UNRWA needs proper funding so it can focus on its work
One of the most thankless tasks in the entire UN system is having to go and rattle the begging bowl in front of international donors. Few agency heads have a tougher challenge in this field than the commissioner-general of the UN Relief and Works Agency, a body created specifically and solely to cater for Palestine refugees after the 1948 Nakba.
In 2021, UNRWA remains operational in five fields — Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It serves 5.7 million refugees, representing 21 percent of the global refugee population. How many US congressmen or European members of parliament would know that, one wonders?
Philippe Lazzarini is the 15th agency head. He is back begging, this time in London. He looks tired and forlorn. While he rattles the tin as hard as any of his predecessors, he is downcast at the chances of saving the agency. UNRWA is facing “a real existential threat,” according to Lazzarini. Typically, he does not know if he can pay salaries at the end of the month.
Is UNRWA worth saving? After 71 years, should this agency be allowed to wither away? The US under Donald Trump infamously pulled funding, although most of that money is now returning. Even historically warm donors such as the UK have cut funding, with London’s contribution dropping from $92.7 million in 2018 to just $39.1 million so far in 2021.
In what feels like a last desperate throw of the dice, Sweden and Jordan are convening a funding conference for UNRWA in Brussels next week. One suspects all it might do is cauterize the wound, not cure the problem.
Perhaps the best way of looking at this is to ask how these host countries would fare if they had to take over UNRWA’s role. The agency fulfills a vital humanitarian function, but in doing so also acts as a stabilizing force in each of its five fields of operation. It is not a typical UN agency but a service provider akin to a state. Who would run the 700-odd schools and teach the 550,000 children in its care?
Let us start with Gaza. How will the donors react when Hamas has to take over UNRWA’s educational role, teaching almost 300,000 students? One rather doubts that the Islamist group would adhere to the agency’s values or push, for example, the human rights, conflict resolution and tolerance program UNRWA has run since 2000. And who would feed the 1 million refugees in Gaza who are dependent on UNRWA food aid?
As for the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority is also enduring a financial crisis so, if UNRWA disappeared, it is hard to imagine how it would be able cope. Does Israel really want to see chaos and disorder on its doorstep? Some Israeli politicians might, but wiser heads want to maintain a degree of calm, as they know that a functioning education and health service for refugees matters.
In Gaza, UNRWA has the additional burden of periodic Israeli bombings flattening areas including refugee camps. Its warnings are ignored. When there is a conflict, it is attacked and elbowed aside, but is then left to pick up the pieces when the bombs and shells stop falling.
Moreover, Israel as the occupying power in both Gaza and the West Bank is directly responsible for the well-being of 5.3 million Palestinians. If the PA and UNRWA collapsed simultaneously, Israel would have to fill in the gaps.
Or would donors like to see the transfer of refugees’ education and health services to the Syrian regime, which is shattered and bankrupt and was responsible for the destruction of whole areas of UNRWA camps over the last 10 years? Should Palestine refugees be left at the mercy of a regime that has targeted schools and hospitals? Here, UNRWA suffers because of the reluctance of donors to fund rehabilitation and reconstruction.
Without UNRWA, what would happen to the 210,000 Palestine refugees struggling to survive in Lebanon? The Lebanese government cannot even keep the electricity running and is on the verge of falling apart. The Lebanese authorities have already imposed inhumane restrictions on Palestine refugees, such as excluding them from 36 different professions. A report this year showed that Palestine refugees in Lebanon are three times more likely to die of COVID-19.
Every cent has to be accounted for at UNRWA, as well as every letter and phrase in every publication. Anti-Palestinian groups jump on the agency at the merest sign of anything being amiss, meaning that UNRWA is possibly the most audited, most scrutinized agency on the planet. Anti-Palestinian groups routinely smear it. Many such organizations just want the refugees to disappear and be subsumed into the populations of host countries, erasing their Palestinian identity.
The recent textbooks nonsense is a classic anti-UNRWA slur. Anti-Palestinian groups claim that there is incitement to hate and anti-Semitism in the agency’s textbooks. Shocking if true, but UNRWA has no textbooks. This is worth repeating, as the lies have circumnavigated the globe hundreds of times — UNRWA has no textbooks. In fact, the agency is not allowed to, according to UN guidelines, as it has to use the textbooks and curricula of host countries. It also cannot alter them, as this is a matter of national sovereignty. Moreover, wild claims by anti-Palestinian groups about PA textbooks were largely disproved by a recent EU-funded academic report, which concluded that, overall, the textbooks adhere to UNESCO standards.
Commissioners-general should no longer have to be beggars, but hands-on leaders in building a future for millions of Palestinian refugees.
Yes, UNRWA should be wrapped up. It is a disgrace that, after seven decades, it is still operational and required. Its continuing existence is a stunning indictment of the international community’s complete and utter failure to resolve the question of Palestine and, specifically, its contempt for the legitimate and inalienable rights of Palestinian refugees.
But given that resolving the conflict is pie-in-the-sky fantasy right now and the peace process has been substituted for an annexation process, the international donor community must dig deep and find a way to allow this first-class agency to go forward without having to rattle the begging bowl every year. This is not a sustainable model. Commissioners-general should no longer have to be beggars, but hands-on leaders in building a future for millions of Palestinian refugees who otherwise do not have one.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). Twitter: @Doylech