Some Thoughts on Donor Funding and the Sustainability of UNRWA Services – Part I

Towards the end of its seventy-third session this past year the UN General Assembly adopted a series of resolutions on Palestinian refugees and displaced persons. Revised and tabled annually, the resolutions address the operations of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), assistance and protection for Palestinians displaced during the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars, and the right of refugees to their properties and revenues derived by the state of Israel therefrom.

Expressing concern about the lack of adequate funding for refugee assistance in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, the Assembly once again

Call[ed] upon all donors to continue to strengthen their efforts to meet the anticipated needs of [UNRWA], including with regard to increased expenditures and needs arising from conflicts and instability in the region and the serious socioeconomic and humanitarian situation, particularly in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and those needs mentioned in recent emergency, recovery and reconstruction appeals and plans for the Gaza Strip and in the regional crisis response plans to address the situation of Palestine refugees in the Syrian Arab Republic and those Palestine refugees who have fled to countries in the region.

While ensuring sufficient, predictable and sustainable funding of UNRWA’s human development, humanitarian assistance and protection programmes has been a persistent challenge over the Agency’s nearly seven decades of operations, as the Working Group on the Financing of UNRWA noted in its most recent report, the scope and scale of the challenge assumed new proportions last summer when the Trump administration decided to terminate funding of UNRWA operations.

The decision followed an initial suspension at the beginning of 2018 of nearly 85 percent of pledged US contributions for the year which in total comprised around a third of the funds needed to run the Agency’s regular operations providing among others education, health and welfare services for Palestine refugees. The sudden termination left UNRWA with a projected deficit of USD 446 million including a USD 49 million deficit carried over from 2017. Describing 2018 as a “tumultuous year”, Pierre Krähenbühl, the Agency’s Commissioner-General, observed that “[a]t every level and on every front we have been been in crisis mode […] exacerbated by the largest funding shortfall [UNRWA] has every faced”.

This first in a series of commentaries examines the rationale behind the administration’s decision to terminate funding of UNRWA’s human development, humanitarian assistance and protection operations. Part two will explore the potential impact of the decision on Palestine refugees and others eligible to receive Agency services while part three reviews UNRWA efforts to reduce its projected deficit this past year. This is a somewhat round-about way of getting to the central issue of this series of commentaries, namely, UNRWA’s sustainability in the absence of a political solution to the long-running struggle over Palestine/Israel. The fourth and final part offers a few thoughts on ways forward as UNRWA, hosts and donors, as well as refugees themselves, look towards the current fiscal year.

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