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Commissioner-General Opening Remarks at UNRWA Pledging Conference
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is my pleasure to be here with you today at this Pledging Conference for UNRWA. I wish to express my appreciation to the President of the General Assembly for convening this Conference.
I am also grateful to the Secretary General for attending this meeting. Both your presence and strong words of support today reflect your solidarity with Palestine refugees and you unwavering commitment to the UNRWA mandate.
I also thank all representatives of UN Member States.
Together, we have contributed to one of the most successful human development stories in the region.
From educating over two million Palestine refugee girls and boys, to universal infant vaccination and reduced maternal mortality that exceeds global standards, there is really a lot for us all to be proud of.
During armed conflicts, your support enabled UNRWA to provide shelter and protection – and helped rebuild destroyed neighbourhoods and communities.
We have become the lifeline of one of the most destitute communities in the region, the Palestine refugees.
But Today these collective achievements are at risk.
For the past decade, it has become increasingly challenging for the Agency to fulfil the mandate given by this very General Assembly.
Because for the last 10 years, the funds made available to UNRWA have stagnated.
And interruptions and decrease in funding from major donors, including regional donors, and the unpredictability of income to UNRWA have compelled us to operate for a decade with an average shortfall of around US$ 100 million.
Meanwhile the needs of Palestine refugees and the cost of quality services have increased.
UNRWA cannot be compared to any other UN humanitarian agency.
You have mandated UNRWA to provide government-like services. But we do not have the fiscal and financial tools of a government. We rely almost entirely on voluntary contributions, essentially from Member States.
For years, we managed the chronic underfunding through internal measures such as cost control, austerity and zero-growth budgets.
Today, we have depleted our financial reserves and reached the limits of cost control and austerity measures.
Austerity now affects the quality of the services.
To illustrate austerity, think of 50 children in one classroom, double shifts within schools, or a medical visit where a doctor spends less than 3 minutes with a patient.
Our 28,000 staff, most of whom are Palestine refugee teachers, nurses, doctors, engineers, or sanitation laborer, are exhausted as we continue to ask them for the impossible: to do more each year with less means and less staff.
The UNRWA financial challenges are not happening in a vacuum.
Shifting geopolitical priorities and regional dynamics, and the emergence of new humanitarian crises, have deprioritised the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
For Palestine refugees the weakening of the Agency happens in the absence of a political solution to the conflict that includes them. And that is the crux of the matter for UNRWA.
The fear of being abandoned by the international community permeates all my conversations with Palestine refugees.
For them, UNRWA remains the last standing pillar of the commitment of the international community to their right to a dignified life and their right to a just and lasting solution.
Despair and hopelessness are growing in the refugee camps.
Political, economic and security conditions across the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, are deteriorating as Palestine refugees experience high levels of dispossession, violence and insecurity.
Gaza is still struggling to recover from the impact of last year’s conflict. Despite our progress in rehabilitating and rebuilding damaged homes, another issue will take much longer to rebuild: the psycho-social well-being of Palestinians in Gaza, particularly children.
A 12-year-old child in an UNRWA school has lived through four armed conflicts and lived all her or his life under an economic and social blockade.
The conflict in Syria has now entered its 12th year with humanitarian needs at their highest since the start of the war.
During my recent visits, I saw a growing number of Palestine refugees returning to live amid the rubble of their homes in refugee camps such as Yarmouk or Ein el Tal because they could no longer afford renting elsewhere.
We must be able to rehabilitate UNRWA schools and clinics to provide those returning with basic health and education services.
In Lebanon, the socio-economic collapse of the country and the sharp rise of prices of fuel, food, and other basic commodities has pushed most young Palestine refugees to think of just one option: leave the region at any cost, even at the cost of their own lives.
In Jordan, where Palestine refugees live in a more permissive environment, their needs are increasing, especially with the effects of COVID-19 on the economic situation in the country.
