By J Nastranis
NEW YORK (IDN) – Nearly three months after the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in its 2017 Annual Report warned about the deteriorating state of health across the agency’s five areas of operation – Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, Gaza, and Syria – the United States has announced its decision to stop funding the agency, worsening the situation further.
In the absence of a solution to the Palestine refugee problem, the UN General Assembly has repeatedly renewed UNRWA’s mandate, most recently extending it until June 30, 2020.
UNRWA was established by the General Assembly in 1949 to provide assistance and protection to a population of some five million registered Palestine refugees in various countries throughout the Middle East.
The disquieting dimension of the U.S. decision is underlined by the fact that the country has been the largest single donor to UNRWA, providing $368 million in 2016 and funding almost 30 percent of its operations in the region. And, UNRWA has already been faced with chronic funding shortfall.
The United Nations has expressed regrets and called on other countries of the international community to help fill the remaining financial gap. The spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General, Stéphane Dujarric, said in a statement on August 31: “We regret the United States’ decision to provide no further funding to UNRWA, which provides essential services to Palestine refugees and contributes to stability in the region.”
Dujarric also noted that the U.S. has traditionally been the largest single contributor to UNRWA and that the UN appreciates its support over the years.
He added that UNRWA enjoys the full confidence of Secretary-General António Guterres and that the agency’s head, Commissioner General Pierre Krahenbuhl, has led a rapid, innovative and tireless effort to overcome the unexpected financial crisis it has faced this year.
The agency has expanded the donor base, raised considerable new funding, and explored new avenues of support, said Dujarric, noting also that UNRWA took extraordinary internal management measures to increase efficiencies and reduce costs.
“UNRWA has a strong record of providing high-quality education, health and other essential services, often in extremely difficult circumstances, to Palestine refugees who are in great need,” he said.
Profoundly aware of UNRWA’s important role, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas of Germany, which has been elected as non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for 2019-2020, said on August 31 it would boost funding to the beleaguered UNRWA, and called for an international effort to sustain the agency.
“The loss of this organization could unleash an uncontrollable chain reaction,” Reuters reported Maas saying. “We are currently preparing to provide an additional amount of significant funds.”
According to UNRWA, Germany had pledged about $ 76.5 million to UNRWA as of December 31, 2017.
A statement issued at the EU headquarters in Brussels on September 1 said: “The regrettable decision of the U.S. to no longer be part of this international and multilateral effort leaves a substantial gap…We hope that the U.S. can reconsider their decision.”
“The EU is committed to secure the continuation and sustainability of the agency’s work which is vital for stability and security in the region,” the statement emphasized, adding that “many others in the international community, including many Arab states, have pledged their support to the continuity of the work that UNRWA is doing.”
As of December 31, 2017 the EU and EU member states had pledged a total of $ 451 million to UNRWA, the agency’s aid funding chart shows.
The EU spokesperson said the block “will continue to engage with the US” towards the “common goal” of achieving “peace in the Middle East.”
Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, on August 28 urged Middle Eastern nations to increase aid to UNRWA and added that Washington would only resume its aid to the UN agency if it undergoes reforms. Besides, countries of the Middle East as well as others had the responsibility to provide funding.
Already in January, the United States had announced it would cut some of its funding to UNRWA, citing a need to undertake a fundamental re-examination of the organization, both in the way it operates and the way it is funded.
Qatar, Switzerland, New Zealand, Canada, and several other countries have meanwhile promised to increase funding to UNRWA.
The organization has since received pledges of $100 million in additional funding from Qatar, Canada, Switzerland, Turkey, New Zealand, Norway, Korea, Mexico, Slovakia, India and France as a means of making up for the aid that was cut by Washington.
UNRWA recently said it had managed to pay salaries and provide some services, but also said there was still a large budget deficit of $256 million.
According to agency reports, Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said it will host a fundraiser at the UN headquarters in New York on September 27 on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly to keep the agency for “Palestinian refugees” afloat.
The U.S. decision also comes nearly two months after a pledging conference on June 25 was convened to address UNRWA’s chronic funding shortfall and also examine long-term priorities – without however finding any solution in the foreseeable future.
“The outstanding work of UNRWA has an immediate effect by meeting the urgent humanitarian needs of millions of Palestine refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria,” Secretary-General said in his opening remarks at the Conference.
“At the same time, this work provides a foundation of hope and dignity – serving as a critical conflict prevention mechanism in a turbulent region and moving our world closer to the promise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to leave no one behind,” he added.
He also lauded the UN agency’s microfinance programmes and its work providing food assistance to 1.7 million refugees, while acknowledging: “All these efforts have taken place in an environment of chronic economic hardship and conflict.”
Guterres expressed deep gratitude to all who have contributed the funding that which has allowed UNRWA to maintain its vital services, noting the agency’s own extraordinary measures to reduce its expenditures by an additional $92 million.
“But these innovative efforts will not be sufficient to fully close the funding shortfall this year,” he said, urging UN Member States to make up the difference.
UNRWA’s vital efforts must not be allowed to falter, he said, stressing that failure comes with a price, namely more hardship for communities; more desperation for the region; and more instability for the world.
“We must do everything possible to ensure that food continues to arrive, that schools remain open and that people do not lose hope,” he said, and noted that closing UNRWA’s funding gap “is a wise investment for today and for the future.”
For his part, UNRWA Commissioner General Pierre Krähenbühl presented a special report on the Agency’s current financial crisis, in which he outlined the dramatic dimensions of the funding shortfall.
He also highlighted resource mobilization efforts under way to address it, including the Dignity Is Priceless campaign, which aims to raise funds from individuals.
June 25 meeting was a milestone for judging the prospects to bridge UNRWA’s budget gap as well as a platform to outline consequences, should a significant shortfall remain. [IDN-InDepthNews – 01 September 2018]
Photo: A Palestine refugee woman receives food assistance at the UNRWA Khan Younis Distribution Centre in Gaza. UNRWA/Tamer Hamam.
IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.
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