Statement of Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl to the UNRWA Advisory Commission

15 November 2016
UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl (second from left) addresses the UNRWA Advisory Commission second bi-annual meeting held in Amman. © 2016 UNRWA Photo by Michelle Hamers

Addressing the host governments and donor states’ representatives assembled for the second bi-annual UNRWA Advisory Commission meeting for 2016 held in Amman, UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl stresses the need to “put UNRWA on a more stable financial footing”

Mr. Chairman; Mr. Vice Chairman; Distinguished Delegates; Colleagues: 

I am very pleased to join in the introductory words of the Chair and Vice Chair and to have all of you welcomed to this meeting of the UNRWA Advisory Commission.  I want to thank you Ambassador Bessler for your strong words of support. Your energy and engagement are much appreciated and needed in these challenging times. 

In addition, let me thank Dr. Obaida el-Dandarawy for his contribution as Vice Chair. Egypt’s support as a host country is of growing importance to this Commission and UNRWA.  

I am also very grateful to H.E. Dr. Bisher Khasawneh for his introduction. I wish to convey my deep appreciation for the sustained  generosity of the Government of Jordan as host of our meetings, and for its historic facilitation of the work of UNRWA. 

The Bureau’s efforts are also acknowledged warmly; Ms. Unni Rambøll of Norway as Chair of the Sub-Committee, and her two Vice Chairs, Ms. Briana of the USA and Mr. Yasin of Jordan. 

I would also like to give a warm word of welcome, as Mr. Bessler did, to our special guests South Korea and the World Bank.  Their presence reflects the effort that is being made to build awareness of  our work, and partnerships for the benefit of the refugees.

And allow me a brief update about some senior appointments I have made recently in UNRWA. I ask my colleagues to stand up as they are named.  They are: Mr. Timothy der Weduwen in the new function of Director of Security and Crisis-Management; Ms. Françoise Vanni as Director of External Relations and Communications; Mr. Hakam Shahwan as Acting Director for our Lebanon Field Office – many of you know him from his previous function as Staff Relations Adviser; Ms. Dorothee Klaus as Director of Relief and Social Services; and Mr. Nick Kaldas, Director of Internal Oversight Services, who just joined the Agency in recent days.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Our meeting takes place at a very important time for UNRWA. I look forward to updating you on some significant recent developments in our operations, the challenges we face and our financial situation. But before that, allow me to share the following thoughts with you:

We live in most uncertain and unpredictable times. In many places, political instability and socio-economic fragility appear to be on the rise. In others, armed conflicts and fragmentation are spreading and wreaking havoc. Human insecurity and terrorism, discrimination and xenophobia, seem more pervasive. Values - common to peoples across the globe - are being undermined.

And few issues have received more attention of late than large-scale movements of refugees and migrants. This was illustrated very visibly during the recent high-level week of the UN General Assembly, which included the adoption of the New York Declaration on refugees and migrants and the Leaders summit, hosted by President Barack Obama. 

And yet, it is interesting how often I am asked why the world should continue to care about Palestine refugees. It is a situation I am told that has dropped of the international agenda, is overshadowed by the numerous other crises in the Middle-East. And I am also told there is a sense of fatigue around this issue.

A sense of fatigue? Nowhere can the sense of fatigue be greater than among Palestine refugees themselves. Nowhere will you see exhaustion and despair more evidently than in camps like Shatila in Beirut, with its accumulated pain and trauma, overcrowded alleys and agonizing social pressures. Nowhere is the feeling of abandonment more acute than in camps like Yarmouk in Damascus, with its devastated landscapes, broken lives and shattered dignity. Nowhere are suffocation and bitterness more overwhelming than in camps like Jabaliya in Gaza, which you were born into and will remain trapped in. 

The world cannot afford to be fatigued. It cannot afford to look the other way.

Because, at the very time as officials and citizens around the world will today say that Palestine refugees are not on the top of their agenda, they will add that the unresolved injustice done to Palestine refugees remains at the heart of instability in the Middle-East and beyond.

Because the deplorable conditions and extreme insecurity they face, the absence of a political horizon, are draining them of resolve and creativity.

Because fifty years of occupation in Palestine and ten years of blockade in Gaza, happening in full view of the international community, are etched painfully into the soul and identity of the refugee community.

Because a young generation of Palestine refugees is growing up, losing faith in the value of politics,  compromise and international diplomacy.  

You will shortly hear in greater detail about the situation in the different fields but I would like to highlight just a few elements if you allow.

In Gaza, the population is marked, as you are all deeply aware, by the effects of repeated wars. Children as young as nine have lived through three highly violent conflicts over the past eight years alone. 2 million people - of which 1.3 million are Palestine refugees - see every facet of their lives defined by the illegal blockade imposed on them.

Freedom of movement is virtually inexistent. Let me give you just one example, which I always find is particularly striking, which is that some 90% of UNRWA's 260'000 students in Gaza have never left the Gaza Strip in their lives. Unemployment has reached world-record levels, with jobless youth at a truly staggering 60-to-65 %. Unemployment rates are even higher as we know for young women.

