The 1990s marked the beginning of an ongoing era in which the UN received
substantial criticism for making poor choices and circumventing its responsibilities
within the normative framework in which it was created.  This seemingly flawed performance has stood
in glaring contrast to an international system that, in the absence of the
Cold War and corresponding recurring Security Council gridlock, appeared more
receptive to multilateral approaches to meeting humanitarian needs than at
any point in history since the UN’s founding.
In the aftermath of disappointments, failures, and criticism from donor governments,
humanitarian and human rights, and development non-governmental organizations
(NGOs), the UN’s humanitarian organizations such as UNHCR have commissioned
numerous evaluations and undertaken documentation and analyses of “lessons
learned” in Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and other countries
embroiled in internal violent conflict and struggling with complex emergencies. 
What, if anything, are humanitarian IGOs learning from the experiences of
the first post-Cold War decade? Some analysis would argue that UN humanitarian
operations are repeating their mistakes. This paper argues that the UN’s
humanitarian organizations are learning, and in fact have learned
a great deal from the changing nature of conflict in the 1990s. Existing
theories of IGO learning, however, do not sufficiently account for this learning,
because these theories were developed to examine IGO learning in the absence
of violent internal conflict, during which an IGO’s work, namely humanitarian
assistance, assumes a strategic value. In contrast to many other areas of
the UN”s work, the extremely high normative significance associated with humanitarian
assistance frequently means that in its learning process an IGO confronts
struggles and contradictions between what its knowledge acquisition indicates
can be done and what it understands should be done. Exacerbating
this condition is the fact that IGOs, unlike NGOs, are accountable and intertwined
with states, including state interests, both by virtue of comprising part
of the UN system and depending on states’ voluntary contributions.
Overall, learning among international, intergovernmental organizations has
not received extensive scholarly attention.  Existing analyses tend to focus on environmental or other
technical and scientific issue areas in which an IGO during relative peacetime
receives and assimilates new information from groups of experts, such that
the organization either adapts or transforms its policy direction and future
activities as a result.  Similarly, scholarship on learning
among IGOs—especially IGOs working in the midst of violent conflict—is relatively
sparse but growing, in the aftermath of post-Cold War conflict, as noted previously.
Analyses of learning in the humanitarian sector have increased, especially
under the leadership of such organizations as the Active Learning Network
for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP).  Literature on the role of norms
and ideas in shaping policy is abundant, and specific examples are identified
in this paper’s section on normative learning. These works, however, concentrate
on the influence of norms and ideas on states rather than on intergovernmental
organizations such as the UN and its various agencies.
Another major body of literature on organizational learning is oriented
primarily toward the private sector, with a relatively small selection of
works targeted to the learning behavior of non-profit and not-for-profit organizations.
These classic works on organizational learning focus on how individuals within
organizations acquire and apply knowledge to behavior, thus shaping the organization
itself.  Within this body
of literature works on humanitarian sector learning are extremely limited.
 These works tend to emphasize the relationship between individual
and collective learning, obstacles to learning, and recommendations for creating
and improving the organizational learning environment.
The framework presented here is distinct in two ways from the organizational
learning literature noted above. First, it specifically addresses IGOs, as
opposed to the private sector or, in a few cases, not-for-profit or non-profit
organizations. Second, and more important for the present state of IGO learning
in the humanitarian sector, this framework is designed to analyze what
IGOs learn more than how they learn.
This analytical framework synthesizes normative and ideational theory and
the concept of organizational learning. This paper argues that norms can
have a uniquely significant—and often confusing—effect on an organization’s
understanding of what it should learn. Inherent in evaluations of humanitarian
operations is a particular tension between expectation and performance. Unlike
the usual tension in which expectations measure performance to the best that
is deemed feasible, expectations related to norms measure performance to what
is deemed morally and ethically acceptable. As a result, feasibility, especially
feasibility in the context of the situation at hand or vis-à-vis performance
of other organizations within a given system, is only marginally taken into
account. An organization’s failure to perform in accordance with standards
of moral and ethical appropriateness is highlighted as an abdication of responsibility,
an inexcusable lapse of conscience. The possibility that the organization
simply might not be capable of fulfilling such responsibility in the context
in which it is being required to work is often not adequately considered.
Instead, evaluators seek to avoid repeating past mistakes, thereby assuming
that failure is the result of a mistake in the first place. Furthermore,
even if the mistake is correctly identified as such, evaluators also assume
that it is and will be a mistake in the future as well, hence the concept
of “lessons learned.”
The organizational learning framework presented here assumes that at some
level learning takes place, both in preparation for and as a result of organizational
activity, even if there is no evident application of that learning in future
endeavors. From this assumption immediately arises the question, what is
the proof of learning in the absence of that future application? The answer
lies in understanding a more inclusive definition of learning.
What Constitutes learning?
Learning can be fundamentally defined as acquisition of knowledge. Most
analysts of learning, however, would add to that definition the application
of knowledge acquired.  This
applies especially to studies of organizational learning, where without evidence
of knowledge application, gauging learning is extremely difficult. This study
acknowledges that acquisition of knowledge, even without application, constitutes
a degree of learning. As will be noted throughout this article, this framework
acknowledges this and other application-oriented definitions of learning.
However, it also accounts for the possibility of acquisition of knowledge
without application of that knowledge. In other words, by expanding
the definition of learning, non-application is not necessarily synonymous
with failure or refusal to learn.
 Learning defined as acquisition of knowledge is evident in stated
recognition and perceptions of issues, events, and situations. For example,
if the leader of a humanitarian organization receives and assimilates information
about a complex emergency, s/he has learned at a basic level. If the leader
then imparts information and gives a directive to other members of the organization,
that membership –and therefore the organization itself—has also learned.
Linking acquisition and application yields three additional levels of learning:
(1) learning as knowledge acquisition with the intent of application, whether
or not application is realized; (2) learning as knowledge acquisition and
application; and (3) learning as knowledge acquisition, followed by rejection
of application.  The
first and third levels pose a fundamental methodological problem, namely how
can one determine intent, and how can one determine whether rejection of application
is deliberate, unless organizational leaders explicitly state their intentions?
Yet if one limits identification of the first and third levels to cases where
intentions are explicitly identified, how can one account for cases where they are not? As subsequent paragraphs
explain, this study focuses on three variables—mandates, resource allocations
and evaluations—as both inputs and outputs of learning. The framework presented
here is limited to intent to apply and rejection of application as reflected in changes in
mandate, resource allocation, or evaluations of prior performance.
In addition to enlarging the scope of what constitutes learning, this framework
rests on the premise that organizations engage in several types of learning,
and that at times certain types may supersede or even obfuscate others. This
paper presents IGO learning not as a linear process, or even as a sequence
with interruptions of reversal and circuitous paths. Rather, it presents
a framework that accounts for different types of learning and for the relationship
among those types. It is designed to identify not only the ways in which
IGOs learn or do not learn, but also to illustrate how purposive learning
of one type may actually obfuscate, pre-empt, or displace other forms.
This study views the state as an important but not exclusive actor. Although
constrained to a significant degree by states, IGOs do enjoy considerable
autonomy in shaping international coordination. At the same time, this paper
does not altogether agree with the social constructivist school, which views
state interests as constructed from without and therefore also more subject
to external influence by international organizations and even individuals.  Rather, state interests greatly
influence the capabilities and policy direction of IGOs, especially those
that depend on voluntary contributions from states as donors. At the same
time, within those substantial constraints, leaders of IGOs nevertheless may
exercise a range of options, and the choices they make both have consequences
for their intended beneficiaries and influence choices of the very donor states
on which they depend.
Diverse Forms of Learning in International Organizations
Political learning is defined here as the recognition of opportunities
and constraints resulting from the capabilities and limits of individuals
and of the organizations within which these individuals make and carry out
decisions. Key components are bounded rationality, incomplete and/or
inaccurate information, political self-interest, and, for the United Nations
system, dependence on member states.
Works on bureaucratic and individual cognitive and other psychological constraints
proliferate, especially in the study of public policy, both foreign and domestic.
