Commissioner-General's keynote address at DIHAD

03 April 2012

Keynote address delivered by Filippo Grandi, Commissioner-General of UNRWA, at the Dubai International Humanitarian Aid and Development Conference and Exhibition (DIHAD).

1 April 2012
Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for inviting me to speak at DIHAD. I am grateful to the organisers and of course to the authorities of the United Arab Emirates, and of the Emirate of Dubai. Let me express my admiration to Her Royal Highness Princess Haya for her inspiring words of this morning.

It is a particular pleasure to be here again, because the work of my organisation, UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees, is of specific relevance to the theme of this year’s event – youth – through its activities in various fields, and especially education. We will learn from the discussions, but we also hope to contribute from our own, very operational vantage point.

Let me start with a general thought. Just a few days ago, UNRWA organised a conference in Brussels, entitled “Engaging Youth”. It was attended by world leaders, opinion-makers, and senior experts, but its real strength was in the presence of 24 Palestinian refugee youth from all our areas of operations. They interacted in an impressive, lively, visionary manner with all of us, in the spirit of openness that has prevailed in the region over the past year - and the messages were clear: not only a cry for justice and peace (a cry which, as you will appreciate, has special meaning as it comes from young Palestinians), and strong demands for economic and social opportunities, but also a firm request to participate – this is the word that resonated most frequently – participate in decisions concerning their future. This call was directed at the international community, including us at UNRWA: you design and run programmes for young people, they said to us; through health, social protection, and above all education and vocational training. But why don’t you involve us more?

My first message today, therefore, is very direct: when we speak about youth, we must involve young people in the conversation. Simply talking about them – in a world in which they communicate faster and better than their elders – does not work any more, and will not help us craft programmes that are suitable for what they need.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Allow me to draw from UNRWA’s very concrete experiences. UNRWA, being at the crossroads of humanitarian work (especially in fragile situations like Gaza, for example) and of human development activities (of which education is the most important) is well-placed to speak in a forum like DIHAD of the challenges and opportunities that are facing youth in situations of crisis. I would like to focus particularly on education as a lens through which to share thoughts that may be useful to your discussions in the next few days.

Education defines UNRWA more than anything else we do: we currently run over 700 educational institutions with over half a million students. We also have ten technical and vocational training schools and three teacher training colleges. This is a huge responsibility. UNRWA educates more children and young men and women than do several governments, and it does so across borders and often amidst conflict situations. It guarantees a fundamental right of young refugees; without UNRWA, and without a state of their own, they would simply not go to school. UNRWA must fulfil this heavy responsibility on a fraction of the budgets enjoyed by most education ministries. We offer basic education at an average cost per head of less than $2 per day. In the UAE, for example, this is $15. This may look cost-effective, a condition our donors are understandably demanding in order to finance us. It probably is. Remember, however, what it also means: that we are investing far too little in the quality of education of so many children – and we have seen this reflected in declining school results.

My second message today is the following: education is a basic requirement, even for populations in distress – like refugees – whose basic “humanitarian” needs are usually only identified with food, water, shelter and medicines. Education and vocational training – even in conflict or otherwise critical situations – must receive adequate investments.

This is not happening yet, certainly not in our case. With so little money to spend, we are hard-pressed to accommodate an expanding number of students which grows by about 8,000 per year in Gaza alone. To address this, what I will call the “hardware” of education – new schools, more space, and better equipment – is necessary. I want to thank here our Arab donors, who have been particularly generous in funding new school construction projects. Through donors like:

  • the Islamic Development Bank,
  • the Saudi Fund,
  • the Kuwait Fund,
  • the Shaikh Zayed Foundation,
  • the Bahrain Royal Charitable Organisation,
  • the Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Foundation,
  • the UAE Red Crescent,
  • Dubai Cares,
  • the OPEC Fund,
  • Human Appeal, and
  • Salam Ya Sughar

UNRWA has been able in the last three years to complete or start work on many new school projects, mostly in Gaza and Lebanon.

However, the “software” of education – paying teacher salaries, covering running costs like transport or heating, and reforming education programmes to meet 21st century quality standards – is also absolutely crucial. I want to stress this, because getting funds to build schools is comparatively easier.  Raising funds for the “software” is much – and I stress much – more difficult to market, especially with donors in this region.

