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Commissioner-General Opening Remarks, Advisory Commission Meeting – 29 November 2021
Excellencies, friends, and colleagues,
I am extremely pleased to be here today with you all at the first hybrid meeting of the Advisory Commission on UNRWA since I started my functions as Commissioner-General.
Both Deputy Commissioner-General Leni Stenseth and I assumed our functions in UNRWA during the height of the pandemic.
This meeting represents our first opportunity to engage with members of the Advisory Commission in person.
We look forward to two days of rich discussions on how we collectively work towards a sustainable Agency, an Agency that is empowered to continue accompanying Palestine refugees on their journey to self-reliance.
I would like to start by congratulating Dr. Bassel el Hassan of Lebanon for your recent appointment as Chair of the Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Committee and wish you success in chairing the AdCom this year.
Let me take the opportunity here to thank Dr. Hassan Mneymneh for his support to UNRWA and Palestine refugees over the years.
I would also like to express my appreciation to Ms. Diane Corner, Consul-General of the United Kingdom in Jerusalem, for your role as Vice-Chair of the Advisory Commission.
We greatly appreciate the leadership of both Lebanon and the United Kingdom, both for this and the following Advisory Commission meeting.
Let me also welcome today Dr. Qasem Mohammed Husain, the new Director General of GAPAR. I look forward to meeting you in person next time I am in Damascus. I plan to travel to Syria on Sunday.
I would like to thank Dr. Ali Mustafa for his many years of hard work for Palestine refugees and his engagement with UNRWA.
Throughout the year, the Advisory Commission’s Sub-Committee has been convening at the technical level on a regular basis to provide continuous advice and guidance to UNRWA.
I am grateful to Mr. Gerhard Krause, Head of Cooperation of the Representative Office of the EU in Jerusalem, for his strong and effective leadership.
I also wish to thank Mr. Magdi El-Derini, Deputy Chief of Mission of the Embassy of Egypt in Jordan and Mr. Erling Hoem, Deputy Head of the Representative Office of Norway in Jerusalem, for their roles as Vice-Chair of the Sub-Committee.
My deepest gratitude goes to Jordan and Sweden for co-hosting the International Conference on UNRWA two weeks ago and for their strong support throughout this process.
I look forward to discussing with all members today the follow up to the Conference.
Dear Friends and Colleagues,
Last Thursday, I was forced to inform over 28,000 UN personnel that UNRWA does not have sufficient funds to pay their November salaries on time.
The human impact of this salary deferral is real.
In places like Gaza, Syria and Lebanon, where poverty is rampant and jobs rare, many UNRWA staff support extended families.
For them, deferral of payment comes on top of years of austerity, understaffing, frozen benefits and job insecurity.
I am painfully aware of the sacrifices our staff are asked to make.
These are the staff who have gone above and beyond the call of duty to provide health, food and sanitation services to communities at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
They are the ones that turned schools into shelters for over 70,000 Gazans seeking safety during the May conflict.
They are the ones who, at the risk of their own lives, continued to provide services in Syria during ten years of conflict.
Our inability to pay staff will inevitably have an impact on services to millions of refugees. Interruption of services will fuel frustration, anger and disarray.
Imagine if UNRWA health services are compromised in the middle of a global pandemic? COVID-19 vaccination rollout will come to a halt. Maternal and childcare will stop.
Imagine half a million girls and boys not knowing if they can continue learning.
Imagine two million conflict - affected Palestine refugees not receiving humanitarian assistance.
Imagine the immense feeling of abandonment that can come with the disruption of what is probably the only stable lifeline for Palestine refugees- here I am referring to reliable predictable services by UNRWA.
Disruption of services will happen at a time when four out of our five fields of operation are in crisis.
Gaza struggles to recover from the conflict in May. Unemployment has hit 50 per cent of the population, 70 per cent amongst the youth. In January, UNRWA switched to universal food aid.
In the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, record high levels of tensions and violence, including settler violence, military incursions in camps and continued threats of forced displacement permeate the daily life of Palestine refugees.
The economic and financial collapse in Lebanon has led to an increase in the number of Palestine refugees asking for cash assistance to cover their basic needs and seeking health-related support from UNRWA.