 These analyses identify two levels of constraints, primarily on
key individual decision-makers. One is that posed by the inevitability of
incomplete and/or inaccurate information, insufficient time and other resources
to make and carry out informed decisions, and lack of cooperation on the part
of other actors. The other level of constraint is human fallibility, including
the failure to consider all options that are available, the refusal to acknowledge
external limits, and ideologically driven insistence on certain preferences,
regardless of their consequences.
Organizational leadership that engages in political learning recognizes these
constraints and endeavors to offset them wherever possible. Examples are
applying sensitivity to timing when introducing controversial initiatives,
garnering support for measures before presenting them to a larger forum, and
employing the skills of a “gadfly” to counter what Irving Janis long ago labeled
“groupthink.”  Optimal political learning means mastery of what Stone has
identified as “the art of political reasoning” and what George has called
“political rationality.” 
For the United Nations, many key elements of political learning have been
encompassed in the concept of “political will.” The organization has been
viewed—and has viewed itself—as first and foremost a membership body of sovereign
states, and therefore a body with little or no effective enforcement authority.
The superpower gridlock of the Cold War era consistently underscored the apparent
lack of UN efficacy. In addition, harsh criticisms of incompetence and ineffective
management, especially by the United States
during the 1980s, reinforced the idea of an organization severely constrained,
if not at times paralyzed, by its own ills. Efforts to respond on the UN’s
behalf included a call for the organization to adopt a “comparative advantage”
approach, that is, to be more selective in the types of problems to which
it would respond.  According
to these critics, only those issues inherently international in scope and
character, e.g., global warming, use of outer space, should be the
UN’s primary concern. All other matters should be left to states or regional
bodies, which had the resources and the desire to address them, or to NGOs,
which had the organizational and political flexibility to deliver services
without bureaucratic encumbrance.
The preoccupation with political will assumes the principle of state sovereignty
as a given within the realm of political learning. Absolute sovereignty may
be compromised, and a measure of its corresponding power may be ceded, but
only with the state’s acquiescence, thus recognizing the state as the preeminent
source of power and authority in the international system. (As subsequent
paragraphs will explain, normative learning, in contrast, views sovereignty
not as an absolute that may be altered only by state consent, but rather as
a principle that may be challenged by other principles of international law.)
Yet, as noted previously, this analysis holds that humanitarian IGOs like
UNHCR also embody dimensions of power and authority, despite their dependence
on individual states. In fact, their autonomy is twofold—the authority and
power of the individual leader of the organization and the organization itself;
in the case of UNHCR, “both an individual, represented in the High Commissioner,
and a bureaucracy with its own distinct culture and value system.”  These sources of authority
function interdependently in ways that either enhance or undermine learning.
In the case of the latter, lessons identified with the intention of application
may be lost before they can be re-applied, precisely because of constraints
imposed by those in control of resources. For example, lessons about preparedness
resulting from the tragedy of Rwanda
were identified but not realized in Kosovo, because UNHCR experienced financial
cutbacks between the two conflicts that prevented it from having much needed
This frequent scenario points to three limits to the application of political
learning by humanitarian and other IGOs dependent on donor states. The first
is the limited autonomy and authority of the organization itself. Regardless
of how well an organization like UNHCR might “learn its lessons,” its ability
to apply those lessons to the future is limited when such application exceeds
existing levels of financial support . Second is the reverse of the first,
namely the limit of an IGO’s ability to succeed in garnering support from its donor
states. The third limitation is an IGO’s inability to at least partially
extricate itself from donor states, either by seeking and obtaining alternative
sources of funding or by identifying ways to apply lessons learned even in
the absence of additional resources.
The notion of shared responsibility for performance failure or success points
to the dual identity of agent and structure among the actors involved. States
are agents, especially in their roles as donors, but they are also structures
that together comprise UN membership.
 UNHCR, embodied both in its leaders and as an institution unto
itself, is an agent in its capacity as administrator of humanitarian relief,
and it is also a structure to which agent states respond and in which they
have input. The UN Secretary-General, to whom UNHCR reports and from whom
it takes direction, is also both agent and structure, as the one who issues
directives and whose office is the authority of the UN structure. Thus a
major challenge in political learning for IGOs is not only recognizing bureaucratic
and international constraints, but also distinguishing between which must
be accepted and which can be overcome by exercising internal organizational
Operational learning is the acquisition of knowledge regarding how effectively
to carry out policies and programs that are the products of the other learning
types. Operational learning consistently asks the following key questions:
what worked, what did not work and why, and how can performance be improved?
Operational learning—or at least the attempt at operational learning—tends
to increase dramatically in the aftermath of extreme success, and even more
dramatically in the aftermath of extreme failure. The desire to repeat successful
operations is strong but more short-lived; however, the reflection on failure,
though agonizing, tends to persist as the organization tries desperately not
to repeat past mistakes. Ironically, this preoccupation with the past often
leads to new mistakes in the future, or the avoidance of repeating something
that may have been a mistake in the past, but is a sound application for the
Of the five types presented here, operational learning tends to be more isolated
from the other types, due to the fact that it focuses on programs and tasks,
rather than on more comprehensive policies. It makes concerted efforts (however
unsuccessfully) to dissociate from political elements that supposedly interfere
with effectiveness, it focuses little on either context or relations with
other entities (unless a jointly administered program is being evaluated),
and its norms are deeply embedded and rarely questioned. In other words,
for the operational learner, the quest is to assess not the mission or the
principles underlying the mission, but rather how well the organization carried
out its responsibilities to fulfill that mission.
Perhaps the most puzzling and frustrating dilemma of operational learning
is the failure of lessons identified and apparently learned to be applied
in subsequent cases. Astri Suhrke
 examines this trend in her comparison of UNHCR’s emergency responses
in Northern Iraq and Kosovo, respectively. Drawing upon Jack Levy’s definition
of learning as “’development of new beliefs, skills or procedures as a result
of the observation and interpretation of experience’” (noted earlier in this
article)  Suhrke notes the importance of
distinguishing between the acquisition of new beliefs or skills and the application
of those beliefs or skills to policy.
 She asks “whether weaknesses in the agency’s response to the first
crisis had been reduced in the second crisis, and, if so, whether this was
due to a change in beliefs, skills, and procedure that at least partly reflected
the earlier experiences.” 
The standard of success for operational learning is the extent to which
the measure accomplishes the intended objectives; the standard of failure
is the extent to which the measure fails to accomplish them. Accordingly,
operational learning is limited in several ways. One is the limited capacity
of the IGO to carry out stated objectives as a result of inherent constraints
within the organization. The second consists of limits imposed by ambiguities
in identifying objectives.
Contextual learning is defined here as the acquisition of knowledge about
a particular event or situation and its surrounding elements, including recognition
of similarities and differences between that event or situation and others.
Key components of contextual learning are immediate realities and larger
surroundings. Contextual learning, or assimilation and application of knowledge
about the external environment in which an individual or organization is operating,
consists of two levels. One is the immediate context, usually characterized
by a combination of events that prompt action by the organization and existing
organizational realities, including available resources, and perception of
the events at hand. The other is the larger environment, including past as
well as present realities and perceptions. For the UN, this means the larger
international political order and changes within it, as well as its own past
and present role within that order.
Several now well-documented characteristics are prevalent in the post-Cold
War era, many of which are the source of continued debate. One such characteristic
is the extent to which the collapse of the Soviet Union has led to a more
multipolar world with less superpower rivalry than that experienced during
the Cold War. The end of U.S.-Soviet gridlock in the UN Security Council
at first seemed to signify an era that was more conducive to multilateral
A number of leading realist scholars, however, have offered convincing challenges
to this vision, especially in the wake of post-Cold War violence. These
include traditional realists whose foundation is the work of Morgenthau,
scholars of offensive realism, such as Mearsheimer, and defensive realist
theorists such as Waltz and his contemporaries. ]
The second characteristic is a particular dimension of what has been dubbed
the “CNN effect,” of media coverage of conflicts such as those in Somalia,
Bosnia and Rwanda,
namely the entry of the media as a policy actor.  The extent to which the media
have inserted themselves into the policy process is debatable; however, whether
real or perceived, it is a contextual element that has contributed to the
difficulty in policy-makers’ ability to act without having to account for
media interpretations of events and their implicit recommendations regarding
the appropriate policy response.  Faced with vaguely defined conflict and
foreign policy direction, journalists have had the ability to exercise newfound
latitude by presenting their own interpretations to the public.
