Philippe Lazzarini sets out to fix cash-strapped, crisis-hit UNRWA

Two weeks into job, new head of agency for Palestinian refugees says he has plan to reconnect with donors and beneficiaries

United Nations humanitarian coordinator in Somalia Philippe Lazzarini speaks during a press conference on June 15, 2014 in Mogadishu.  Lazzarini warned that without immediate intervention, Somalia's food security situation is likely to worsen. UN warned on June 10, 2014 that impoverished Somalia risks sliding back into acute crisis less than three years since a devastating famine, amid poor rains, escalating conflict and aid funding shortfalls. AFP PHOTO/MOHAMED ABDIWAHAB (Photo by Mohamed Abdiwahab / AFP)
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The new head of the UN department supporting millions of Palestinian refugees says he plans to use the "overwhelming political support" around the world to save the cash-strapped agency.

In his first English language interview since taking office on April 1, UN Relief and Works Agency Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini told The National that he needed to rebuild trust with donors.

Mr Lazzarini said the agency needed to move past a damaging management crisis, meet the aspirations of Palestinians and help in the fight against coronavirus.

He inherits an agency under a dark cloud after the abrupt departure of his predecessor.

Mr Lazzarini's agency, maligned by the Israeli government as an unnecessary relic, also faces pressure from a White House that has axed hundreds of millions in funding.

The administration of US President Donald Trump has described the agency as "irredeemably flawed", but Mr Lazzarini said he remained optimistic of its future and that ceasing operations was "not an option".

Despite US lobbying, the UN member states overwhelmingly voted at the end of 2019 to extend the mandate of UNRWA for another three years. Only the US and Israel voted against it.

Mr Lazzarini said the support shown during the vote demonstrated that the international community regarded the UNRWA as crucial.

He said the question was whether this support and the renewed mandate matched the resources being made available after the US decision in August 2018 to cut nearly $300 million (Dh11.01 billion) in funding hit the already stretched budget.

"Unfortunately there are too many cash-strapped deadlines, and the next one is at the end of May because we have no visibility anymore beyond," Mr Lazzarini said.

He said these could have a "devastating impact on our activities" but he hoped to have outstanding pledges from donor countries in place before that.

The UNRWA was given a mandate in 1949 to assist Palestinian refugees until a political solution was found.

The agency operates in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, the occupied West Bank, occupied East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

Even before the US froze funds for the UNRWA it was lurching between financial crises and reliant on regular large donations from states.

A crisis of management, reputation and relevance

But the agency has faced an "internal management crisis, reputational issues and the relevancy was also questioned".

Mr Lazzarini's predecessor, Pierre Krahenbuhl, stood down last November amid an investigation into misconduct.

Mr Krahenbuhl denied the claims, saying he and the agency were being politically targeted.

The new UNRWA head admitted the agency had faced a tough year but he said he was working to move past it.

Finding funds

Mr Lazzarini said his role would be to change the relationship between donors and the agency, particularly in Europe where some politicians have questioned its efficiency.

Germany, the EU, the UK and Sweden were the four top donors in 2019.

It's important that it's perceived as this agency focusing and delivering on the right of Palestinian refugees and its services

"We have to bring the necessary confidence back to solidify this partnership that we have," he said.

Mr Lazzarini said the UNRWA had to give donors confidence to continue championing the agency.

His and the agency's role, he said, would be to answer questions over how the money was being used and if it were being spent on tasks the UNRWA had been given.

This means agreeing on the importance of the delivery of core services to Palestinian refugees and on the work being done to achieve the broader 2030 agenda set by the UN.

"When we talk about sustainable goals or social and economic rights, leaving no one behind, we also mean Palestinian refugees are not left behind," Mr Lazzarini said.

"It's important that it's perceived as this agency focusing and delivering on the right of Palestinian refugees and its services.

"That's a starting point because if we agree that this is what is expected from UNRWA, this is what makes it easier to support it financially and politically."

