wealth of partnering experience to draw on, including that from PSP. The evaluation recommends that the Service be situated within a division that is close to the core business of the organization; for example, operationalizing the GCR objectives or strategic planning.

UNHCR should establish a Partnering Hub. This Hub would be managed by the Partnership Support Service and bring together staff from different Headquarters divisional teams who support partnering (e.g. technical guidance, field support, training) and also field staff (including many identified in this evaluation) who are experienced in partnering. The purpose of the Partnering Hub would be to break down silos between different partnership units and allow for greater coordination, coherence and streamlining of processes, systems and results tracking.

Only this transformative approach to supporting and professionalizing partnering across the whole organization, together with all the relevant stakeholders, would have the potential to allow UNHCR to deliver on the demands of the GCR and the CRRF – both in terms of impacts for persons of concern and the whole-of-society approach – and also improve UNHCR efficiencies and effectiveness.