A third complicating element is the confusion regarding the similarity and
difference in post-Cold War conflicts. The belief that every conflict is
unique has been challenged by some experts in humanitarian assistance operations.  Still, there is equal danger
in proceeding on the premise that a template for humanitarian response to
internal conflict exists. The challenge for humanitarian IGOs has been to
determine to what extent lessons identified from past conflicts apply to future
conflicts that may resemble their predecessors on the surface, but in fact
embody very different dimensions.
One difference is the transition away from traditional peacekeeping toward
more comprehensive efforts, including protection of civilians Another is
the dramatic growth in numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and
the UN Secretary-General’s call to address their needs, including the appointment
of a Special Representative on Internal Displacement. Some changes are directly
attributed to the end of the Cold War, most notably the elimination of the
U.S.-Soviet veto gridlock in the Security Council. Others occurred after
the Soviet Union’s demise, but cannot with certainty be attributed to the
end of the Cold War, though an association is suggested. These include increased
targeting of civilians, often with the ultimate goal not of conquest but of
obliteration, and corresponding ambiguity in identifying enemies and allies,
especially in internal conflicts, increased military involvement in humanitarian
relief efforts, and challenges to traditional interpretations of state sovereignty. 
A major limit to contextual learning is the inability of IGOs to modify
their acquired knowledge to the particular situation at hand. Reliance on
models and standard operating procedures can lead to organizational behavior
that is irrelevant and often detrimental. Similar obstacles can emerge from
limits to relational learning, described in the next section.
Relational learning is defined here as the acquisition of
knowledge about the relationship of one organization to another, including
impacts that one organization’s changes in mandate have on the work and perceptions
of the other organization. Relational learning is distinguished from
contextual learning and political learning by the fact that, although it shares
the characteristics of respectively comprehending external environments and
bureaucratic structures and processes, relational learning focuses specifically
on the relationship of one organization to another organization within the
same system. Singling out this relationship becomes important when examining
the perceived and actual impacts of mandate change, especially mandate expansion,
to areas previously addressed by another organization.
Relational learning becomes especially salient—and more distinguished from
political learning—when one or more organizations within the same system undergo
mandate expansion. A key example during the conflicts of the 1990s is the
decision by humanitarian organizations to include in their mandates post-conflict
reconstruction. The acceptance of responsibility toward societies emerging
from conflict has evolved as part of efforts by humanitarian and development
organizations alike to “bridge the relief-to-development gap.”  Humanitarian organizations
traditionally responsible for prompt delivery of emergency provisions have
recently carried out more long-term development initiatives to support fragile
societies emerging from conflict. 
A major limit to relational learning is present when the organizations are
not learning concurrently, or are experiencing learning types that are antithetical
to each other. Under these conditions relational learning is not likely to
Normative learning as defined here is the
acquisition of knowledge about collective values and principles, i.e., the
essential elements of norms themselves, that may influence policy direction,
including acceptance, rejection, and selection of some norms over others,
as well as confusion and conflict with respect to norm selection
 . Key components of normative learning are existing norms,
emerging norms and norms in contention. Normative learning differs from political,
operational, contextual, and relational learning in three related ways. First,
it is driven less by acquisition of knowledge and more by beliefs and values
about what is known. Second, normative learning centers on decisions and
behavior according to what should be done rather than what can
be done. Other types of learning are concerned with capabilities and effectiveness;
normative learning is concerned with principles. Third, because the sources
of norms are not easily identified, it is accordingly difficult to examine
the normative learning process. While this analysis maintains that beliefs
and values are present in all types of learning, normative learning is distinguished
by the fact that beliefs and values actually drive the learning process.
Existing normative and ideational theories have yet to be able to explain
specific choices or preferences of decision-makers. One can point to normative
influences in areas like international human rights protection and humanitarian
assistance; however, the inconsistent nature of activity in these areas, along
with the frequent joining of human rights and humanitarian initiatives with
other goals, such as alliance-building, make it difficult to determine where
one source of motivation stops and another begins. Yet norms have and continue
to play an important role in international relations. They are used to pressure
governments to change their behavior, to affirm the virtues of some governments
and to criticize others, and to build a transnational consensus and support
based on principles that apply to all humans, regardless of nationality.
The genesis and development of norms themselves are not clearly understood.
Martha Finnemore has examined the phenomenon of norm entrepreneurs, and Finnemore
and Kathryn Sikkink together have developed an analytical framework that identifies
norm “tipping points,” or thresholds where norms take on a new dimension of
significance and influence in international behavior.
Ann-Marie Clark has examined at length the influence of Amnesty International
on the development, proliferation, and influence of human rights norms, even
as challenges to state sovereignty. She contends that
Norms are limited when contradicted by power, but they
are not extinguished. Norms based on principles of right and wrong suffer
disadvantage when power is primary. If nation-state security depends upon
constant competition, norms of respect for persons and mutual accommodation
more appropriate for a civil society are prevented from emerging. In theory,
they would be unlikely to find proponents except, perhaps, among the weak.
Existing works on norms do not explain why states adhere to some norms and
not others. Equally relevant to this study, these scholars do not explain
why IGOs may emphasize one set of norms over another. Herein is yet another
question: where is the locus of authority about norm decisions? That is,
if institutions are frameworks for norm development, does norm influence depend
more on states or on international institutional, e.g., UN leaders?
Clark asks, if human rights norms are understood as common societal rules,
one is led to ask whether new norms might be traced to the composition of
international institutions or to changes in their structure. She explores
the possibility that the structure of the UN itself might be responsible for
facilitating and fostering norm generation. A second potential genesis of
norms is change in UN membership over time. 
Each of these explanations has drawbacks, however. The Charter allows only
limited involvement by NGOs, including human rights advocates, and explicitly
calls only for the “promotion” of human rights, with no enforcement mechanism.
Regarding evolving UN membership, Clark notes that while the addition of newly
independent states as UN members following decolonization certainly augmented
pressure for such measures as awarding self-determination and ending apartheid,
a more widespread human rights accountability was not forthcoming from that
Eschewing state-centric explanations for norm emergence, Clark also argues
that the possibility of the conditioning normative influence of “both formal
and informal institutions” and non-state actors is overlooked, as scholars
instead view institutions as existing only in service of state interests.  What is needed,” she asserts, “is a deeper understanding
that accounts for how norms gain authority and how normative authority interacts
with the motives of state and nonstate actors.”
 She argues that norms transcend shared understandings of socially
shared interpretations of behavior; rather, continuity and change depend on
a more deeply rooted interpretation.  In this way she departs from scholars such as Audie Klotz,
who attributes the eradication of apartheid to “shared (thus social) understandings
of standards and behavior.” 
Moreover, the degree of state compliance with norms is not necessarily
a reliable indicator of norm efficacy. Rather, “whether a specific action
supports a norm depends in large part on how it is interpreted, justified,
and criticized by actors and observers.” 
Ideational theory includes the analysis not only of norms but also of ideas
that are not directly traced to moral or ethical foundations. Defining ideas
as “beliefs held by individuals.”  Judith Goldstein and Robert Keohane differentiate
among three types of beliefs, namely “world views, principled beliefs, and
causal beliefs.”  World views, “conceptions of possibility,”
are “embedded in the symbolism of a culture and deeply affect modes of thought
and discourse.”  They are not purely normative since they include views about
cosmology and ontology, as well as about ethics. Nevertheless, world views
are entwined with people’s conceptions of their identities, evoking deep emotions
and loyalties.  The second
type of ideas, principled beliefs, consist of “normative ideas that specify
criteria for distinguishing right from wrong and just from unjust.”
 The authors explain that principled beliefs take definite stances
regarding issues and practices. World views, in contrast, can encompass diverse
and even dichotomous vantage points.  Goldstein and Keohane’s third
category is causal beliefs, or “beliefs about cause-effect relationships which
derive authority from the shared consensus of recognized elites, whether they
be village elders or scientists at elite institutions.”
