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Commissioner-General’s inaugural letter to staff
26 January 2010
Dear colleagues and friends,
At the beginning of my tenure as Commissioner-General, it is important – I believe – that I share with you my initial thoughts as we prepare to confront together the challenges of the coming years.
I appreciate the trust that the Secretary-General has shown in me and I am grateful to our Advisory Commission for endorsing my appointment unanimously. I am humbled by the task ahead, yet energised by the support that many of you have already expressed. It is your support that matters to me most, because I draw confidence from the extraordinary capacity of the UNRWA staff.
Succeeding a Commissioner-General as distinguished and respected as Karen AbuZayd is no easy task. I had the honour of serving as her deputy for over four years and have thus had the privilege to observe her devotion to the Palestine refugee cause; her courage in advocacy; her professionalism in managing the organisation; her vision in modernising it. While she earned the respect and admiration of all, the affection and high regard in which she is held by the refugee community is the most important evidence of how good a Commissioner-General she has been. I thank her again on behalf of all of us for her tireless leadership and devotion and wish her well in her future endeavours. I hope that she will visit us often and know she will be welcomed by all of us with open arms.
I am well aware that the post of Commissioner-General is not a personal honour bestowed upon one individual, but it is a mission to be carried out with and for Palestine refugees. My appointment is a reflection of the Secretary-General’s and the Advisory Commission’s recognition that this Agency – driven by the work of each and every one of the 30,000 staff – is on the right course and has made the right choices in the past few years. It is a reflection of their support for what you have accomplished over the years, as we continue on the trajectory set by my predecessor to fulfill our mission.
The senior management team that has ably supported Karen AbuZayd and myself has been recently strengthened by the addition of some experienced directors. I am now very happy to introduce to all of you the new Deputy Commissioner-General, Margot Ellis, who brings with her a wealth of experience working not only in this region, but in many other parts of the world. Based in Amman, she will oversee the work of both the support and programme departments and will manage the Agency’s continuing efforts to consolidate and build upon the foundations laid through the Organisational Development process. I am very happy to welcome Margot to UNRWA and I am sure that you will support her, as you did me, in this important role.
The challenge before us is enormous and complex, however the priorities are clear. We shall strive to provide the best possible services to the refugees in accordance with the four human development goals outlined in our Medium Term Strategy. We shall continue to advocate forcefully for the rights, plights, aspirations and hopes of Palestine refugees. We shall be resolute in our call to listen to, and include, refugees in the context of the peace process, to ensure that their unique interests and rights, as set forth in UN resolutions, are fully understood. We shall further advance the reform of the organisation, to make it better, more modern, and more efficient in delivering improved services to refugees. It is also urgent and imperative that we address the Agency’s chronic shortage of resources by working with host and donor governments to ensure that funding is sufficient and predictable, so that the quality of services we provide to refugees can significantly improve and our staff are adequately remunerated.
I need not tell you how difficult this period is for the Palestinian people. We are all painfully aware of the counterproductive policies collectively punishing the people of the Gaza Strip; conscious decisions that have caused untold suffering and a dramatic deterioration in the lives of the population, in contravention of international law. One of my key priorities will be to continue to advocate strongly on behalf of the 1.5 million Gazans, and to do so not only until the end of the blockade and the occupation, but also until a just and lasting solution to the plight of the refugees is achieved.
Despite some recent economic improvements for some, the lives of most Palestinians in the West Bank continue to be made almost impossible by obstacles, walls, movement limitations and other restrictions, and by the expanding threat of settler violence. For those residing in East Jerusalem, as I do, it is cause for daily anguish to watch the situation deteriorate rapidly under our very eyes, especially the ruthless evictions of Palestinians from their homes. UNRWA will continue to stand with the affected families and all of those in need of our protection and will tirelessly lend our voice to their calls for justice.
In Lebanon, we must not only rebuild Nahr el Bared camp as soon as possible, to put an end to the displacement of thousands of refugees, but also seize the welcome opportunity afforded by the government to address the severe problems of Palestine refugees; enlarging their prospects of employment and ownership, as well as improving our services in health, relief, and education. We shall continue to work closely with and support the government in extending these rights and opportunities to Palestinians.
