The United States recently announced plans to restore US financial support to UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) with a USD 150 million contribution as part of its overall aid package to the Palestinians. The restoration of US aid to UNRWA, and the Palestinians in general, is most welcome and necessary. The problems UNRWA faces, however, are not only financial. Even after the resumption of US funding, an approach characterized by "more of the same,” expanding the donor base and further program and operational efficiencies is not likely to work, first and foremost for the refugees. All the more, the “reform agenda” solicited by the US as a condition to restore aid poses risks that can only be averted through a reinvigorated, shared, and bold reaffirmation of the agency’s mandate, vision, and strategic direction. The upcoming UNRWA Conference offers an opportunity to support and bring this vision forward and should not be missed.
Renewed US support to UNRWA could not come at a more critical moment. The spread of the COVID-19 remarkably deteriorated an already dire humanitarian situation across most of UNRWA’s area of operations: the West Bank and Gaza under an unyielding settler-colonial occupation, with the latter also under a fourteen-year long “medieval” blockade; Syria trapped in a ten year violent and still lingering war; Lebanon in a downward economic and political spiral, on top of recent turmoil in Jordan. At this time of increased demand for UNRWA’s services, the worsening financial conditions have impaired the agency’s ability to respond to the refugees’ needs. In addition, in the wake of the normalization agreement with Israel, Gulf countries, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have reduced their announced contributions to UNRWA, which proves that the situation in which UNRWA operates will continue to be affected by the geopolitical context.
While positive, the resumption of US funding does not appease all concerns. First, the amount the United States just committed to disburse to UNRWA is less than half of what it used to provide before the defunding ($360 million in 2018). It is, therefore, necessary that this initial contribution will soon be topped up to match the remainder of the previous contribution. It is worth recalling that financial and political support to UNRWA continues to constitute the minimum of the international community’s responsibility toward the refugees until a just and durable solution to their situation is achieved.
Second, predictions anticipate that even after the resumption of US funding, 2021 will manifest the worst financial crisis since the agency’s establishment. The signs are there. UNRWA will continue to register an increasing number of refugees; this is the effect of the protracted lack of resolve of the Palestinian refugee question, not of UNRWA’s will and modus operandi. Also, UNRWA will continue to resent the reduced self-sustenance ability of the refugees, with the demands on the agency and the reliance on its services are likely to grow. This is going to be the result of wars and instability ravaging UNRWA’s area of operations, but also of the contained and constrained Palestinian entrepreneurship, which is less and less welcome in the Arab region compared to the past. Last but not least, the COVID-19 crisis, which has had a worldwide impact, may make it difficult for other donors to honor their commitments.
Third, the resumpton of US funding implies a strong political message in support of Palestinian refugees and UNRWA, after the scorching efforts to deny the legitimacy of Palestinian refugees and UNRWA, leveled by political acolytes and pundits in the US, Israel, and beyond over the past decade or so, have no doubt cracked the resistance of the agency and its capacity to focus on the work that must be done. The end of a diplomatic muscular fight with the US is all the more welcome at a time when UNRWA’s opportunities for building alliances are slimmer, both regionally and internationally, with increasing indifference to Palestinian refugees' plight and the need to support UNRWA. Tragically, this happens at the moment UNRWA efforts in the region are more needed than ever, such as supporting Palestinian refugees in Syria through the much-needed reconstruction that UNRWA facilities in the countries deserves.
Clearly, the problems UNRWA is confronted with are not only financial. Let’s be frank: UNRWA’s near-perpetual money troubles (as reflected in UNRWA’s annual reports to the UN General Assembly since the early 1950s) make clear that “managing” the human dimension of the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict alone, tragically epitomized by the fate imposed on the refugees, is no longer working. This reality, and the political void around the question of Palestinian refugees that have resulted following the collapse of the Middle East Peace Process, prompts a critical and fundamental reexamination of the way the Palestinian refugee question has been dealt with, and how the agency has interpreted and implemented its mandate over the past seven decades.
A fundamental shift is necessary in how the Palestinian refugee question is approached, and UNRWA must be at the center of this discussion. Not only for what it represents as a UN agency whose mandate stems from the UN General Assembly, but also for the refugees it protects. It takes time to explore, discuss, and articulate different visions and economic, political, and social scenarios. And still, an opportunity is there, and it is one UNRWA, in the interest of the Palestinian refugees, should not miss.
An international conference on UNRWA is currently under preparation, although a date has not been set. According to an UNRWA memo seen by the authors, the upcoming conference aims to strengthen the agency’s ability to provide services to Palestinian refugees sustainably and predictably, in line with its mandate. As it appears, this is part of UNRWA’s strategic planning process towards a new vision and medium-term strategy for the agency. This event presents a golden opportunity for the agency to address vital issues of its current fiscal deficit, sustainability, mandate, and last but not least, how to ensure the protection and well-being of millions of refugees in the region and their critical humanitarian and political situation.
Commendably, Sweden and Jordan are actively engaged in leading the conference's preparation, similar to recent pledging events that took place since the onset of the financial crisis following the withdrawal of US funding in early 2018. The centrality of both countries in this process is critical. While Jordan hosts the largest number of Palestinian refugees in the region, it is teaming up with Sweden on this endeavor, which can be seen as a reaffirmation of the centrality of the Palestinian refugee question as a regional issue and unresolved international responsibility (as opposed to a bilateral permanent status issue, as Oslo had defined it).
It is desirable that the upcoming conference allows UNRWA and its key stakeholders to reflect on results and lessons learned from the past decade in a participatory context. Unlike the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), UNRWA has some way to go in making sure that Palestinian refugees, as well as relevant civil society, including academia and NGOs, are meaningfully engaged in settings in which essential decisions concerning the agency and the refugees are taken, such as the agency’s Advisory Commission meetings, as well as in its strategic planning processes. The upcoming conference offers a chance to try to do things differently. For example, UNRWA may wish to take advantage of the experience with the Brussels conferences on the future of Syria and the region, as well as UNHCR’s multi-stakeholder approach to responding comprehensively to refugee situations, including protracted ones. By involving refugee representatives, civil society, (international) NGOs, and academia in the preparations of the conference—including through the convening of focus group discussions in refugee camps—and in the conference itself through the convening of dialogue with civil society ahead of the ministerial/high-level segment, a more sustainable outcome is likely.
A number of organizations in the region, such as Aidoun, Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development’s (ARDD), BADIL, and others, are in a privileged position to work as a bridge between refugees, civil society, and policymakers. UNRWA, Sweden, and Jordan should take advantage of these actors and networks to involve refugee voices in sustaining the agency and charting out a vision and medium-term strategy to go beyond the mere “managing of the refugee problem” towards a comprehensive approach addressing the various aspects of this longest-lasting refugee question of our time.
It is only every decade or so that UNRWA gets the possibility to organize an international conference, and it cannot afford to miss the chance to do it right. UNRWA and the conference organizers should use this strategically for the best possible outcome for both the agency and the refugees. This may be the only occasion for UNRWA and other stakeholders, and most importantly, Palestinian refugees, to have an opportunity to openly discuss an agenda or UNRWA reform before anyone imposes it on a defunded, depleted, and even more cornered than usual UNRWA.