From Relief and Works to Human Development: UNRWA and the Palestinian Refugees after 60 Years

08 October 2010

Keynote address by Filippo Grandi, UNRWA Commissioner-General

8 October 2010
American University of Beirut

Good morning, Ladies and Gentlemen:

Filippo GrandiThanks to Karim Makdisi, Sari Hanafi, Maya Majzoub, and Ambassador Abdallah Abdallah for your opening remarks.  They have set an engaging tone for our discussion over the next two days. Let me also say at the outset how grateful we are to the Issam Fares Institute for taking the initiative to partner with UNRWA, and to the American University of Beirut for generously hosting the conference.  The United Kingdom’s Department for International Development deserves special thanks for its important support, and I would also like to mention the Dutch and Norwegian Embassies in Lebanon for their contributions. My colleagues Leila Hilal and Lex Takkenberg deserve praise for their significant organizational work on this conference. And last but not least, let me say how happy I am that my predecessor, former Commissioner-General Karen AbuZayd, is also with us. I take this opportunity once again to express our gratitude for her extraordinary leadership and commitment to the Palestine refugees.

And to everyone here, a warm “thank you” for joining us at the first major international conference UNRWA has organized in this region for many years.  The Middle East is awash with topical issues, and of these few are more vexing or worthy of international interest than the question of Palestinians and Palestine refugees. As the UN agency mandated to support and protect the refugees, UNRWA’s existence, its evolution, operations and future are meshed with the fortunes of Palestinians in ways that are unique and empowering. Take a volatile region notable as much for its recurrent conflicts as for its frustrated search for peace; a community in troubled exile for sixty-two years; an ancient people demanding a viable State of their own; and an agency described as representing “a history within history” – when we put all of these elements together, we have a recipe for a broad-ranging and stimulating exchange of views.

We are fortunate to have with us participants from diverse backgrounds and disciplines who possess the interest and expertise needed to inspire our discussions.  Some of you are from the community and know from first-hand experience what being a refugee means in human terms.  Many of you are experts, having devoted time and resources to the study of refugees and aspects of UNRWA’s work.  All your valuable insights will be complemented by those of my own UNRWA colleagues, and those of friends from Brookings, UNSCO, UNICEF, UNHCR, practitioners from the human rights community and representatives from host countries.  We look forward to the comparative perspectives drawn from different refugee and conflict experiences.

UNRWA will play an unusual “subject-object” role at this conference.  You will scrutinize us in our operational and regional context. You will measure us against universal principles and standards and the high expectations which UNRWA engenders among its stakeholders.  For our part, we will examine ourselves, testing the realities of work against the programme and protection goals we have set, and putting in perspective the fact that too many refugees continue to linger in poverty and distress.  As we delve into the rich variety of issues before us, we may come to different conclusions, perhaps even strongly disagree on one point or the other.  But we warmly welcome all constructive views, because we believe that our own understanding is strengthened, and our work made more effective, when we are open and receptive to the wealth of knowledge around us.  

I am confident that at the conclusion of our conference, we will have gained an enhanced, multi-dimensional understanding of UNRWA, the impact of its work on Palestine refugees and the Agency’s enduring relevance.  I trust we will also reinforce the deep significance of something we often speak about, but which deserves to be better explained – the stable continuum which our Agency represents.

Let me make here a point which I consider crucial. Representing a stable continuum by no means implies stagnant attitudes, closed perspectives or complacency. We are often told – sometimes we even say it ourselves – that being almost 62 years of age, and operating, as we do, in an uncertain political context, we are destined to be conservative and fearful of innovation.  However, history has proven that UNRWA cannot survive, let alone thrive, by standing still.  In the face of perennial tensions and conflicts, UNRWA has a record of adapting to the demands of its context and responding to the changing needs of refugees.  The evidence and results have been apparent over the decades: the transition from relief-driven operations to education, health and community-based services; the choice – still unique among international organizations – to build a body of staff composed almost entirely of refugees, and to provide direct services to the people we serve;  the achievement of near-universal and gender-balanced primary school enrollment; high levels of  literacy; the public health benefits of vaccination rates close to 100 per cent for refugee children; the creation of new programmes, such as microfinance; and the contribution to the dignity,  well-being and protection of those in our care. 

Our protection work is a good example of UNRWA deploying every available programmatic, normative and advocacy tool to safeguard and advance the rights of Palestine refugees.  To cite one example which was already mentioned, in August this year, refugees in Lebanon were given access to work through a courageous act of Parliament. UNRWA worked closely with many civic and political actors present here today to help achieve this milestone. We are gratified by this important first step towards enabling refugees in Lebanon to improve their lives, without prejudice to other refugee rights. 