 The cornerstone of causal beliefs is the concept of a strategy
for goal achievement, usually grounded in scientific or another form of expertise.  The way in which causal beliefs are conceived
changes more frequently than conceptualization of world views or principled
beliefs. Unlike Finnemore, Clark, and other normative theorists, Goldstein
and Keohane do address the question of how policy makers choose ideas. To
this end, they caution that innate qualities of ideas alone cannot explain
policy makers’ preferences for one idea over another.  Rather, interest still drives
choice, but ideas, often deeply embedded, determine the pathway of interest
The studies noted above have contributed much to IR theory by identifying
and illustrating alternative sources of power to the state and by delineating
the relationship between scientific knowledge and decision-makers within IGOs.
In this way, they pose a noteworthy challenge to classical realism and neo-realism’s
The scholarship on epistemic communities noted earlier, while not devoid
of normative elements, nevertheless focuses primarily on the role of experts
in clarifying complex issues so that leaders of IGOs can make more informed
decisions. The normative dimension is present in efforts by epistemic communities
to intervene in negotiations and direct them to a desired outcome, e.g., environmental
protection; however, normative influence is not examined as a separate phenomenon;
rather it is incorporated into the justification of policy preference on the
basis of scientific evidence. For example, to the extent that epistemic communities
influenced the successful conclusion of the 1987 Ozone Protocol in Montreal,
they did so by presenting evidence that failure to act would likely have dire
consequences for air quality. The norm of environmental protection—that is,
the belief that governments, acting through international institutions such
as the UN, have responsibility to protect the environment—was assumed. Furthermore,
the assumed norm constituted a minimal source of contention, because political
and economic security stakes were relatively low. 
The studies just presented have contributed to date little toward understanding
organizational learning in situations of conflict and chaos.
 Moreover, the cases in which these scholars consider learning to
be most complete feature those organizations of the UN system, e.g., the World
Bank, that enjoy the greatest degree of organizational autonomy.
The previous sections on political, operational, contextual, and relational
learning respectively have closed with an identification of limits or challenges
inherent in each learning type. The limits on normative learning differ,
however, because they encompass both ambiguity and a seemingly no-win situation.
With respect to the former, as noted in the summary of scholarship on norms
and ideas, neither the origin nor the selection of norms is clear. Therefore,
an IGO cannot justify its norm selection on the premise that, based on past
experience it is more feasible, or that it is the best that can be done.
With respect to the latter, satisficing according to constraints on capabilities,
whether real or perceived, suggests an abdication of moral responsibility;
yet acting on normative grounds without the resources to fulfill the mission
at hand often results in performance failure, with dire consequences for
the intended beneficiaries.
Unlike the limits associated with political, operational, contextual, and
relational learning, limits associated with normative learning tend to be
deemed unacceptable. Partial fulfillment of “good” or constructive norms,
such as assistance to refugees or protection of human rights, is considered
a compromise of principle. Similarly, the complete eradication of destructive,
or “bad” norms, such as those underlying slavery, torture, or genocide, is
considered equally necessary. To be content with incremental success is to
turn one’s back on the realization of humanitarian and human rights principles.
Thus the standard of successful normative learning is the fulfillment of ethical
responsibilities; non-fulfillment signifies failure.
All five learning types influence each other, sometimes by occurring together,
other times by occurring apart from each other but nevertheless affecting
each other. Normative learning, however, plays a unique role in contrast
to the others, because normative learning usually involves a higher priority
on principles than on feasibility or even appropriateness to the situation.
At the same time, three characteristics of normative learning can complicate
how norms are actually assimilated. These are norm periodization, norm ambiguity,
and norm conflict.
Events often lead to norm emergence, norm debate, and norm re-appraisal.
An established norm that drives decision-making by a state or an organization
can be reconsidered and even rejected in the aftermath of disaster. Norm
periodization occurs on two levels. The first is
strengthening and weakening of norms according to the evolution of decisions
and events. The second is the overall salience of norms once sequences of
events have reached closure.
Such is the legacy of humanitarian intervention in Somalia,
driven initially by a strong norm to intervene on humanitarian grounds that
subsequently weakened and was superceded by a normative learning that resulted
in inaction.  The impact of the Somalia
case on the reticence of states and the UN alike vis-à-vis Rwanda
cannot be overestimated. What if the Somalia
debacle had occurred after the genocide in Rwanda?
Would the United States have been
so hesitant to act? Would the United Nations Secretary-General and Security
Council have exercised similar hesitancy, with or without the support
of the United States? Would humanitarian
assistance have been administered in a manner that helped lead to such tragedies
as Goma? 
Norm periodization can lead to decisions and actions
that are not necessarily commensurate with the situation to which those decisions
and actions are being applied. In fact, perception of the influencing event
itself is not necessarily congruent with reality. Ironically, Somalia
has been equated both with a reluctance or refusal to intervene in future
cases on the one hand and with missed opportunity on the other. Reflecting
on Somalia, political leaders could
have resolved to act even more quickly in Rwanda;
instead, Somalia had the opposite
effect. The importance of phenomena like those in Somalia
for this learning framework is the extent to which the associated decisions
and actions, themselves the products of different types of learning, in turn
led with respect to Rwanda to a re-appraisal
of the norm to intervene on humanitarian grounds, and especially in response
to either acts of genocide or genocide itself.
In June 1992 the Secretary-General issued “An Agenda for Peace: Preventive
Diplomacy, Peacemaking, and Peace-keeping,” at the request of the Security
Council.  The Agenda was developed on the premise that
the adversarial decades of the cold war made the original promise of the
Organisation impossible to fulfill. The January 1992 Summit therefore represented
an unprecedented recommitment at the highest political level to the Purposes
and Principles of the Charter.
In these past months a conviction has grown among nations large and small
that an opportunity has been regained to achieve the great objectives
of the Charter—a United Nations capable of maintaining international peace
and security, of securing justice and human rights and of promoting, in
the words of the Charter, ‘social progress and better standards of life,
in larger freedom.’ This opportunity must not be squandered. The Organisation
must never again be crippled as it was in the era that has now passed (emphasis
The Agenda for Peace described in detail what the Secretary-General proclaimed
as “the changing context” of the post-Cold War era. While certain fundamental
changes certainly did occur, as was addressed in the section on contextual
learning, certain features of the Cold War era and even decades preceding
World War II remained. Therefore the proclamation by the Security Council,
the Secretary-General, and others of a new age of efficacy for the UN stemmed
as much from a normative as from a perceptive or analytical basis.
The Secretary-General further asserted
The foundation-stone of this [agenda for peace] is and must
remain the state. Respect for its fundamental sovereignty and integrity are
crucial to any common international progress.
At the same time,
The time of absolute and exclusive sovereignty, however,
has passed; its theory was never matched by reality.
Thus the Secretary-General upheld the norm of state sovereignty, but only
on the condition that states would be willing to cede a certain degree of
sovereignty in the interest of international peace and security, with respect
and promotion of human rights and social and economic well-being.
The application of authority that the Agenda for Peace represented was based
on a belief of what should characterize the post-Cold War era, and not what
actually has characterized the years following the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Authority typically encompasses principles, for authority calls for what should
be done or how something should be done. Authoritative statements founded
on a blurred line between normative desires and contextual realities often
lead to performance that is considered a partial or complete failure. Furthermore,
the ambiguity of expectations that accompanies such statements makes both
learning and performance by an organization difficult to assess. What exactly
is expected? What is the threshold of success, and how is that threshold
determined? In numbers of lives saved? In numbers of people fed? In the
absence of recurring violence in a post-conflict society? Or is it to be
measured in the degree to which resources for humanitarian assistance operations
are increased, including early warning or military protection of humanitarian
This inconsistency dramatically amplified with the release of the Supplement
to an Agenda for Peace.  Three years after the
Agenda for Peace was issued, the Secretary-General, in his Supplement,
The end of the cold war was a major movement of tectonic
plates and the after-shocks continue to be felt.
The purpose of the Supplement, therefore, was to highlight selective certain
areas where unforeseen, or only partly foreseen, difficulties have arisen
and where there is a need for the Member States to take the ‘hard decisions’
I referred to two and a half years ago. 
