When Donald Trump took to Twitter at 5.37pm on January 2 this year, something millions of Palestinians and thousands of United Nations Relief and Works Agency staff had feared moved a step closer. Trump railed against how the US pays Palestinians "HUNDRED [sic] OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect … why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?"
It was well after midnight in Gaza and Amman, Unrwa's co-headquarters, when Trump's proclamation came through. The days that followed were filled with unease, although the agency made no comment suggesting this.
Within two weeks, however, Unrwa's fears were realised: the US state department announced it was withholding US$65 million (Dh239m) of a $125m payment package and that further immediate funding depended on agency "reforms". With that, the door to 30 per cent of the agency's annual funding slammed shut. The move, Unrwa's Commissioner General Pierre Krahenbuhl said then, "results in the most critical financial situation" in the history of the agency. Dozens of teachers in the Occupied West Bank and about 100 camp workers in Jordan lost their jobs.
Unrwa’s campaigns and strategy staffers knew that to keep open its schools and hospitals, funding would have to be found from somewhere, and quickly. “At stake,” Unrwa said, “is access to basic education for 525,000 boys and girls at over 700 Unrwa schools; access to primary health care for three million refugees”.
The Dignity Is Priceless campaign was soon unveiled with the goal of raising $500m. It has attracted support from celebrities such as Hanif Kureishi, Will Self, Ken Loach, Hugh Grant, Gary Lineker, Tilda Swinton and others.
Unrwa's social media arms have been campaigning hard, and across the Occupied Palestinian Territories the efforts have been enhanced by the participation of thousands of children.
“Its main objective is to open new funding pathways,” says Abdi Aynte, director of planning at Unrwa. “A primary focus of #DiP [Dignity Is Priceless] is the broad spectrum of private giving. In that regard, we are engaging the private sector in our target countries.” Unrwa’s recently-approved eligibility for zakat has made it hopeful that contributions from private donors will contribute to the campaign.
As well as fundraising, the campaign is serving as a forum for Palestinians to present their dignity in the face of such a major crisis. It features a student standing outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem imploring Pope Francis to “support our quest to preserve education”, and the unlikely story of a Syrian-Palestinian refugee from Yarmouk camp in Damascus thanking Unrwa for helping her escape the war to begin a new life in France.
While emergencies have been a constant for Unrwa, the UN's largest agency, today it faces the biggest financial crisis in its 70-year history. Conflicts in Syria, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the enormous plight of Myanmar's Rohingya have swallowed up government aid budgets. The UK's international development secretary has gone so far as to predicted that this year will be the worst for humanitarian crises since the Second World War.
And while the Belgian and Dutch governments stepped into the breach to make up $37m of the shortfall created by Washington in January, the agency's deficit for 2018 stands at $446m.
Unrwa is a soft target for its critics. It has an apolitical mandate to operate in one of the most highly-charged political environments on the planet. In the days between Trump's Twitter tirade and the official announcement that funding would stop, the Jerusalem Post ran an editorial titled Shut Down Unrwa in which it claimed, among other wrongs, the agency "perpetuates a culture of entitlement".
The US state department spokeswoman Heather Nauert has fumbled at justifications. "It has long been a concern of this administration, a year into the administration, about Unrwa and how it handles itself and how it manages its money," she said in January. Neither she nor the White House has since outlined specific reforms the US seeks.
“Unrwa has been reaching out behind the scenes to Washington to try to work out what they can do to address American concerns,” says Rex Brynen of McGill University in Montreal, who has written widely on Unrwa. “The problem, of course, is that the Trump administration took the decision to cut Unrwa financing in a fit of annoyance with the Palestine Authority, and has no real justification to offer or issues that it would like Unrwa to address. It claims the need for unspecified ‘reforms’ but no one, including the State Department, knows what these are.”
While the agency is far from perfect, the degree to which it is embedded in refugees’ everyday lives is significant. It provides services ranging from cancer treatment to refuse collection and water management.
The large number of donors it works with means staff must negotiate a multitude of conditions and expectations in how it supports Palestinians, often with armed militant groups lurking in camp shadows. It is also responsible for planning and carrying out major reconstruction projects, such as the Nahr Al Bared camp in Tripoli, Lebanon.
Moreover, that Unrwa provides such a broad range of services in addition to employing about 30,000 Palestinians means that for many, funding shortages are doubly felt. And because the US is Unrwa's biggest donor, its loss will be felt more than any other.
The vast sums at stake and risks to the wellbeing of millions of lives speaks to a broader question about aid contributions in the 21st century. Why do people donate money to causes far from their comfortable lives? Is the model of appealing to people’s charity to part with $10, $20 or $50 not completely outdated?
The emergence of platforms such as JustGiving and GoFundMe have, for a new generation, opened a path to help those less fortunate, but the message has remained largely the same.
"People want to help other people – it's one of the most reliable findings in behavioural economics," says Michael Sanders, chief scientist at the Behavioural Insights Team in London. "We respond to salience, and overseas aid is often very salient, focusing on disasters – either natural or human driven. Second, we respond to an identifiable victim – a single, prominent person being helped who forms a focal point for our empathy. Overseas aid campaigns again do a great deal of this."
Although experts say there is little empirical evidence of wider donor fatigue, the success of Unrwa's seven-week-old Dignity Is Priceless campaign is far from assured. Before an emergency donor conference in Rome on Thursday to raise money for the UN agency, reports suggest a mere $900,000, donated by Kuwait, had been raised. And crucially, the $37m Belgium and the Netherlands pledged to Unrwa in January was not new money, rather a commitment to provide funding earlier than planned, meaning these countries have used their allocated commitments months or even years ahead of schedule.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres was pleased with the $100m pledged in Rome: “I don’t recall many conferences in my long career, where such a unanimous support was given to one institution.”
But that sum only gets Unrwa to mid-summer. Then what?