The situation in Ukraine has exacerbated the noticeable increase in food and commodity prices, seriously affecting the household economy of Palestine refugees.
Across our five fields of operation, poverty rates amongst Palestine refugees have increased, reaching 80 per cent or more in Lebanon, Syria and Gaza. Too many Palestine refugees report living with one meal a day.
It has also strained the fragile financial situation of UNRWA.
In Gaza, the cost of our food basket increased by over 40 per cent compared to the average last year. This leaves us with a funding gap this year of US$ 72 million to sustain the food pipeline beyond quarter three for over one million Palestine refugees.
UNRWA also urgently needs US$ 48 million to maintain emergency food and cash assistance to Palestine refugees in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.
The UNRWA mandate is a collective responsibility of the Members of the General Assembly.
External credible validators like the World Bank or the MOPAN assert that our education and health programs are not only great value for money but have also a huge positive impact on the lives of the refugees.
The impact of predictable services on the safety of the refugees and on regional stability should suffice to convince every Member State to commit funding to UNRWA in line with the resolutions they adopt.
Instead, the Agency continues to be under three sources of intense pressure:
the commitment of the General Assembly, with quasi universal support, to uphold the rights of Palestine refugees and its instruction to UNRWA to deliver basic services until a just and lasting solution;
the lack of sufficient funding from Member States to implement the mandate, and the demand by some donors that UNRWA adjusts its operations so as to live within its means;
the objection from Hosts and Palestine refugees communities to reduce or hand over services to a third party, which is perceived as an encroachment on the rights of the refugees and a step towards dismanteling the Agency.
Failing to reconcile these demands will push the Agency towards financial collapse.
How to reconcile these expectations?
The most straight-forward, cost efficient and practical way is for donors to provide funds that match the annual costs of running UNRWA services.
The Agency has left no stone unturned to broaden the donor base, bring back those who have disengaged and diversify funding sources, including the private sector.
I have asked donors that reduced funding to reconsider the impact of their decision on the region’s stability.
I have appealed to all donors to ensure that Palestine refugees are not a collateral of the events in Ukraine.
And In line with the mandate, we are also exploring partnerships with sister UN agencies.
And we are enacting a series of internal management reforms to modernize the way we deliver services and strengthen transparency, accountability, and efficiency in all we do.
But this will not be enough.
Our ability to continue fulfilling our mandate lies with Member States of the United Nations and their political will to fully fund our core budget.
Today and in the months to come, we have an opportunity to revert the trend and avoid the implosion of the Agency.
In January, I presented a zero-growth Programme Budget for 2022, for the third consecutive year.
This budget covers the education of over half a million girls and boys, primary health care to close to two million patients and a social safety net for close to 400,000 among the poorest Palestine refugees.
To deliver these services, we need US$817 million. The full US $ 817 million.
We are not in a position anymore to adopt austerity and cost control measures of the size of the funding gap.
In 2017, the Secretary-General called on Member States to seek solutions to make UNRWA financially sustainable.
Five years on, I sit before you, repeating what my predecessors have said, but with even more urgency as we have exhausted internal capacity to respond, alone, to the chronic underfunding.
What the Agency requires is increased financial predictability and multi-year funding.
That is how an agency of the scope and scale of UNRWA should be run if it were to continue providing government-like services and contributing to regional stability.
The General Assembly mandate is very clear: Palestine refugees should receive services until there is a just and lasting solution to their plight.
Disruption of services would not only be the failure of UNRWA. It would be a collective failure and a failure of multilateralism.
At a time of so many global crises, from Ukraine to Afghanistan and to the Horn of Africa, I urge that we work together to avert a new crisis unfolding in a part of the world that has already witnessed enough pain and misery.
My colleagues and I remain committed to tirelessly work to protect Palestine refugees’ rights and access to services – and we look forward to engaging you and members of our Advisory Commission on this.
I especially look forward to the announcement of pledges at this conference and appeal for your strong financial support in the months to come.
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