The Supplement went on to note several major changes since the Agenda had
been issued three years before, including: (1) the prevalence of internal
over interstate conflicts, specifically a “new breed of intra-state conflicts”
embodying “certain characteristics that present United Nations peacekeepers
with challenges not encountered since the Congo operation of the early 1960s.”  (emphasis added); (2)
the use of UN forces to protect humanitarian operations, along with an
increase in the tendency of combatants to divert relief supplies for their
own purposes;  and a change in the nature
of UN operations in the field, namely, the implementation of peace settlements,
including civilian as well as military matters
 (emphasis added).
The aforementioned passages from the Supplement to the Agenda for Peace
at once call upon the UN to assume new duties that depart from traditional
peacekeeping, and caution the organization that the obstacles to peacekeeping
and peace-building are formidable and the results tenuous at best. The Secretary-General
underscores the anticipated need of the legitimate use of force under the
Charter, and even calls for intervention to continue beyond achieving an immediate
cessation of hostilities. Yet he also reinforces the principles of neutrality
and impartiality in carrying out any humanitarian intervention. He acknowledges
the prevalence of internal conflicts; yet he fails to address either the perceived
or actual outcomes of the persistent and prolonged UN intervention that he
The Supplement contains directives fraught with norm ambiguities
which reflect inherent contradictions and tensions. This norm conflict is
the result of particular characteristics of situations in which those norms
have been applied, to both the benefit and the detriment of recipients. Efforts
to maintain neutrality and impartiality in the dissemination of emergency
relief, the assumption by peacekeeping forces of humanitarian responsibilities,
and the extension by humanitarian organizations into post-conflict development
activities are all examples of UN humanitarian initiatives with mixed results
that trigger and intensify norm conflict, described below.
Emerging norms and norms in contention collide
with established norms on which decisions and principles have traditionally
been based and justified. A key example is the norm of state sovereignty,
the cornerstone of the UN’s creation. Challenging this traditionally accepted
right of a state to non-intervention has been the concept of sovereignty as
responsibility. This principle holds that the right of non-intervention is
valid only insofar as a state fulfils its responsibilities to those that reside
within its borders. Failure to do so warrants intervention on humanitarian
and human rights grounds. 
The distinction between norm ambiguity and norm
conflict is extremely difficult to ascertain. Challenges to embedded norms
may create ambiguity, followed by conflict, as the challenges intensify.
Conversely, salient conflict among norms can lead to norm ambiguity, as political
leaders attempt to circumvent or reconcile conflicting elements in an effort
to articulate policy direction or win support from state and non-state actors.
Legitimizing intervention as warranted on humanitarian
grounds leads to yet another source of norm contention, namely the conflict
between human rights and humanitarian law. Justification for military intervention
on humanitarian grounds carries the risk of human rights violations when force
is applied. Human rights law is based on zero tolerance for the loss of human
life.  Conversely, humanitarian
law assumes—and therefore implicitly tolerates—some degree of loss of life,
including civilian deaths, in situations involving lawful collateral damage.
On the one hand, humanitarian intervention is justified
in the name of responding to human rights violations and safeguarding the
rights of oppressed populations. On the other hand, it does little to help
determine what type and to what extent intervention should be used. Are the
human rights of an oppressed population worth the human lives of both those
intervening and those who may die in the crossfire of conflict?
Moreover, within humanitarian law there is yet another layer of conflict
regarding humanitarian assistance, whether or not that assistance is rendered
in conjunction with military intervention on humanitarian grounds. Traditional
interpretations view humanitarian assistance as both neutral and impartial.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the first institution
to provide humanitarian relief to civilian victims of warfare, defines itself
as “an impartial, neutral, and independent organization whose exclusively
humanitarian mission is to protect the lives and dignity of victims of war
and internal violence and to provide them with assistance.”
Other perspectives, however, assert that humanitarian assistance is inherently
partial and non-neutral, that it always has been motivated by the interests
of strong states, who are inevitably the assistance providers, and that it
often exacerbates and prolongs conflict. Those who maintain this perspective
point to three related characteristics of both humanitarianism as it is currently
practiced: authorization always comes from the most powerful states in the
international system; those states inevitably link humanitarian assistance
to state interests; and in the current international political order, states
are ill-equipped to serve as moral agents, regardless of intent.
Key normative dilemmas include questions of authority or authorization,
selectivity, and the absence of a general doctrine. These problems, of course,
are frequently related. Authorization to intervene and a general doctrine
spelling out the guidelines, protocols, and procedures of humanitarian intervention
necessarily proceed from a recognized authority. The UN Security Council’s
mandate to authorize intervention does not preclude these problems, since
Security Council authorization reinforces the inevitable influence of the
body’s permanent members.
Yet an equally compelling counterargument to these criticisms is the position
that not intervening for any of the reasons identified above
can be equally morally unacceptable.
 Rather, agreement on such shared fundamental principles as the
sanctity of human life and the abhorrence of life-threatening disasters should
form the basis of intervention on strictly humanitarian grounds.
These debates are not limited to humanitarian assistance that is preceded
by military intervention, but also are present with respect to humanitarian
assistance that is permitted, even welcomed, by the recipient. Still others,
however, while accepting the premise that all humanitarian aid is inherently
political, nevertheless question whether this characteristic is synonymous
with causing harm. As one scholar/practitioner has stated, “If there is moral
ambiguity in providing aid, there is also moral ambiguity in providing no
Another dimension to the debate is the possible absolution of responsibility
it affords perpetrators of injustice. Rendering assistance may alter undesirable
conditions, but it also can remove from those who created those conditions
the responsibility for changing them. One question that follows is, which
political action is preferable, especially if, as has been the case with many
civil conflicts, those responsible for creating unjust and unacceptable conditions
are not likely to be brought to justice until multitudes have died? If any
or all of these multitudes could have been saved, would their lives be deemed
more important than the risk of non-accountability?
Having presented the five types of learning—political, operational, relational,
contextual, and normative, this paper now turns to the inputs and outputs
of the framework by identifying examples of each learning type vis-à-vis
a series of crises or issues, the nature of diverse learning occurring with
the IGO during that time. The next paragraphs explain the selection of inputs
and outputs, namely changes in mandate, changes in resource allocations, and
Inputs and Outputs
This organizational learning framework employs mandate change, resource
allocation, and evaluations as both inputs and outputs. Mandate change
both drives and results from learning. The decision to alter an organization’s
mandate leads to the quest for how those changes can best be implemented.
At the same time, mandate change can also be an outcome of learning, when
hindsight leads to re-appraisal not only of performance, but to the very foundations
of an organization’s responsibilities. Resource allocation influences learning,
because it provides the template for what is deemed feasible. It becomes
an output of learning when lessons learned include recognition of the need
to shift resources from one area to another. Finally, evaluations are inputs,
in that they guide future performance. Even if recommendations are not explicitly
followed, the presence of an evaluation casts its shadow; and evaluations
as outputs of learning are probably the most familiar variable. Evaluations,
especially internal evaluations and solicited external evaluations, are the
clearest indicators of attempts to learn from the past. (Unsolicited evaluations
provide tools for learning but do not necessarily signify the organization’s
desire to learn.) Therefore, organizational evaluation is an output of attempted
learning. At the same time, evaluations of past activities also shape decisions
about future behavior, thus making evaluations inputs to learning as well.
Furthermore, designating evaluations as both an input and an output allows
for analysis of the evaluations themselves. This is critical to an understanding
of the degree of each learning type that is present within the organizations
being studied. Evaluations that emphasize the need for better coordination
without addressing the reasons for lack of coordination in the first place
may reveal signs of increased operational learning but little or no contextual,
political, or relational learning. Evaluations that malign an organization’s
reticence to act in response to a crisis may show high normative learning
but a lack of operational or contextual learning. Therefore, evaluations
as an output may be indicators of incomplete learning, and evaluations as
an input may be indicators of inadequate learning tools.
Evaluations are themselves the outcome of a perceived or recognized need
to gauge performance in the light of expectation and reputation. The recent
past casts a long shadow, while the distant past is recalled only sporadically.
More specifically, both the recent and distant past, when used as points of
reference for a comparison, are value-laden. Why did this year’s operation
not work as effectively as last year’s? Do this year’s failures signal an
overall organizational decline from the (assumed or apparent) exemplary performances
of five or ten years ago? Conversely, positive performances, on the other
hand, act as a compass for the future to ensure the replication of success.