Modernising education is of fundamental importance for youth. UNRWA, in step with many governments of the region, is considering how teaching methods and curricula can best be improved, in order to ensure that our education system meets the demands of today’s world. At the heart of our ongoing reform plan is the goal of developing critical thinking skills – ensuring that boys and girls in the classroom know how to ask questions, and also find the answers. This is indispensable if we want youth to make informed choices, and to contribute productively to society. And this lies at the heart of some of the most fundamental demands of those young refugees at our conference, and generally of young people in this region: more prosperity through better access to knowledge and employment, a fairer share of resources, greater participation in decision-making. This, of course, has a cost – but I must not tell you that the price we will pay if we do not bear it will be much higher.

The need to support the “education software”, and especially education reforms for all, is thus my third key message today. We want to ensure that teaching material and methods challenge students, and encourage them to work in different ways, including with new technologies. And we want to address the learning needs of all students, taking into account their abilities, their personal and social development, and their learning styles. It is also critical to develop the professionalism of teachers by ensuring they are motivated and well-trained.

On the other hand, like other education providers, we have two major assets which are priceless: highly-motivated teachers and highly-motivated young students. Precisely because they belong to communities in exile, they all know that UNRWA schools are central to Palestinian identity as well as to individual success. The school is the beating heart of the refugee community. You would be amazed to see how much of its daily life revolves around getting the children and young people to school and seeing that they do well, hopefully well enough to lift themselves and their families out of poverty.

This is thus my fourth key message – and it is a message which resonates in all refugee situations, and especially so among Palestinians: education is the crucible of identity, national as well as personal. I believe this is a very important issue for DIHAD’s consideration: humanitarian crises generate displacement. Displacement threatens identity. Those at most risk, in this respect, are the young. The Palestinian refugee crisis is the biggest, longest, gravest example of this – even more so now, with peace seemingly very distant, the occupation of Palestinian lands becoming bolder every day, and a just and lasting solution of the Palestinian refugee question fading into oblivion. If Palestinians in their dispersal have held on for so long to their identity and their aspiration to a state of their own, it is also due to the forging of their identities in UNRWA schools.

On the other hand, conflict and exile are also – quite often – the source of deep divisions that extend over generations. These divisions are difficult to heal, especially when a political solution remains elusive, as is the case for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And yet healing remains crucial to peace, especially in the case of the young. It was wise, in fact, to include in this conference a session on “youth and reconciliation”. In our experience, education can be one of the instruments to (at least) help create conditions for peace. The singularity of UNRWA, operating as an education service provider in one of the most violent and volatile regions in the world, and being at the same time an integral part of the United Nations - allows us to make our schools places where human rights, tolerance, conflict resolution, and UN values in general are taught to the young through a special curriculum established 12 years ago, which we are in the process of improving.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

There are more young people in the Middle East than ever before.  Ensuring that they are equipped to become innovators, entrepreneurs, leaders and productive members of their communities is one of the best contributions to peace and stability. This is the lesson that we at UNRWA have learned through decades of education and other programmes delivered to one of the most fragile and sensitive constituencies in the region: the Palestine refugees. This is why my last and perhaps most important message today is that education – and, in general, investing in young people – must be treated not only as a fundamental tool for development, but also – and as importantly – as a key strategic issue.

To return to the example I have been using, Palestinian youth are alive with positive energy, intelligence and potential. However, they demand attention because they are extremely vulnerable, wherever they are – in Lebanon as a marginalised community, in Syria in a situation of growing conflict, and above all in the occupied Palestinian territory, where they are subjected to the human rights abuses which the occupation itself brings upon all Palestinians, either through settlement expansion or the blockade of Gaza, both of which violate international law. At the end of the Brussels Conference, we formulated ten commitments to young Palestinian refugees, ranging from the improvement of education and health, to creating youth lending programmes, to establishing mechanisms to better involve refugee youth in our discussions about their future and in the development of UNRWA’s work. We believe that investing in them is critical not only to their welfare, but also to the stability of the region.

Like all their peers throughout the Middle East, Palestinian refugee youth must have our support today so they can face the great challenges of tomorrow – and it is our responsibility (and what a responsibility this is!) that they can be proud of doing so, their heads held high with confidence and ambition.

Thank you.

Background Information

UNRWA is a United Nations agency established by the General Assembly in 1949 and is mandated to provide assistance and protection to a population of some 5 million registered Palestine refugees. Its mission is to help Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank and the Gaza Strip to achieve their full potential in human development, pending a just solution to their plight. UNRWA’s services encompass education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, and microfinance.

Financial support to UNRWA has not kept pace with an increased demand for services caused by growing numbers of registered refugees, expanding need, and deepening poverty. As a result, the Agency's General Fund (GF), supporting UNRWA’s core activities and 97 per cent reliant on voluntary contributions, has begun each year with a large projected deficit. Currently the deficit stands at US$ 68 million.

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