More than $100m shortfall in aid pledges for UN's Palestinian refugee agency

UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini says cost-cutting no longer an option to maintain health, education and other services

Palestinians collect food aid at a distribution centre run by United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Gaza city. AFP
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Donors have pledged about $160 million for the UN agency helping Palestinian refugees, but it still needs more than $100 million to support education for more than half a million children and provide primary health care for close to two million people, plus emergency cash assistance, the agency’s chief said.

Briefing reporters on the outcome of a donor conference on Thursday, Philippe Lazzarini said the pledges when turned into cash will enable the UN Relief and Works Agency to run its operations until September. But “I do not know if we will get the necessary cash to allow us to pay the salaries after the month of September,” he said.

“We are in an early warning mode,” Mr Lazzarini said. “Right now, I’m drawing the attention that we are in a danger zone and we have to avoid a situation where UNRWA is pushed to cross the tipping point, because if we cross the tipping point that means 28,000 teachers, health workers, nurses, doctors, engineers, cannot be paid.”

Quote
We are in a danger zone and we have to avoid a situation where UNRWA is pushed to cross the tipping point, because if we cross the tipping point that means 28,000 teachers, health workers, nurses, doctors, engineers, cannot be paid
Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA commissioner general

UNRWA was established to provide education, health care, food and other services to the 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes during the war surrounding Israel’s establishment in 1948.

There are now 5.7 million Palestinian refugees, including their children and grandchildren, who mostly live in camps that have been transformed into built-up but often impoverished residential areas in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, as well as in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. But UNRWA only helps the more than 500,000 in school and close to two million who have health benefits.

Mr Lazzarini said the more than $100m shortfall in funding for 2022 was about the same as the shortfall that UNRWA had faced every year for almost a decade, but while income has stagnated costs have increased.

In past years, UNRWA has been able to absorb the shortfall through austerity and cost control measures, he said, but that was not possible now because there was very little left to cut without impacting services.

Philippe Lazzarini said the UN agency for Palestine refugees might be forced to cut services later this year without additional funding. EPA

“Today, we have some classrooms with up to 50 kids,” the UNRWA commissioner general said. “We have a double shift in our schools. We have doctors who cannot spend more than three minutes in medical consultation. So if we go beyond that, it will force the agency to cut services.”

Mr Lazzarini said UNRWA’s problem was that “we are expected to provide government-like services to one of the most destitute communities in the region, but we are funded like an NGO because we depend completely on voluntary contributions”.

Funding the agency’s services has been put at risk because of the “de-prioritisation, or maybe increased indifference, or because of domestic politics”, he said.

Mr Lazzarini said the solution to UNRWA’s chronic financial problem required “political will” to match the support for the agency’s work on behalf of Palestinian refugees.

He said UNRWA has a very strong donor base in Europe and last year the US President Joe Biden's administration resumed funding, which was cut by his predecessor Donald Trump, but the overall contribution from the Arab world had dropped to less than three per cent of the agency’s income.

Donors have also faced financial difficulties stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic, and now there is a major effort to help Ukraine in its war with Russia, he said.

“We will know better at the end of the year how much it will impact the agency,” Mr Lazzarini said.

Some donors have already told UNRWA “that we might not have the traditional top-up at the end of the year, which would be dramatic” for the agency.

Updated: June 25, 2022, 8:12 AM
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