White House peace plan

Asked about the White House peace plan announced last year, Mr Lazzarini said the position of the UN was to support dialogue anchored in relevant resolutions.

But he said that until there was a state for Palestinians, the role of the UNRWA would be to provide dignity and education, which would contribute to promoting peace and security in the region.

"By doing so, we will contribute to having a future generation ready and educated to take over or be part of a future country where they will be full citizens," Mr Lazzarini said.

He said that while talking to the international community and donors was key, so was having an honest and transparent relationship with Palestinian officials and the refugees the agency helps.

"I will be in listening mode at the beginning to make sure that the decisions which will be taken are in line with the aspirations," Mr Lazzarini said. "You need to have an honest dialogue."

He said that just as important will be the message to Palestinian refugees that they will not be left behind; that they will have access to universal care, an end to hunger and poverty, and that peace and justice will be achieved.

Two weeks into his new role, Mr Lazzarini has already spoken to officials of countries hosting Palestinian refugees.

Building long-term support

Initially after the US decision to freeze funding, other donors mobilised to help cover the $360m shortfall with multi-year pledges and contributions to the organisation to provide urgent money.

The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar each stepped in immediately with $50m for a total of $200m.

And in 2019, the UAE and Saudi Arabia were still among the top six donors.

But some of the donors who stepped in in 2018 were not so forthcoming last year, Mr Lazzarini said.

The peace process through the years

The agency will be looking to Gulf and Arab countries for financial and political support.

"I do believe the Gulf countries are important partners to UNRWA and it is important to develop a lasting, predictable partnership with the Gulf countries," Mr Lazzarini said.

He is eyeing longer-term mutual commitment between donors beyond just the Gulf countries, such as those from the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, "European and traditional supporters like Japan, Canada and possibly South Korea stepping in here in the region".

He will also be in contact with European countries.

I do believe the Gulf countries are important partners to UNRWA

But Mr Lazzarini was quick to note that countries are not just regarded as financial supporters.

They have to be seen as genuinely associated and partners to the mandate of the UNRWA.

"That the organisation is working to address poverty among Palestinian refugees," he said. "In doing so, we are also contributing to the broader peace and stability in the region."

Mr Lazzarini said he planned to build trust in what the agency did to focus on securing the flow and predictability of donor contributions.

The fight against coronavirus

Health staff at Shaboura health centre in Rafah packing and delivering medications to elderly people. With Covid-19 crisis, UNRWA programmes, including health programme, adapted new approaches of service delivery of medicine to minimize gatherings of beneficiaries at the health centres and decrease possible chances of spreading Covid-19. Health staff are delivering the needed medicine to the homes of elderly people and those with non- communicable diseases. © 2020 UNRWA Photo by Khalil Adwan
Health staff at Shaboura health centre in Rafah pack and deliver medication to elderly people. © 2020 UNRWA Photo by Khalil Adwan

The head said he welcomed but had not been officially told about a US decision to direct $5m to the Palestinian Authority in response to an appeal to fight the coronavirus pandemic. There are 431 confirmed cases and two deaths.

Mr Lazzarini said the agency would begin its own Covid-19 emergency response appeal next week.

"Obviously, if this could trigger similar support it would be a welcome development," he said.

But so far, Mr Lazzarini said he had been very impressed with the work of the agency amid the pandemic.

He said all health centres remained open in the five areas of UNRWA's operations.

E-learning has continued and there is a strong push to increase the number of children who can access remote schooling.

Yet the coronavirus is a pandemic on top of a crisis for the agency. With 30,000 staff members working for more than 5 million refugees, the "chronic crisis" continues, he said.

But Mr Lazzarini said he would put all necessary energy and attention into ensuring services continue.

"It's clear today it's a struggle," he said.

"And unfortunately, the organisation has known far too much of this unsettling financial crisis, especially for a group of the population that is among the most vulnerable in the world, and definitely one of the most vulnerable in the Middle East."