Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Difficulty of UNRWA

President Donald Trump recently cut all U.S. funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, known commonly as UNRWA.

According to the official UN website,

UNRWA is mandated by the General Assembly under resolution 302(IV) to respond to the needs of more than 5 million refugees (compared to 750,000 in 1950) in its five fields of operation until a just and durable solution is found to the refugee issue. Based on this mandate, UNRWA delivers essential services in the areas of education, health, protection, relief and social services, microfinance and camp improvement with the support of more than 28,000 national Palestinian staff members.

UNRWA's greatest direct impact is as an employer, primarily in education.  When we speak of Palestinian schools, they are very often in fact UNRWA schools.  UNRWA reports directly to the General Assembly of the UN, not the United Nations High Commission on Refugees - its charter agency for refugees.  UNRWA works in multiple theaters, including Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Gaza and the West Bank/Judea Samaria.  It's single largest expenditure is on its own administration and headquarters, and it is a sprawling bureaucracy in its own right with a total budget of over a half a billion dollars.

As a supporter of the United Nations, diplomacy, international law and the role of the international community to help prevent, respond and mitigate refugee and human rights crises, I have always been skeptical of the unique status afforded UNRWA.  It is not proper to create an agency to institutionalize a particular people or region.  The needs of refugees from the Syrian civil war and the needs of Palestinians living in Gaza are different.  The resources for Palestinians in Jordan are profoundly different from those in Lebanon.  In many ways, the social structures, political environments and goals are not in common.  The only tie that binds is a particular slant in the Israeli Palestinian conflict which continues to delegitimize Israel as a nation, and ignore the complexity of the facts on the ground in the West Bank/Judea Samaria.  

UNRWA has become the primary crutch for educational and social welfare programs in the West Bank/Judea Samaria.  Hundreds of millions of dollars each year from UNRWA frees the Palestinian Authority and Hamas from having to prioritize their resources in those areas.  Hamas in particular has had autonomy in Gaza for years, with nothing but war and hatred to show for it, building its militant and political responses and delegating education and social supports to the UN.

By far, the United States has been the largest contributer to UNRWA, with the entire European Union in second place paying 2/3 as much as the U.S.  The U.S. contribution comprises over 23% of the total budget of the agency.  When President Trump pulls that funding, UNRWA will be under severe pressure.   The logical move, which any other corporation or international agency would do, would be to cut overhead, consolidate resources and build partnerships.  UNRWA should cut its entire independent bureaucracy, move under the UNHCR and establish separate commissions for its areas of operation.  That would easily save the 23+% they are losing, eliminate the privileged status of Palestinians in the world, and focus on what the UNHCR is meant to do: help refugees rather than building state-like institutions of public services.

The good work of UNRWA will not be lost in its more appropriate place under the High Council for Refugees.  And its bloated and biased bureaucracy will be eliminated.  Will they do it?  Of course not.

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