In summary, expectation and reputation are traditional key components of
evaluations, yet ironically rarely is either clearly defined, either prior
to performance or during evaluation. Rather, two key aspects of expectation
are assumed. First, observers assume that the IGO will follow its mandate,
that is, that its leaders will determine appropriate courses of action according
to the organization’s stated responsibilities, authority, and limits. A change
in mandate would precede any decision to undertake activities external to
the existing mandate. Second, terms of performance effectiveness or success
are implicit in expectation, but quantification of terms ironically may follow
performance, e.g. how many lives were saved is measured against how
Identifying Learning Types through Analysis of Inputs and Outputs
Identifying the various learning types through the inputs and outputs of
changes in mandate, resource allocations, and evaluations is a difficult but
essential task. Not every input/output will reflect every learning type;
rather, certain learning types are likely to surface in mandate change, while
others will be reflected in resource allocations or evaluations. Mandate
change, especially mandate expansion, is likely to embody stronger elements
of normative learning. The decision to restrict an IGO’s mandate, however,
could be indicative of political, operational, contextual, or relational learning,
due to recognition of bureaucratic and leadership constraints, capacity limitations,
the realities of a given crisis, or the responsibilities already entrusted
to another organization.
Changes in resource allocation usually will reflect the other four types
more than normative learning, because resource allocations are the means by
which mandates are realized. In other words, normative learning, found in
mandate change, addresses organizational responsibilities; political, operational,
contextual, and relational learning, reflected in resource allocations, address
the means and the extent to which those responsibilities are carried out.
Possible Hypotheses Derived from
the Diverse Learning Types Framework
The learning framework presented in the preceding pages yields several possible
hypotheses that can be tested using case studies of humanitarian IGOs’ work
in the field.
First, in the face of emerging norms, operational learning accelerates, as
the desire to respond to those norms prompts organizations to seek ways to
act. Second, as normative learning and operational learning drive each other
forward, contextual learning becomes obscured.
Third, organizations with narrow mandates are likely to be more attentive
to contextual learning when the context is familiar. This can be attributed
to the fact that organizations with narrowly defined mandates are more likely
to generalize their plans. It is also somewhat paradoxical, in that one would
think an unfamiliar context would draw more attention. This paradox can be
explained by cognitive dissonance. In order to deal with an unfamiliar situation,
an organization with a narrow mandate may cope by avoiding full attention
to the reality. Fourth, an organization with a broad mandate, such
as UNDP, will be more attentive to context, because of the diverse components
required to fulfill its mandate. Fifth, relational learning occurs
rarely, and when it does occur, it does so predictably when one organization
alters its mandate and undertakes responsibilities traditionally entrusted
to another organization.
Summary and Conclusions
Beginning with the assertion that, despite intense criticism and some performance
failures, humanitarian IGOs have learned and continue to learn from their
responses to the conflicts of the first post-Cold War decade. Understanding
this learning process requires an analytical framework that accounts for different
types of learning, with a particular focus on what the IGO is learning
and what it expects and is expected to learn. Since these diverse types—political,
operational, contextual, relational, and normative—do not always complement
each other, an organization may appear not to learn from past experience when
in fact learning is taking place. Of the five types presented, normative
learning, which has been so prevalent in much of the humanitarian work of
the past decade, can complicate the learning process by challenging organizations
beyond their capabilities and beyond the feasibility as defined by the context
of the crisis. Exacerbating this complexity is the fact that to date scholars
of norm theory have yet to determine why either states or organizations choose
some norms over others. This uncertainty with respect to norm selection obscures
understanding of organizational learning. This learning framework presents
norm periodization, norm ambiguity, and norm conflict as characteristics that
shape norm selection in the normative learning process.
The identification of learning through examination of mandate change, changes
in resource allocations, and evaluations as both inputs and outputs enables
a greater comprehension of the types and degrees of learning taking place.
Hypotheses derived from this analysis can subsequently be tested with case
studies of humanitarian IGOs’ work in conflict and post-conflict situations.
1] An earlier version of this draft was presented at the Central and East European
International Studies Association/ International Studies Association’s International
Convention on “Global Tensions and Their Challenges to Governance of the International
Community,” June 26-28, 2003, at Central European University in Budapest, Hungary.
I wish to acknowledge valuable comments on previous drafts from Prof. George
Andreopoulos and Prof. Thomas G. Weiss at the Graduate Center of The City University
of New York
2] Due to its explicitly humanitarian relief mandate and the controversy
surrounding much emergency aid initiated by UNHCR in post-Cold War conflicts,
this paper singles out UNHCR more than other UN bodies involved in humanitarian
work.. Nevertheless, the learning framework is designed for application to
these other UN bodies as well. Regarding the term “complex emergency,” Medecins
sans Frontiers Research Director Fiona Terry is among those who have challenged
its extensive use on the premise that it obscures the roots of crises that
need to be addressed. In her words: “Changes in the post-Cold War period
are overemphasized as an explanation for the difficulties that humanitarian
actors face today, and in spite of attempts to construct typologies of ‘complex
emergencies,’ the term blurs rather than illuminates the contemporary context.
It confuses the specificities of war, famine, epidemics, droughts, population
displacement, massacres, and genocide, and renders irrelevant the precedents
from the ‘simple’ past. One observer recently remarked that the vogue for
labeling crises ‘complex emergencies’ is a means to conceal ‘that one does
not know what is going on.’ (Terry’s citation from Gwyn Prins, “Modern Warfare
and Humanitarian Action,” final report from ECHO-ICRC seminar “Humanitarian
Action: Perceptions and Security,” p. 13). But, what is more insidious,
the term actually distorts understanding, making no distinction among causes
of suffering, instead defining a crisis in terms of the required ‘multifaceted
response.’ The causes of most crises are political; some consequences may
be humanitarian. But labeling them ‘complex emergencies’ and ‘humanitarian
crises’ disconnects the consequences from the causes and permits the international
response to be assigned—and confined—to the humanitarian domain.” Regarding
the typologies she references above, Terry cites Raimo Vayrynen (1997) The
Age of Humanitarian Emergencies. Helsinki: World Institute for Development
Economics Research, United Nations University; and Lionel Cliffe and Robin
Luckman (1999) “Complex Political Emergencies and the State: Failure and the
Fate of the State,” Third World Quarterly 20, No. 1, 27-50.
3] In this paper, the term “intergovernmental organization” refers to an
organization within the UN system. The research carried out in conjunction
with this paper has focused on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
(UNHCR) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP); however, the
learning framework presented is applicable to other IGOs engaged in humanitarian
work, e.g., the World Health Organization (WHO) or the United Nations
International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF).
4] Well-known examples of this type of analysis have been carried out by
Ernst and Peter M. Haas. See, for example, Ernst Haas (1991) When Knowledge
is Power: Three Models of Change in International Organizations. Berkeley:
University of California Press; Peter M. Haas (1990) Saving the Mediterranean;
The Politics of International Environmental Cooperation. New York:
Columbia University Press; Peter M. Haas, ed. (1997) Knowledge, Power,
and International Policy Coordination. Columbia: University of South
Carolina Press. See also E. Haas and P. Haas (1995) “Learning to Learn” Global
Governance, Vol. 1, No. 3.
5] Established in 1997, ALNAP is an international,
interagency forum “dedicated to improving the quality and accountability of
humanitarian action, by sharing lessons; identifying common problems; and,
where applicable, building consensus on approaches.” See http://www.alnap.org.
6] Key representative works of this genre include Peter Senge (1990) The
Fifth Discipline: the Art and Practice of the Learning Organization.
New York: Doubleday/ Currency. Senge’s book popularized the concept of organizational
learning; successive seminal works include C. Argyris and Donald Schon (1996)
Organizational Learning II: Theory, Method, and Practice. Reading, MA;
Addison-Wesley; J. Denton (1998) Organizational Learning and Effectiveness.
London: Routledge; and M. Pearn, C. Mulrooney, and T. Payne (1998) Ending
the Blame Culture. Aldershot: Gower Publishing, Ltd., among many others.
