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Remarks UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini, Noon Briefing (to the Press) on the sides of the UNRWA Pledging Conference
1 June 2023
It is definitely a pleasure to be back here in New York. In fact, I’m in town because tomorrow there will be a Pledging Conference organized by the President of the General Assembly in the presence of the UN Secretary-General to support UNRWA.
I think it is absolutely no secret for any of you that the Agency is going through a massive financial crisis. This is to the extent that I have recently described the financial crisis as being our main existential threat when it comes to our ability to implement the mandate conferred to UNRWA.
I know you have heard more than once about the financial crisis and about the fact that we are about to implode, to the point that it sounds almost like a broken record.
But I can tell you, the crisis is real. It is deepening and our ability to muddle through is slowly but surely coming to an end.
The situation is even more critical now that some of our committed donors have indicated that they will substantially decrease their contribution to the Agency.
I keep telling partners that UNRWA is not like any other UN humanitarian or development agency. There is a uniqueness in this organisation and the uniqueness in this organisation is that we are the only ones who are tasked to provide government-like services. We are, de facto, the ministry of education, the ministry of primary health care, the ministry of social services and the ministry of municipal services to one of the most destitute communities in the region – Palestine Refugees.
So, when we talk about adapting spending to resources, I am in no position to say, “Well, because we have 20 per cent less resources, let’s ask 20 per cent of our children to leave our schools.” Based on which criteria? We have nearly 550,000 girls and boys in our schools. I cannot one year say that I will take 550,000 students and another year say I will take 100,000 students less and bring them back once the funding returns.
That is not the way public-like services operate.
But I have also tirelessly highlighted the situation we are locked into.
On the one hand, we have the mandate of the General Assembly, which is very straightforward, and is renewed every three years. Last year in November, I was urging Member States: “Make sure we are not just rubber-stamping the renewal of the mandate. It needs to be accompanied by genuine commitment and resources.”
On the other hand, we have seen over the last 10 years that our resources have stagnated. At the same time the region has been hit by multiple crises and needs have increased. Expectations from Palestine Refugees vis-à-vis UNRWA as being the only lifeline have also increased. Costs have increased. However, resources have stagnated.
So, the tension between the costs and the resources has become more and more unbearable.
And, last but not least, there is also an expectation that arises from a context where the political process is completely stalled. In a context where the Palestinian/Israeli conflict is not a priority anymore, you have communities who expect the Agency to continue to deliver its services and who would perceive any decrease of services as a weakening of the future right of Palestine Refugees. This makes any transformation impossible.
Based on our forecast – the best available information from all our donor base – we will have no funds or cash available as of September to keep our schools, health centres and other critical services running.
We also need additional funding to keep our humanitarian operations going. So, it’s not just our public-like services, but also the humanitarian services in Gaza, in Syria, in Lebanon, and in the West Bank, [including East Jerusalem].
I also keep telling partners and donors – and that will also be part of my message tomorrow – that they should not take our ability to continue to deliver services for granted. Sooner or later, we will reach a tipping point.
Recently, I was describing our situation through a metaphor, saying that we are like a ship that is sinking, but hasn’t sunk yet. We can still reverse it. To prevent that we sink further, we need genuine political attention and commitment.
I have to say that it’s quite mind-boggling that decades of human development, gained largely thanks to the support of the international community in the region, might suddenly be reversed.
UNRWA is one of the best human success stories of the United Nations, in the Middle East and beyond.
This is what is at stake:
- More than half a million girls and boys who could be deprived of schools. If we have to cash, we cannot pay salaries, and if we have no salaries, we have no teachers running the schools.
- The same applies to health care for more than 2 million people.
- The same applies to our humanitarian assistance for more than 1.2 million people.
- The same applies to the social safety net for the poorest among the poor.
So, basically my message tomorrow to the Member States, also beyond the Pledging Conference, is to ring the alarm bell and say that the status quo which we are locked into today is not an option anymore. It is not bearable anymore. We cannot continue to muddle through. Yes, maybe for a few more months, maybe even for one year, but this is slowly but surely coming to an end.
So, tomorrow I will have two main asks:
Obviously, the first one is that we need additional funding on a predictable basis and flexible funding that allows us to keep our schools, health centres and other critical activities running.
But secondly, in the absence of a fair and lasting political solution to the plight of Palestine Refugees, we also need a sustainable and predictable UNRWA for the refugees, the Host countries, the stability of the region, and international community.
Let me just end by saying that we are approaching the 75th year as a temporary Agency. We were supposed to be a temporary agency and we are still here 75 years later. This is nothing to rejoice about, per se, because it also means that, collectively, we have not found a political solution to the longest-lasting, unresolved conflict. But we will also reflect on our collective successes because we have also contributed to human development and some prosperity in the region.
I also believe that the 75th anniversary should be the occasion to start reflecting about what is and should be our collective responsibility and commitment towards Palestine Refugees in the future. Our model today - the way we are doing business, the unreliability of our donor base, the fact that we provide public-like services but are funded like an NGO - is not sustainable anymore. Hence, we need – and I will try to trigger – a proper discussion about how we ensure that, collectively, we are predictable for Palestine Refugees, but beyond them, also for the region.
UNRWA is the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. The United Nations General Assembly established UNRWA in 1949 with a mandate to provide humanitarian assistance and protection to registered Palestine refugees in the Agency’s area of operations pending a just and lasting solution to their plight.
UNRWA operates in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, The Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
Tens of thousands of Palestine refugees who lost their homes and livelihoods due to the 1948 conflict continue to be displaced and in need of support, nearly 75 years on.
UNRWA helps Palestine Refugees achieve their full potential in human development through quality services it provides in education, health care, relief and social services, protection, camp infrastructure and improvement, microfinance, and emergency assistance. UNRWA is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions.
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