Although refugees in Jordan and Syria benefit from stable conditions, a lack of investment has in many cases led to deteriorating quality of services. This is of great concern to me as it is to host governments. It is critical that we uphold our responsibility towards these large refugee populations and we continue to work closely with our government stakeholders – hosts and donors alike – to improve the quality of our work and the living conditions of refugees in those countries.
Improving services provided to refugees – especially education, health and social protection – is indeed our foremost concern. We must achieve it. Funding remains an enormous challenge, particularly for the General Fund. In the last few years, we have been unable to invest sufficient resources in activities that are crucial to improve quality: training, information technology, infrastructure repairs, better premises and updated equipment – to name just a few. This situation has become unacceptable. I will follow-up on the discussions held at the last meeting of the Advisory Commission to explore the possibility of establishing a compact between UNRWA and its government stakeholders to address the resource crisis in a lasting manner.
Like you, I firmly believe that our paramount concern will always be to provide services to refugees at the quality which they deserve. In this context, adequate remuneration of our staff is also important to ensure quality of services. I am conscious that we sometimes have difficulty meeting this target, although considerable effort has been made over the past years to improve conditions of service, despite the Agency’s troubling financial situation. To talk about these issues is not always easy, but it is essential that we discuss them constructively and in a positive spirit. I am pleased that recent agreements have demonstrated an improved understanding between the unions and management. I am fully prepared to encourage the pursuit of this dialogue and to honour commitments previously made, whenever financial conditions permit.
Let me take this opportunity to stress the importance of building on the past three years of reforms. Reforming UNRWA is very important – it allows us to work more effectively and makes us more attractive to donors – therefore we must not be afraid of positive change. However reform is not an open ended process. We must all be clear about the next steps: first, to complete the foundations which we started to lay out in 2006, namely in the area of human resources management and in particular in the establishment of a more equitable and transparent job classification, compensation and performance management system; and second, as envisaged at the outset of the Organisational Development plan, ensure that the changes that we have achieved are of lasting benefit to the refugees we serve. This shift of focus will be at the very heart of the next phase of reform which has already started in earnest, and in various ways, in all five fields. It will be a difficult challenge, but one that we must address now, when the momentum of reform is still strong.
I noted at the start that I was humbled by this appointment. I should say, before I conclude, that I am also very proud of having the opportunity to continue to work for UNRWA. I have served refugees and the cause of peace since 1984, when I was a young volunteer in Cambodian refugee camps in Thailand. I have worked in different places, seen much suffering, and participated in many operations to support people in distress around the world.
Yet in no place more than UNRWA have I felt part of such a substantial and comprehensive effort to translate the support of the international community into simple, concrete, tangible activities: educating children, preventing disease, and helping the poor. This tangibility – the practical result of complex planning and hard work to address the most basic needs of human development – is UNRWA’s most precious asset and its fundamental contribution to the dignity of refugees. It is what makes us relevant, and what allows our work to make a real difference in the lives of those who continue, after six decades, to be wronged by injustice.
It is this concrete work – our unique contribution to the values and aspirations of the United Nations – that I have loved since my first day with UNRWA. It is the awareness of its daily impact that has made it possible – for me as for many others – not to be discouraged by the many difficulties that we encounter, and by the continued human rights violations, violence, occupation and conflict that Palestinians have to endure. And it is you who carry out this work day after day in schools and health clinics; in centres of relief and sanitation offices; with families in their homes and in the offices which support field work – it is you that I have to thank above all, and it is your trust that I need and will value the most as I take over the heavy responsibility of Commissioner-General.
UNRWA is confronted with an increased demand for services resulting from a growth in the number of registered Palestine refugees, the extent of their vulnerability and their deepening poverty. UNRWA is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions and financial support has been outpaced by the growth in needs. As a result, the UNRWA programme budget, which supports the delivery of core essential services, operates with a large shortfall. UNRWA encourages all Member States to work collectively to exert all possible efforts to fully fund the Agency’s programme budget. UNRWA emergency programmes and key projects, also operating with large shortfalls, are funded through separate funding portals. UNRWA is a United Nations agency established by the General Assembly in 1949 and mandated to provide assistance and protection to some 5.4 million Palestine refugees registered with UNRWA across its five fields of operation. Its mission is to help Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank, including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip achieve their full human development potential, pending a just and lasting solution to their plight. UNRWA services encompass education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, protection and microfinance.
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