For a synopsis of these and other works’ central arguments, see John Borton
and Kate Robertson, eds. (2002) Humanitarian Action: Improving Performance
through Improved Learning. ALNAP Annual Review 2002, Chapter 2, pp. 24-36.
7] ALNAP highlights three papers explicitly devoted to analysis of organizational
learning in the humanitarian sector. These are: Koenraad Van Brabant (1997)
“Organizational and Institutional Learning in the Humanitarian Sector: Opening
the Dialogue. London: Overseas Development Institute/ ALNAP; Larry Minear
(1998) “Learning to Learn: Discussion Paper Prepared for a Seminar on Lessons
Learned in Humanitarian Coordination.” Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian
Affairs (OCHA) and The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Sweden,
Stockholm, April 3-4. http://hwproject.tufts.edu/publications/electronic/e___ltl.pdf.;
and Astra Suhrke (2000) “From One Crisis to Another:
Organisational Learning in UNHCR,” in Jerker Carlsson and Lennart Wohlgemuth,
eds. Learning in Development Cooperation. Stockholm: Almqvist
and Wiksell International. See John Borton and Kate Robertson, eds. (2002)
Humanitarian Action: Improving Performance through Improved Learning.
ALNAP Annual Review 2002, Chapter 2, pp. 19-20.
8] Astra Surkhe, whose analysis of learning in UNHCR is addressed in this
chapter, notes this distinction. See Astra Suhrke (2000) “From One Crisis
to Another: Organisational Learning in UNHCR,” in Jerker Carlsson and Lennart
Wohlgemuth, eds. Learning in Development Cooperation. Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell International.
ALNAP has defined learning as follows: “For the purpose of identifying effective
learning mechanisms for the Humanitarian Sector, learning is taken to be the
process of disciplining the mind to search for relevant data to support particular
actions in particular contexts. Responsibility for learning rests with
the individual and responsibility for providing a learning environment with
the organisation. Effectively managed knowledge is the cornerstone of all
learning activities and systems.” See ALNAP Annual Review 2002, p.
9] This expanded definition is methodologically complicated, for immediately
the question arises, how does one measure or assess learning without evidence
supplied by application? The author of this paper readily acknowledges this
complication. Nevertheless, expanding in this way the definition of learning
is important when considering the conflicts and contradictions among the learning
types presented, as well as when considering obstacles, especially external
obstacles to an organization’s being able to apply what it has learned. In
other words, expansion of the definition should enable the analyst to distinguish
between failure to learn and inability to apply what has been learned. Making
this definition operational is in development with the author’s ongoing and
10] The term “knowledge” in itself can be problematic, in that it is not
necessarily clear whether knowledge refers only to information, or also to
principles, values, or skills. This study adheres to ALNAP’s distinction
among data, knowledge, and information, stated as follows: “ . . . data
are discrete, unorganized facts, information is data that is organized into
groups or categories and is able to alter the way a person perceives something;
knowledge is familiarity, awareness or understanding gained through experience
or study.” ALNAP Annual Review 2002, p. 31.
11] For a key example of the social constructivist
approach to analyzing norms and norms and national interest, see Martha Finnemore
(1996) National Interests in International Society. Ithaca: Cornell
12] For just a few of the many examples of such analyses from the fields
of foreign policy, public policy, and political psychology, sees Alexander
George (1993), Bridging the Gap: Theory and Practice in Foreign Policy.
Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press. John D. Steinbruner
(1974) The Cybernetic Theory of Decision. New Dimensions of Political
Analysis. Princeton: Princeton University Press; See Deborah Stone
(1997, 2001) Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision Making.
New York: W.W. Norton. See also James Q. Wilson (1995) Political Organizations.
Princeton: Princeton University Press, and Graham T. Allison (1971) Essence
of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. Boston: Little, Brown,
and Company. These seminal works address the organizational behavior of the
U.S. government, and thus have limited
applicability to IGOs. Nevertheless, certain conclusions apply, such as reliance
on standard operating procedures or bureaucratic politics (Allison) or the
inevitable and ultimate quest of organizations to surv ive (Wilson).
13] Irving Janis (1972) Victims of Groupthink. Boston: Houghton Mifflin,
and Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes.
Second edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982.
14] Deborah Stone (1997, 2000) Policy Paradox: The
Art of Political Reason. New York: W. W. Norton and Alexander George
(1993) Bridging the Gap. Washington, DC: United States Institute of
15] See for example, Peter J. Fromuth, ed. (1988) A Successor Vision:
The United Nations of Tomorrow. United Nations Association/U.S.A. Lanham:
University Press of America.
16] Fromuth, A Successor Vision.
17] Gil Loescher (2001) The UNHCR and World Politics: A Perilous Path.
Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, p. 1.
18] See Astri Suhrke (2000) “From One Crisis to Another: Organisational
Learning in UNHCR,” in Jerker Carlsson and Lennart Wohlgemuth, eds. Learning
in Development Cooperation. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International,
19] To extend the explanation, states also embody domestic
structures, such as political institutions, which act as agents in shaping
the foreign policies of states, including decisions on whether and how much
to contribute to UN humanitarian and development efforts. This domestic influence
will not be addressed here, but warrants mentioning to underscore the agent-structure
20] Co-author of Early Warning and Conflict Management, Vol. 2 of
the Joint Evaluation of International Emergency Assistance to Rwanda,
1996, and principal author and project leader of the Kosovo Refugee Crisis:
An Independent Evaluation of UNHCR’s Preparedness and Emergency Response,
21] Levy, Spring 1994, p. 283, cited in Suhrke.
22] Suhrke notes the contrast between Levy’s definition,
which she considers more useful for her analysis, to that of Ernst Haas.
The latter differentiates between more transformational learning and adaptation,
which he defines as change of activity “’without examining the implicit theories
underlying their program.’”
23] Suhrke, p. 70.
24} See, for example, John J. Mearsheimer (2001) The Tragedy of Great
Power Politics. New York: W.W. Norton. Mearsheimer
presents a theory of offensive realism as an explanation for the failure of
the Soviet Union’s collapse to foster more multilaterial
security measures. Mearsheimer draws from Morgenthau’s
traditional realist argument that states seek to maximize power; however,
unlike traditional realists, Mearsheimer attributes the drive for power not to the innate
characteristics of human nature but, as Waltz argued decades ago, the need
for states to survive.
25] For an in-depth analysis of this development, see Warren P. Strobel
(1997) Late-Breaking Foreign Policy: The News Media’s Influence on Peace
Operations. Washington DC: United States Institute of Peace Press.
26] Strobel notes: “The view that the news media’s influence has usurped
the traditional function of government policymakers was perhaps stated most
starkly by the dean of American diplomacy, George F. Kennan.
“Some use it [the CNN effect] to describe the ‘diplomatic
ping-pong match’ that occurs when world leaders use the network to send messages
to one another during an international crisis such as the Persian Gulf War.
Others use it to describe the shrinkage of the time in which foreign policy
officials must respond to world events that are nearly instantaneously displayed
on their, and many others’, television screens.
“A much narrower definition of the CNN effect,
one that is implicit in Kennan’s diary entry, describes it as a loss of
policy control on the part of government officials supposedly charged
with making that policy. This definition asks whether there is an independent
effect on the foreign-policymaking process by media such as CNN, which virtually
wrest control from policymakers, who in turn can do little or nothing about
In his book, The Limits of Humanitarian
Intervention: Genocide in Rwanda, Alan Kuperman notes the impact of media
exaggeration and resulting distortion of crises:
“Indeed, partly as a result of the media’s failure
to report the Rwandan genocide in a timely fashion, the media now suffers
from exactly the opposite problem: the exaggeration of atrocities and premature
characterization of civil violence as genocide. Rebels and human rights groups
learned from Rwanda that they must
declare “genocide” to have any hope of Western intervention. Because the
press does not want to get caught napping again, it reports such claims even
when it cannot confirm them.” Alan J. Kuperman (2001) The Limits of Humanitarian
Intervention: Genocide in Rwanda.
Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, p. 112.
27] Strobel, p. 99.
28] See, for example, Larry Minear (2001) The Humanitarian Enterprise.
Washington: United States Institute of Peace Press.