All was not always well with UNRWA, and to this day, our aspirations are dogged by powerful challenges – those which are external, imposed by conflict, occupation and political strife; and others which one could call structural, prominent above all – in spite of our donors’ truly exceptional efforts – the chronic lack of funding, due to increasing strains between an international aid system under multiple pressures, and an agency which is neither only humanitarian nor typically developmental, and whose funding needs are as inexorable and unrelenting as those of a public service, depending however on voluntary contributions.

In 2004, the Agency gathered with its stakeholders in Geneva to address deteriorating services and to find ways to improve refugee conditions. This was the launch of a period of complex and often courageous reforms, culminating in UNRWA’s “Organizational Development”, the most ambitious re-engineering of UNRWA’s systems and programmes to date – a process which has now evolved into a second and crucial phase, “Sustaining Change”, during which we will focus essentially on improving the quality of our programmes, especially in education, health and relief to the poor. 

Serving Palestine refugees better has been and remains the goal central to everything UNRWA does, and very deliberately so through these reform years. And while we must always be prepared to face humanitarian crises, we are focusing, increasingly, on creating opportunities for refugees. Our mandate has never been only about handing out sacks of flour, although of course at times this is necessary and crucial because it saves lives, as was visible on all television screens during last year’s war in Gaza. 

I like to think that the “W” in our unpronounceable acronym is as important as the “R” of “relief”. “Works”, a debated term to say the least, stands in my opinion for investment in opportunities, in other words in people – the refugees – placing them at the centre of interventions and focusing on supporting their own efforts to improve their lives, their communities; and, through them, the region.  The three UNRWA students from  the West Bank who received a prize from Intel for inventing a unique electronic cane for the blind, or the UNRWA teachers in Gaza who give up their holidays every year to teach  remedial classes in the summer, or the proud determination with which thousands of small refugee entrepreneurs, from Aleppo to Rafah, are repaying their microfinance loans and expanding their businesses, are some of the many examples of the refugees’ commitment to improving their lives. This commitment is also seen at all levels across the Agency itself, as over the years, and especially in difficult circumstances, UNRWA staff have earned a reputation for dedication to duty – a quality we applaud, support and encourage.

Our focus on helping refugees to realize their potential in spite of the constraints of protracted exile remains at the core of what “human development” means for UNRWA. It is exemplified particularly by the massive investment in refugee children through primary education, our largest programme and one that symbolizes what UNRWA represents - and continues to represent - for generations of Palestinians. Improving education is at the heart of our current reforms, emphasizing the need to put children – concretely – at the centre of the educational system. We want our schools to be an expression of UNRWA’s instinct for developing the potential of - and opportunities for - individual refugees. And in an environment of extraordinary stress we seek to nurture students in directions consistent with United Nations values: tolerance for diversity and opposing views; peaceful resolution of disputes; respect for the human rights, dignity for all.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

These are difficult challenges. We recognize that UNRWA cannot respond to the refugees’ yearning for socio-economic independence, unless the services and programmes we offer are innovative and of good quality, and there are instances in which they are not.  We owe this effort, however, to the refugees themselves and to the host authorities, who have extended extraordinary hospitality and support to refugees for longer than any other host government elsewhere. Both refugees and hosts legitimately expect from UNRWA – a United Nations agency – to fulfill its own responsibilities according to internationally accepted standards. While this commitment to quality services applies across all our fields, it is particularly urgent in the occupied Palestinian territory, where living conditions are in many respects far removed from normality, and also in Lebanon where the conditions in the refugee camps have been, for far too long, below acceptable levels.

In addressing this challenge, and while governments remain our main allies and supporters, we are increasingly reaching out to different partnerships, and seeking the involvement of refugees themselves. Partnerships are a means towards expanding UNRWA’s access to resources, from funding to technical expertise. They are the path towards broadening the Agency’s global visibility and helping us becoming more dynamic and outward-looking. And UNRWA’s work is defined by a participatory approach to programming, of which many positive examples abound.  Consider, for example, our unique human rights curriculum in Gaza, which is based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was developed with the active participation of local educators and Gaza’s human rights experts among others.  It stands out as a special example of the role of refugees in shaping and enriching, aspects of the pedagogy in UNRWA schools.

In Neirab camp in Aleppo, Syria, thousands of families are involved in designing and implementing a multimillion dollar reconstruction project which will considerably improve their living conditions.  With over 1,200 consultations with refugees each year, the project sets a high standard for community participation.  And here in Lebanon, the displaced refugee community played an important role in the complex process of preparing the master plan for the reconstruction of Nahr el-Bared camp.

