24 July 2011
Ma’an News Agency
The UN agency for Palestinian refugees was forced to close its offices in Gaza City last week as protesters blockaded its entrances, angry at the slashing of UNRWA's emergency programmes.
Demonstrators physically blocked the entrances of the Agency's offices with large vehicles after UNRWA removed tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees from its food distribution list.
UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness has said the lack of donor funds to the Agency – and anti-UN protests on the doorstep of Israel – directly affect the stability of the region.
Ma'an asked Gunness for UNRWA's position on the crisis.
The protesters who closed down UNRWA’s Gaza office say they were doing this to fight for the rights of the refugees whose assistance is being slashed. What's your response to this?
Gunness: This protest action was entirely counter-productive. By keeping hundreds of UNRWA staff out of their offices, the organisers were harming the very refugees on whose behalf they claim to be protesting. The Gaza office is the "command and control" centre from which we run our programmes across the entire Gaza Strip.
We need access to our computers to service projects, to manage our education, health, relief and social service programmes. It's where the personnel department is based for, for example, paying staff salaries, it's where our IT department is, it's where the radio room is for security and without these things our full programmes become unsustainable very quickly.
The refugees and their representatives are naturally angry about the slashing of emergency services and have threatened further action. How worried is UNRWA about this?
Because of a US$ 35 million shortfall in its emergency budget, UNRWA in Gaza has been forced to make drastic cuts to its emergency programmes. The original emergency appeal of US$ 300 million had already been scaled back to US$ 150 million because of the inadequate donor response and even against this minimum spending requirement, we are US$ 35 million short.
The core of the US$ 300 million emergency appeal had been for food assistance to 600,000 people, jobs for 53,000 people, cash assistance for 300,000 abject poor (living on less than US$ 1.6 per day) and basic assistance to public health infrastructure. Starting in the month of July, we have been forced to cut the jobs programme from 10,000 contracts per month to 6,500 contracts and we have been forced to end our "back to school" cash assistance of 100 NIS [US$ 29.44] for each of more than 200,000 children in UNRWA schools.
UNRWA is doing all it can to mobilise the support of donors. But we fear that if the current situation continues, further cuts to our emergency services in Gaza will be inevitable. Make no mistake, the lack of donor funds to UNRWA is now directly affecting the stability of the Middle East with anti-UN protests threatening to shut down UNRWA on the doorstep of Israel at a time of already heightened instability in the region.
You are passing the buck to your donors, but who ultimately is to blame; is it really UNRWA's donors?
The real problem is that we are asking our donors to fund emergency programmes which aim to mitigate the effects of Israel’s illegal collective punishment of 1.5 million people. The International Committee of the Red Cross has called the blockade a "clear breach of international law" in the face of which there has to be transparency and accountability.
From UNRWA's point of view, it would be better for those states and organisations with the power to bring the necessary pressures to bear to end the collective punishment rather than pay UNRWA to deal with its disastrous impact. We would far rather be spending our time and our donors' money on human development, particularly in education, which does add to the stability of this region, than on emergency operations which respond to an illegal and destabilising collective punishment. Is it not better to end the root cause, which is the collective punishment?
There is also deep discontent about the removal of over 100,000 people from your food distribution lists. What is going on?
About 100,000 people have come off our food distribution lists because UNRWA is now using a more accurate poverty assessment system to determine eligibility for food assistance. This change in the eligibility system is meant to ensure that UNRWA can prioritise its resources on the poorest of the poor and avoid providing emergency poverty relief assistance to those who are not needy.
Many business people, wealthy merchants and property owners have come off the lists and interestingly very few people are complaining as the vast majority realise that the new system is much fairer. In this regard, the poverty survey represents a great improvement over the former system.
Thanks to the poverty survey UNRWA has been able to increase assistance to the abject poor (around 300,000 refugees) by doubling their rations.
Thousands of families who were poor and destitute but were excluded from UNRWA food assistance until now based on the previous income-based system from the PA or UNRWA will be able to receive assistance. The food distributed to thousands of families who were not in need of assistance but received food until now can now be given to the poorest and most destitute refugees.
There are four categories of people who were eligible for food last round whose coupons have not been issued this food distribution round: 14,404 families who had not applied to the poverty survey by the middle of June despite each receiving a letter from UNRWA requesting them to apply over the last three months if they wished to continue being considered for food assistance; 9,251 families who applied to the poverty survey but were found to be non-poor after the social worker visit; 1,388 families classified as abject or absolute poor by the poverty survey but failed to pick up their rations since the beginning of the year 2011, suggesting they may be out of Gaza; and 305 families who were found to be non-poor after the second visit (complaint) and necessary verifications.
All families listed above with the exception of the 305 families in the last category can receive food this round upon applying for the poverty survey, with their final poverty to be determined after reviewing their case through the poverty survey. If these families apply before the end of the month of July, UNRWA will ensure that they receive their food assistance during the month of Ramadan.
What about those families who were not eligible for food assistance under the old system?
They are welcome to apply to the poverty survey, and 10,439 such families have benefited until now. Their eligibility for food will be determined after their applications are processed and many will be able to receive food assistance in the future as a result.
Is it true that the poverty survey system can sometimes mistakenly classify a family in the wrong poverty category?
Yes, this may happen as a result of human error during the visit or data entry process. To remedy this, UNRWA has introduced a comprehensive complaints system to ensure that no beneficiary family in need is wrongfully taken off the food rolls. For many cases, this includes the review of the system's findings by a committee of three social workers who will have the last word on the family's poverty status.
If the family coupon was cut, where can the family find out in which category it belongs to and when it can receive food?
At the information desk of the distribution centre.
Original interview published on Ma’an website.