Palestine refugees in Syria continue to face the grinding reality of war and poverty after ten years of conflict. Forty per cent of Palestine refugees remain internally displaced and extremely vulnerable.
UNRWA is not able to rehabilitate its damaged installations and provide services to refugees who have returned to camps that were damaged.
And in Jordan, the economic effect of COVID-19 has heaped further pressure on Palestine refugees, particularly the vulnerable.
The maintenance of UNRWA’s services in the country remains critical to overall stability. Palestine refugees need UNRWA now more than ever.
Today UNRWA is on the brink of collapse.
The Agency’s financial situation today should not come as a surprise to anyone.
I have repeatedly warned against the slow and continuous weakening of the Agency through the depletion of the resources it has available.
Despite growing humanitarian needs in Palestine refugee communities and increasing costs of operation, funding to the Agency has stagnated since 2013.
This year, the welcome resumption of the immense US support to UNRWA has been offset by a reduction of funding from a few large donors and the absence of others.
Despite the systemic underfunding, we managed to sustain services over the last years through austerity and cost-control measures implemented since 2015 and by carrying large liabilities from one year to the other. In 2020, we carried over US$ 75 million in liabilities into 2021.
The austerity measures have had a detrimental effect on our operational tools, infrastructure, and management systems. As we have directed all resources to service provision, we have not been able to invest in the Organization.
A continuation of this trend will leave us stagnant and unable to adequately respond to modern demands and grasp new opportunities.
And this stagnation has exposed us to greater financial, reputational, and audit risks.
The decision to freeze recruitment to control costs has led UNRWA to increasingly rely on daily paid workers.
In Gaza, close to 15 per cent of our teachers are daily paid. This reduces their exposure to training that routinely upgrades their teaching skills and their awareness of the humanitarian principles, such as neutrality, that govern their work in a UN agency.
Our social safety net programme has been unable to absorb a growing number of poor refugees across the region at a time the pandemic has exacerbated poverty.
Years of austerity have started to affect the quality of our services and the motivation and morale of staff.
This is something you, Members of the Advisory Commission, should truly be alarmed by.
Decades of investment in excellent services now risk being reversed.
Together, we should not allow a reversal of one of the best investments of the international community in the region.
I am appealing to you to help maintain the vital and irreplaceable role that UNRWA plays in a highly volatile region.
Most Palestine refugees have no one else to turn to for assistance and protection but UNRWA.
At the International Conference two weeks ago, we made progress in addressing our immediate financial shortfall.
I wish to express my gratitude to the Member States who announced pledges during the Conference and to those who said they were considering additional contributions this year.
As we convene today, our staff is waiting to hear when they will be paid for November. I urge all those who have already pledged end – of - year funding to disburse as soon as possible.
I also urge all members to provide additional exceptional contributions to close the remaining gap of US$ 60 million to cover the cost of services for November and December.
US$ 60 million seems to be a very reasonable price to pay for sustained stability.
US$ 806 million a year seems to be a good investment given the remarkable contribution of UNRWA services to the development of the region and the attainment of Agenda 2030. And this at excellent value for money.
Even if we raise the US$ 60 million, US$ 30 million in unpaid liabilities, mainly to vendors, will be carried over to 2022.
I remain determined to do everything possible to sustain critical services to Palestine refugees, protect UNRWA staff jobs, preserve the investment of the international community in the human development of Palestine refugees and avoid adding an additional source of instability in the Middle East.
But today I find myself questioning whether this is possible.
When I see such strong commitment at the political level for UNRWA and for Palestine refugees, why do we need to beg for the means to realize this commitment?
When field directors tell me about the greater humanitarian needs and greater dependence on UNRWA services across all fields, how can I ask them to do more with less?
And when I read truly inspirational stories of how UNRWA alumni contribute to global advances, such as the NASA expedition to Mars or the scientific research on COVID-19 vaccines, I ask what more can UNRWA offer the world in order to convince the international community of how worthy it is of your support?
When external validators such as the World Bank and the British Council praise our quality education and efficiency, I wonder what better proof do we need to show that UNRWA is an excellent investment that yields excellent results?
UNRWA can no longer function in these conditions.
