New Technologies: How These Impact Humanitarian and Development Operations

28 March 2011

DIHAD Conference
Dubai, 28 March 2011

Opening statement by UNRWA Commissioner-General, Filippo Grandi

Your Highness, excellencies, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen:

I am grateful to the organizers for the opportunity to address this important forum and to Her Royal Highness for her inspiring words at the start of the conference.

I would also like to express UNRWA’s appreciation to the people and government of the United Arab Emirates. Its humanitarian institutions, notably the Red Crescent under the direction of His Highness Shaikh Hamdan Bin Zayed, the Khalifa Bin Zayed Foundation, the Zayed Foundation, and Dubai Cares, have generously supported Palestinian refugees and UNRWA, the organization mandated to provide them with protection and assistance.

Ladies and gentlemen:

Last year three Palestinian refugee students from UNRWA’s West Bank schools invented a unique electronic cane for the blind; Intel Corporation, the world leader in micro-processing technologies, awarded them a global prize for their ingenuity. And a prodigy from one of our schools in Ain el-Hilweh in Lebanon recently apprenticed with NASA in Florida. She is now completing her doctorate in biochemistry at a prestigious school of science in the US.

There have been, and will be, many others like them, all potent symbols of what youth has to offer when given freedom and resources to create. Because if we speak about technology, it is first and foremost the young that we must have in mind.

Today’s theme is of immediate relevance and pressing importance to us all. As the progress of science and technology continues to accelerate, and their impact on everybody’s daily lives becomes more pervasive than ever before, the aid community – with government support – must harness 21st century innovations to help meet the enormous challenges of man made and natural disasters. I thus wish to applaud DIHAD’s choice to focus on this important aspect of our work. But as we reflect on how to strengthen our response to multiple and often catastrophic crises through the use of technology, it is crucial to remember that investing in human capital and in sustainable development is the key to prevent or mitigate them. We would be remiss, ladies and gentlemen, if we did not mention that as we speak, the young generation in this very region – with its peaceful call for freedom and dignity, conveyed to us largely through technology – reminds us that crises are also the product of denied opportunities. With the immense resources provided by technology in a globalized world, we have simply no excuse for failing to develop the massive intellectual and human capital represented by the younger generation – including, and in particular, in the Middle East.

Denied opportunities take many forms and have many causes – poverty, a deteriorating environment, inadequate education, lack of democracy and human rights, injustice and conflict. Allow me to share a few reflections from one perspective I am familiar with – the perspective of UNRWA and of Palestinian refugees. Their population, now nearing five million, in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza, is a living metaphor for frustrated potential, for untapped socio-economic capacities and for technological possibilities waiting to be grasped.

UNRWA’s mission is centred on creating opportunities for refugees and equipping them to better seize the opportunities around them. Over six decades we have provided humanitarian relief to millions of Palestinians in situations of conflict, and we have established programmes in education, health and infrastructure, a social safety net for the poor, and microfinance activities. We are especially proud of developing the potential of almost 500,000 refugee children in our schools each year, and the over 6,000 young men and women who annually graduate from our vocational institutions. The ingenuity and capacity of these youth to excel rarely ceases to amaze.

Over four decades of Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and other conflicts throughout the region, have not diminished the commitment of the refugees in our 700 schools to acquiring knowledge and skills. If anything, their commitment has grown with each new trauma they suffer. Occupation and conflict, however, are not the only obstacle to realising their commitment: lack of resources is another, and it is a powerful one. We can only provide quality services for refugee youth if we are given the means to do so, yet funding – most of it given voluntarily, and generously, by governments – regularly falls short of needs. One of the consequences of the lack of resources is a technology gap – which is very obvious in many aspects of our work, from education to health to the management of the organization itself. We are therefore pursuing partnerships, and developing “technology windows” to modernize and improve the way our organisation does its work. Let me give you a few examples, which also illustrate how improved technology can address some of the challenges affecting a population in distress.

Technology supports effectiveness in crisis situations. Take our new electronic refugee registration system. With this on-line platform, we have digitised the registration of refugees across the region, improving immeasurably the way we deliver our services.

Technology helps strengthen a sense of identity for scattered, affected populations. We plan to link our registration system to our most ambitious digitization project: the preservation of some 18 million refugee documents spanning the last sixty-two years, representing a priceless record of their origins, history and identity.

Technology allows for better provision of health. Through an “E-Health” initiative, we seek to computerise our 137 health clinics and connect them via the internet. The change will be radical; at the moment, each year, 11 million medical visits are manually recorded.

Technology supports better learning and opens up job opportunities, a key demand of the young in the region. With new courses merging mechanics, electronics and computing, for example, our graduates are meeting market demand for high-tech, cutting-edge design and manufacturing jobs.

Ladies and gentlemen:

Palestinians – refugees and non-refugees alike – are the living proof that a population long affected by injustice and distress can nevertheless demonstrate a remarkable ability to rise above their circumstances, when afforded the freedom and tools to do so. UNRWA is a first-hand witness to the thirst for knowledge, the intellectual capabilities and the talent for creative innovation that are waiting to be tapped.

To release that potential, technology resources are key, because they are means towards attaining achievements which contribute, in turn, to realizing the ideal of human dignity. In the hands of a refugee child whose life is constrained by the multiple barriers of occupation in Gaza or in the West Bank, for example, a laptop can become a catalyst for unfolding creative, intellectual potential; a tool for self-expression and learning; and a vehicle for transporting them to worlds of knowledge beyond the stark confines of the occupied Palestinian territory.

This conference will undoubtedly make the case for improved technology to help address humanitarian crises, and free untapped potential. This is of great importance. We must acknowledge, however, that technology alone will be insufficient to prevent disaster and provide opportunities to those who are of concern to humanitarian and development agencies represented here. Information and communication technology is being used today by resourceful but frustrated youth to call for political rights, a more equitable share of economic prosperity, and above all for dignity. We must listen and respond to their appeals in the diverse contexts in which they are made. One such context – and one which must not be forgotten – is that of the decades-old conflict which affects Palestinians. The consequences of conflict and occupation – poverty, inadequate services and internal divisions – remain the ultimate impediments to Palestinian potential – impediments that, among others, must be addressed to allow the full realization of human development in this region. And with that in mind, we must work together to intensify our efforts towards a peaceful end of the conflict, including a just and lasting resolution of the plight of refugees, and the establishment of a viable Palestinian state.

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$ 56 million.

For more information, please contact:

Christopher Gunness
UNRWA Spokesperson
Mobile: 
+972 (0)54 240 2659
Office: 
+972 (0)2 589 0267
Sami Mshasha
UNRWA Arabic Spokesperson
Mobile: 
+972 (0)54 216 8295
Office: 
+972 (0)2 589 0724

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