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“A Strong UNRWA in a Challenging World – Mobilizing Collective Action”
Remarks by the Commissioner-General
At the outset, I wish to express my deep appreciation to the co-chairs of this Conference, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ayman Safadi and Minister for International Development cooperation Peter Erikson for taking the initiative to convene this Conference.
Mr. Secretary-General, I am grateful for your participation today, and for your leadership in marshalling support for the Agency and the Palestine refugees we assist.
To the governments that host Palestine refugees: I am grateful for your continued generosity.
I thank all participants for joining us
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen
Crises in the Middle East remain unresolved and new ones always seem to be unfolding.
We are entering a period of renewed uncertainty with the threat of annexation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, with the worst economic downfall in Lebanon’s modern history and with the seemingly endless conflict in Syria.
Among the new threats is the COVID-19 pandemic. After the health outbreak, we are now confronted with a pandemic of abject poverty. Anger, despair and hopelessness are growing within the Palestine refugee community. They are turning to us for more assistance and some are even trying their luck through deadly migration roads.
In an unpredictable and unstable environment, we need, more than ever, a predictable and stable UNRWA.
UNRWA is the lead provider of government like services for a population of 5.6 million Palestine refugees. Over the years, the Agency has provided a vital contribution to the human development agenda and to the stability of the Middle East.
- Take as an example the education system: our schools have graduated over two million students. Many have become teachers and educators who in turn have contributed to graduate other children across the Middle East.
- Our microfinance program has created nearly 700,000 jobs over 30 years. What does it mean? Families lifted out of poverty and women starting small businesses. This is local development at its best.
- In emergencies, we are the frontline responders. During Covid-19, we have shifted to telemedicine and to remote education. By doing so, we contributed to containment with less than 180 cases in 58 overcrowded refugees camps.
But our greatest challenge is our financial stability. We are operating at full capacity with inadequate resources.
Over the last five years deep budget cuts led to savings amounting to USD 500 million (half a billion). But even savings have a cost. Our buildings are no longer maintained properly. Our information technology system is outdated at a time we embark into digital transformation.
In reality, there is nothing left to cut without impacting the scope and the quality of the services.
Whilst cutting costs further is not an option, I am leading with determination management initiatives aimed at showcasing the highest standards of effectiveness and transparency.
After a few difficult years, it is time to turn the page and to focus on the challenges UNRWA is confronted with.
The core funding gap for 2020 stands, as we heard, at USD 400 million. A number of partners have committed resources generously – I express deep appreciation to them. However, we are still in the dark and we do not know if our operations will run until the end of the year.
Year after year, month after month, UNRWA is on the edge of a financial collapse. This cannot continue.
Despite the severity of the financial situation, I have chosen not to keep “sounding publicly the alarm”. This to avoid adding anxiety to the insecurity that refugees feel every day.
Last December, the General Assembly reaffirmed its strong support to UNRWA by extending its mandate. We need to translate this support into matching resources.
Our financial and cash flow crisis can be addressed.
Through a compact between UNRWA and you, the Member States.
Our budgets are prepared ahead of time, they are predictable.
So today, our priorities are:
One: that participants to the conference commit to cover the current core budget funding gap.
Two: that donors commit to raise their annual contribution and engage into multi annual agreements
Three: that UNRWA and its partners pursue the diversification of the donor base including with emerging donors and through private partnerships.
Four: that, in line with Agenda 2030, UNRWA and its partners explore ways to shift from welfare to development, ensuring no Palestine refugees is left behind.
In closing, over 70 years ago, members of the UN General Assembly made the strategic decision to support the Palestine refugees.
It takes an enormous sense of responsibility to honor that commitment over seven decades. We all owe hosts and donors the highest praise.
No one expected that 70 years later this support would still be needed. No Palestine refugees want to be a refugee for so long. No one is a refugee by choice.
Until their plight is addressed, a predictable UNRWA is, amongst other support, what the Palestine refugees and the region need.
Failing that, would mean to revisit the mandate.
This should however not happen.
Because, you, the Member States, decided last December that there was no alternative than to renew the UNRWA mandate, pending the just resolution of the question of the Palestine refugees.
Together we will make it happen.
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