The Agency can no longer offer an array of quality services that contribute to leaving no Palestine refugee behind with the resources that are made available to it.
You will hear more about these challenges during the panel discussion bringing together our five field directors.
At this very dangerous junction for UNRWA, I hereby need the support and advice of the Advisory Commission, both Hosts and donors, on how we move forward and create a more sustainable basis for UNRWA to deliver upon its mandate.
We must address the fundamental discrepancy between the cost of the services you, as member of the UN General Assembly, expect us to deliver, and the resources you make available.
That is where the real tension lies.
Time is running out for us to confront this reality.
A discussion aimed at reconciling the Mandate, the expectations and the funding needs to take place now.
We owe this to the Palestine refugees, who for too long now have felt abandoned. We owe it to the region who cannot bear another humanitarian disaster.
If we continue on this track, the Agency will eventually collapse.
And if it does, the question will be: who will fill the vacuum? Which school will the children go to? Where will refugees get health services?
Friends and Colleagues,
What we as UNRWA will do is clear:
First, we will pursue our vision, built together with you. We need this dream.
We are committed to provide Palestine refugees with modern and improved services that respond to their evolving needs in a way that is fit for modern times.
Our outstanding and agile response during the COVID-19 pandemic proves how we can adapt and provide quality services through modern and efficient means.
We want to take full advantage of the benefits of digital transformation. We want Palestine refugees to be part of the global digital transformation.
We want digital tools to enrich face-to-face services and, where possible, create greater efficiencies.
We want to better safeguard refugee data and enhance greater integrity in the management of our services.
Second, our management practices and systems continue to modernize.
Since mid-2020, we have instituted systems and policies that have made governance and decision-making more inclusive, and have strengthened accountability, transparency, and integrity.
A key priority of mine has been to empower our Senior Management Team and make decision-making more inclusive and transparent.
Following my first in-person senior management retreat in September, we have established a new Executive Advisory Group to support decision-making and strategic risk management.
We have reinforced our internal oversight services, including the evaluation department, as well as our ethics functions. We have introduced an Office of the Ombudsperson.
We have revised our procurement framework in line with current best practice within the United Nations and have delegated more authority to the field.
The Agency continues to implement UN-wide initiatives on the prevention of, and response to sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment.
And we continue to reinforce gender mainstreaming in our service delivery, focusing on reinforced data disaggregation, for instance.
We continue assistance to survivors of gender-based violence and we promote women’s access to microfinance. Moreover, improving gender parity at senior staff levels is a priority of mine.
On the policy side, the Agency will undertake an evaluation of its 2016 to 2021 Gender Equality Strategy, which will inform the Gender Equality Strategy for the five-year period from 2023 to 2028.
And we have recently revised our Disability Inclusion Policy that now includes a reinforces accountability framework. Our efforts to collect and use more and better disability-disaggregated data in our programmes will continue.
An Agency policy on environmental sustainability and a framework on environmental and social management are being developed, to ensure the environmental sustainability of the Agency, reconciling these with the operational realities that we face.
We remain committed to greater transparency.
Through this body’s Subcommittee, we appreciate the continued opportunity to share regular updates on our Finances.
And we are pleased that we can live up to global aid accountability standards through our participation in the International Aid Transparency Initiative system.
We are also taking proactive steps to increase transparency on the management of our international staff by moving away from past practices.
With the support of the Secretary General, we have requested an increase in our staff component to reflect the reality of our current international staffing needs, particularly in the areas of protection and fundraising.
I appeal for your individual and collective support, through your Permanent Missions in New York, as we seek final approval through the 5th Committee of the General Assembly.
Third, in delivering our human development and humanitarian mandate, we will continue to uphold the four humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, independence and neutrality in all our operations.
These principles are not theoretical – they are core to the identity and the responsibilities of every single UNRWA staff.
Our commitment and efforts to uphold UN values and humanitarian principles have been recognized at the International Conference in Brussels.
I welcome the commitment of AdCom members to shield the Agency from sustained political attacks that seek to question its legitimacy, including by questioning its adherence to the humanitarian principles.