It bears repeating that the close interface between UNRWA and refugees is the Agency’s most valuable resource.  Our focus on human development and our delivery of services directly to refugees provide us with a uniquely intimate view of the ground that is informed by a relationship of trust and confidence with the refugee population. UNRWA has been – and remains - a constant presence, the embodiment of the international community’s conscience and a reflection of the recognition that we cannot afford to turn our backs on the plight of refugees. We have been there throughout the generations, living with the refugees, working through them and with them, identifying with their struggles, advocating for their well-being, championing their cause.  In all of this, we have become a small part of the refugees’ consciousness of what is right, what is reliable and what is predictable.  

Just last Monday, during the visit of the President of Switzerland to Baqaa camp in Jordan, a refugee representative was invited to address the distinguished visitor.  His speech was direct, thorough and eloquent, but I could see that he was struggling to find an appropriate end to it – and, as these things go, he was being urged by the precise Swiss timekeeper to do just that, close his statement. But at that point the inspiration came, and it is the depth of his final words that I will never forget, as he declared, solemnly but also affectionately at the same time: “UNRWA, Madam President, is our homeland”; “UNRWA is our homeland”.

Now, I fully understand that this is a complex and controversial thing to say – and perhaps some of you, academics and experts, will want to analyse it. For me, however, this was simply humbling. Of course the refugee in Baqaa did not intend his statement in a literal sense.  But I was struck by the feelings that inspired him to employ – in the candid manner that belongs to those speaking from their deepest feelings – a metaphor drawing a parallel between a temporary organization and a place called home: a place, ladies and gentlemen, which remains at the heart of these refugees’ yet unfulfilled desire for closure and justice, as is always the case for refugees, everywhere and in every time. And what was especially humbling, in his choice of words, was that it evoked the enormity of the responsibilities which the international community bears towards refugees, and the high expectation that we will rise to meet the challenge of those responsibilities.

UNRWA’s humanitarian and human development work can only speak to a portion of those expectations and responsibilities. Our remit does not extend to matters in the political realm, in particular to those fundamental issues which, if they were to become reality, would deliver the ultimate protection and human development outcomes for Palestine refugees. We have no power to bring about Palestinian unity and the contiguity of the West Bank and Gaza; an end to the occupation; a negotiated conclusion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the establishment of a viable State of Palestine; and the realization of a just and lasting solution to refugees’ plight. While these matters are the responsibility of states and international political actors to resolve, UNRWA’s role in protection advocacy requires us to encourage them to respect and implement their human rights and international law obligations as these pertain to the situation of Palestine refugees – and to remind them that they – and they alone – can solve the refugee question. 

At the same time, given UNRWA’s extensive first-hand knowledge of refugees, and the relationship of trust it enjoys with its stakeholders, it makes sense to envisage the Agency playing a consultative, advisory and facilitative role in the process of achieving a just and lasting solution to the plight of refugees.
UNRWA’s role certainly requires it to champion the need for refugee interests, choices and concerns to be addressed in the search for a negotiated solution to the conflict.  Our argument is that refugees are a significant regional presence on account of the size of the population and its wide geographical distribution. Including them in the search for peace will ensure that the process will benefit from the wealth of insights they have to offer. It will allow them to remain, as I have often said, a constituency for peace.

This is an important point. Before I conclude, allow me therefore to pose a few questions that call for your attention during this conference and beyond and I hope that you won’t mind if in doing so I look to the future.  What is the path that lies beyond asserting UNRWA’s mandate, highlighting the rights and entitlements of refugees under international law and pointing out the centrality of refugees to this region’s future?  If we say that a refugee role is essential in the search for a negotiated solution, how best can we ensure that this role is carried out in the interest of peace and with full respect to refugee rights? If we speak about the need to ascertain refugee intentions, what are the practical steps by which this will be done efficiently and with integrity? And when we speak of refugee choices, how can we make sure that the choice is exercised in an informed and responsible way? What guidance can be offered to our Agency as we look beyond the here and now to a time when concrete answers will be required to these questions?
These are only a few of the issues we will have to grapple with at some point.  There are examples elsewhere in the world where despite long periods of stalemate, seemingly intractable conflicts were resolved more rapidly than conventional wisdom predicted.  In any event, regardless of the uncertain state of the search for peace, it would be prudent for UNRWA and its stakeholders to accelerate the quest for clarity on these and other related questions. 

I trust that not only during this conference, but also beyond it, UNRWA will benefit from your insights and acquire guidance on its efforts to serve refugees better. I hope also that you will add your voices to encouraging wider recognition of the fact that understanding the refugees and promoting their rights are essential prerequisites for a just and comprehensive solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

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.

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