29] See Mary Kaldor (1999) New and Old Wars:
Organized Violence in a Global Era. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
30] These efforts include both the Brookings Initiative of the mid-1990s
and subsequent efforts by humanitarian and development organizations. See
Jeff Crisp (2001) “Mind the Gap! UNHCR, Humanitarian Assistance and the Development
Process,” The Journal of Humanitarian Assistance, Working Paper No.
31] Crisp, “Mind the Gap,”. and telephone interview with Joung-ah Ghedini,
UNHCR Washington Office, August 1, 2003.
32] Carola Weil defines normative learning as “the adoption of
specific principled frames of reference for public policy.” This author’s
definition, while similar, includes acquisition of knowledge without necessarily
the application to policy, hence coinciding with the more inclusive, albeit
more methodologically complicated definition of learning noted at the beginning
of the article. See Carola Weil, “Lessons Not Learned
or the Wrong Lessons Learned in Humanitarian Crises and International Protection.”
Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association,
Philadelphia, PA, August 27-31, 2003.
33] This study draws upon existing analysis of norm influence and norm contention,
which comprise three categories. The first examines the influence on individual
states’ foreign policy behavior of norms held by political leaders at the
state level. The second analyzes the influence of international norms in
areas such as human rights. The third focuses on the tension between international
norms and the organizational culture of UN bureaucracies. For key examples
of each of these categories, see respectively: Ward Thomas (2001) The
Ethics of Destruction. Ithaca: Cornell University Press; Kathryn Sikkink,
Thomas Risse, and Stephen C. Ropp, eds. (1999) The Power of Human Rights:
International Norms and Domestic Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press; and Michael Barnett (2002) Eyewitness to a Genocide: The United
Nations and Rwanda. Ithaca:
Cornell University Press.
34] Martha Finnemore (1996) National Interests in International Society.
Ithaca: Cornell University Press and Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink
(1998) “International Norm Dynamics and Political Change” International
Organization, Vol. 52, No. 4, pp. 887-917.
35] Ann Marie Clark (2001), Diplomacy of Conscience: Amnesty International
and Changing Human Rights Norms. Princeton: Princeton University Press,
36] Clark, pp. 26-27
37] Clark, p. 27.
38] Clark, p. 27.
39] Clark, p. 29.
40] Clark, p. 29…
41] Clark, p. 30.
42] Judith Goldstein and Robert Keohane, “Ideas and Foreign Policy: An Analytical
Framework,” in Judith Goldstein and Robert Keohane, eds, Ideas and Beliefs,
Institutions, Foreign Policy, and Political Change. Ithaca: Cornell University
Press, 1993, p. 3.
43] Goldstein and Keohane, “Ideas and Foreign Policy,” pp. 7-8.
44] Goldstein and Keohane, p. 8.
45] Goldstein and Keohane, p. 9.
46] Goldstein and Keohane, p. 9.
47] Goldstein and Keohane explain that “principled beliefs mediate between
world views and particular policy conclusions, they translate fundamental
doctrines into guidance for contemporary human action.”They use the example
of slavery to illustrate this relationship between world views and principled
48] Goldstein and Keohane. p. 10.
49] Goldstein and Keohane. The authors point to both efforts to curb the
greenhouse effect and successive revolutions in Eastern Europe to illustrate
the role of expertise in causal beliefs. In the case of the latter, the successes
of the Hungarian and Polish revolutions provided blueprints for the people
of the former East Germany and Czechoslovakia.
The example of the greenhouse effect is congruent with literature on epistemic
communities previously noted.
50] Goldstein and Keohane, p. 12.
51] Goldstein and Keohane, p. 12.
52] See peter M. Haas, ed, Knowledge, Power, and International Policy
53] The aforementioned scholars do not deny this statement…
For example, in a recent interview Ernst Haas noted “They [epistemic communities]
only operate in fields of policy where science matters. In the field of human
rights, forget it. There are no epistemic communities.” Interview with Ernst
Haas by Harry Kreisler, “Science and Progress in International Relations,”,
“Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, University
of California-Berkeley, October 30, 2000.
54] Ernst Haas (1991) When Knowledge Is Power.
55] The first United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNISOM I) and the multilateral
Unified Task Force (UNITAF), launched in late 1992 on humanitarian grounds,
were replaced in May 1993 by UNOSOM II, whose mandate (unlike that of UNITAF)
explicitly included disarmament, the establishment of a police force, and
national reconciliation measures. The UN Security Council terminated UNISOM
II in November 1994, following U.S. President Clinton’s decision to withdraw
U.S. troops. Thus the norm justifying
intervention on humanitarian grounds waxed then waned in strength, with the
principle of non-intervention ultimately taking precedence.
56] The term “Somalia Syndrome” had become commonplace in international
humanitarian parlance. Among the many examples of works examining the influence
of the Somalia episode on subsequent
humanitarian assistance operations are Andrew Purvis (2000), The Somalia
Syndrome and Thomas Weiss (1995), “Overcoming the Somalia Syndrome” Global
Governance, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp 171-187. Alan Kuperman has noted:
“. . . when the international community pressures civil war combatants to
sign a peace agreement that leaves one or both sides vulnerable, the only
way to insure against a renewal of violence is to deploy a robust peace enforcement
mission preventively. In Rwanda such a mission might have been deployed successfully
immediately after the signing of the Arusha accords in August 1993, or even
perhaps as late as February 1994, when Belgium urged the UN Security Council
to beef up the manpower and mandate of the existing small, lightly armed peacekeeping
mission. However, in the wake of the Somalia
debacle of October 1993, the United States
and United Kingdom
blocked all attempts to deploy an enforcement mission to Rwanda.”
57] Report of the Secretary-General pursuant to the statement adopted by
the Summit Meeting of the Security Council on 31 January 1992, An Agenda
for Peace: Preventive Diplomacy, Peacemaking, and Peacekeeping. A/47-277-S/24111,
17 June 1992.
58] Agenda for Peace, p. 1, paras. 2 and 3.
59] Agenda for Peace. p. 3, para. 17.
60] Agenda for Peace, p. 3, para. 17.
61] United Nations (1995) Report of the Secretary-General on the Work
of the Organization. Supplement to an Agenda for Peace: Position Paper of
the Secretary-General on the Occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the United
Nations. A/50/60 – S/1995/1. New York. http://www.un.org/Docs/SG/agsupp.html.
62] Supplement, p. 2, para. 5.
63] Supplement, p. 2, para. 6.
64] Supplement, p. 4, para. 12.
65] Supplement, p. 5, para. 18.
66] Supplement, p. 6, para. 22.
67] See Francis M. Deng (1996) et al., Sovereignty as Responsibility:
Conflict Management in Africa. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution
68] The issue of the death penalty presents a partial exception; however,
the current direction of international human rights discourse is toward its
eventual abolition worldwide.
69] See International Committee of the Red Cross website, http://www.icrc.org.
70] These traditional debates over humanitarian intervention are presented
in Richard B. Lillich, ed. (1973) Humanitarian Intervention and the United
Nations. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press and Sean D. Murphy
(1996) Humanitarian Intervention: The United Nations in an Evolving World
Order. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. For analyses
of post-Cold War humanitarian intervention, see Alain Destexhe, “Humanitarian
Neutrality: Myth or Reality?” in Kevin M. Cahill. Ed. (1996) Preventive
Diplomacy: Stopping Wars Before They Start. New York: HarperCollins 201-218;
Jan Nederveen Pieterse (1997) “Sociology of Humanitarian Intervention: Bosnia,
Rwanda, and Somalia Compared,” International Political Science Review,
Vol. 18, No. 1, 71-93; Nicholas J. Wheeler (1997) “Agony, Humanitarianism,
and Intervention,” International Political Science Review, Vol. 18,
No. 1, 9-25.
71] See, for example, Simon Caney , “Human Rights and the Rights of States:
Terry Nardin on Nonintervention.” International Political Science Review,
Vol. 18, No. 1, 27-37.
72] Mary Anderson, “You Save My Life Today, but for
What Tomorrow? Some Moral Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid,” in Jonathan Moore,
ed. (1999) Hard Choices, New York: Rowman and Littlefield, p. 138.