We need to put an end to sensationalist and baseless accusations which undermine the Agency’s reputation, its funding and the rights of Palestine refugees.
We will strengthen our efforts to ensure that the education delivered in UNRWA schools champions UN values and UNESCO standard.
Issues related to gender perception, age-appropriateness and neutrality will be addressed to ensure full compliance at all times.
In doing so, we will also ensure that every refugee continues to learn about their Palestinian identity and heritage.
UNRWA will not be the one erasing from textbooks the reality and hardship in which our students live, like the reality of 300,000 Palestine refugee students, living under occupation.
We will continue to invest immense efforts in training personnel on their obligations to uphold humanitarian principles and will continue to vet staff, beneficiaries, suppliers, and partners to ensure no payment goes to, or is received from, someone on the Consolidated UN Sanctions list.
And we will continue to manage a strong system of installation inspections.
Where there are breaches, we will apply our robust system of response, investigation, and follow-up, whilst respecting the principle of due process and applicable United Nations rules and regulations.
Friends and Colleagues,
Embedded in our vision are the efforts we wish to take to create a sustainable and predictable funding model for the Agency.
To achieve this, your support is paramount.
Deputy Commissioner-General Leni Stenseth will provide greater details on our Strategic Plan tomorrow, but I wish to express my gratitude to those Member States who announced new or renewed multi-year agreements at the International Conference. This is a key and indispensable step towards financial sustainability.
Combined with existing agreements, we know today that we can count on around 36 to 38 per cent of our Programme Budget in the next two years.
This is good, but not enough for a service delivery Agency like UNRWA.
We will continue to work to expand the number and volume of multi-year agreements.
To facilitate this, we have presented a stable budget until 2025.
We now count on the commitment of each of you to strive for maximal predictability.
There is a strong call for UNRWA to diversify its funding base. I agree.
We need to boost our potential for digital fundraising. This could be financed through a US$ 50 million worth revolving fund, for example.
As we explore the potential for greater partnerships or innovative fundraising models, I call on you to help with your expertise and knowledge.
Member States on boards of International Financial Institutions or Regional or Global Development Banks, we hope that you can at your end promote greater collaboration between UNRWA and these institutions.
Over the years, the CERF has been an indispensable mechanism for UNRWA to maintain critical services and manage cash flow, in the absence of capital reserves which were depleted by years of financial crisis.
Your support is needed to ensure UNRWA can continue to access the CERF loan facility in the medium term. At least until we reconstitute a reserve worth three months of operations or establish our own revolving fund with your help.
Members of the Advisory Commission,
We are at a defining moment in the Agency’s history.
With a political solution to the question of Palestine refugees seemingly not on the horizon, refugees continue to rely on UNRWA for services and assistance that will allow them to live with dignity.
They do not want to be refugees – they do not want to have to depend on our assistance, but we are, for most of them, the option of last resort.
I believe it is our duty, collectively, to do everything in our capacity to not leave them behind.
As an organization, we are leaving no stone unturned as we seek to provide human development and humanitarian support to the refugees – and I trust that all members of the Advisory Commission, hosts and donors alike, will join us, guide us, and support us as we make all efforts to meet the needs in the final weeks of this year and in the years to come.
I look forward to our discussions over these next two days and thank you for your continued support to UNRWA and Palestine refugees.
Before closing let me present to you the new colleagues who joined us since the last AdCom:
M. Ben Majekodunmi joined UNRWA at the beginning of November as our new Chief of Staff.
Ms. Anna Autio, Senior Policy Advisor and M. Gavin Roy, Deputy Chief of Staff have also joined the Executive office. Ms. Autio will be the UNRWA’s focal point on all Advisory Commission matters and she will be supported in this role by M. Roy.
I also wish to introduce Mr. Tom White, acting Director of UNRWA Operations in Gaza. Let me take this opportunity to thank Mr. Matthias Schmale for his dedication and commitment to the work of UNRWA and the rights of Palestine refugees over the last seven years.
Mr. Karim Amer joined us in August as the Director of Partnerships in the External Relations Department.
Last, I am very pleased to announce the arrival in January 2022, of Ms. Nathalie Boucly as our new Director of Legal Affairs.
Thank you, Mr Chair.
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