While you can map out the physical consequences in terms of destruction of successive wars in Gaza, there is no way to properly map out the psychological scars, the depth of despair among young people deprived of opportunity, and the reasons behind an unprecedented increase in the rate of suicides in the Gaza Strip.

The situation in Gaza is, in my view, being very seriously underestimated and I must tell you that I cannot see how anything happening there - under our collective watch - is reconcilable with human dignity or the security of anyone in the region.  We should be doing everything possible to avoid making that situation even worse, so it’s a huge concern that support for UNRWA’s emergency response keeps declining.  Things are about to get worse for really vulnerable refugees, including the ones who lost their homes in the 2014 conflict. The most immediate concern is 6,500 families in Gaza that rely on our cash support for their temporary shelter, until UNRWA can rebuild their homes. As of next January we will be forced to stop assisting them, unless we receive $5 million in the weeks ahead.   

In the West Bank including East Jerusalem, you see a different version of despair among Palestine refugees.  Military rule and occupation define every aspect of public and private life: from military incursions, to restrictions of the movement of people and goods, punitive house demolitions and continued and illegal settlement expansions which reinforces this trend. 

Now, I have to say these trends are all the more preoccupying as a majority of young Palestine refugees in the Gaza Strip and West Bank (including East Jerusalem) were born after the Oslo peace accords. They were told by the world that if they embraced negotiations and a sense of compromise, a just and lasting solution would be found, in the form of a Palestinian State living side by side with Israel, in peace and security. This has not happened however and the risk is big of losing an entire generation to the idea that political processes matter and diplomacy actually works.

And yet, nothing would today be more important than seeing the international community act decisively to recreate a much needed political horizon.

Finally, in Syria, the horrific cataclysm of violence and destruction shows little sign of ending soon, and no one in the country is spared its effects. Over 60% of the 560,000 Palestine refugees, resident when the conflict broke out in 2011 have been displaced at least once and as many as 120,000 have fled the country altogether, to Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and Europe.  

Palestinian camps in Syria have sustained severe damage. Palestine refugees struggle to survive in the ruins of Aleppo and Dera’a, and I am now concerned that Khan Eshieh may become the next Yarmouk.  

When I look at the region, like you I sense the risks of radicalization of desperate young people are huge. Extremists are on the constant lookout for new recruits. To date, few young Palestinians have answered the calls of groups like Daesh.  Efforts by all parties including the international community will hopefully be taken to reduce the sense of deep insecurity felt by Palestine refugees and reaffirm commitments to help meet the development and humanitarian needs of this community. UNRWA’s own human development and emergency work is in that regard an indispensable asset.

I turn at this point make some very brief comments about UNRWA itself, which must navigate this complex and deeply unstable environment as it delivers directly its core education, health, and poverty mitigation services, and in addition mounts large emergency operations to 1.3 M people in the occupied Palestinian territory and in Syria. 

Allow me to mention just a couple of noteworthy achievements.  I’ll be brief.

In Syria  this year, we increased school attendance; teachers and students who have been displaced, or live in conflict zones, are showing up at schools and roughly 50,000 pupils are receiving education, up from the low point of 22,000 in 2012.   This is remarkable under any circumstances.   

Our Microfinance Programme has just been awarded the Sanabel prize for transparency, from a field of 92 microfinance institutions in 13 Arab countries.  The award credits the programme with promoting the integrity of microfinance as a poverty-alleviating tool. 

Amidst extraordinary challenges facing UNRWA in the field, we decided to press ahead with far-reaching reforms of core services, which were spelled out in UNRWA’s Medium Term Strategy for 2016-2021. 

We front-loaded some of the most sensitive and significant reforms, completing their implementation within the first half of 2016, rather than staggering them over the entire 6 year MTS period.   We made progress with roll out in 2016 thanks to the hosts, who took key steps to facilitate them, which I deeply acknowledge with appreciation. 

The “food to cash” transition is complete in the three targeted fields – in Jordan, Lebanon and the West Bank, eligible social safety net beneficiaries are now using E-cards to obtain food assistance.  Another key reform, hospitalization in Lebanon, very challenging, is in place following a mid-year agreement with refugee representatives, with assurances that access to urgent hospital care will be preserved for the most vulnerable refugees.  

These particular reforms have not been without dilemmas and challenges. For one thing, as always, I wish to recognize that any change in services or delivery triggers intense stress in the refugee community, even changes for the better.  We understand this well since they have been facing so many broken promises since 1948. There is also an anxiety related to the fact that food aid in particular is overlaid with symbolism for the refugees.  

UNRWA felt the risks, and frontline colleagues in the fields this Spring faced extraordinary pressure from beneficiaries, their representatives and other stakeholders.  And yet, we moved ahead out of a sense of deep responsibility to all stakeholders and most certainly to the Palestine refugees. We stressed that this change is ultimately empowering, not only because it is more dignified in terms of achieving food security, but because it allows for choice by the refugees themselves.  We hope this new system will enable us to mobilise more resources and cover a larger number of food insecure refugees. 

As you are all too aware, UNRWA works in a landscape rife with political and security tensions affecting all host governments, as well as other governments in the region. At every turn UNRWA must constantly assess and consider the scale and complexity of operational challenges that this situation imposes on us, and I ask that you join us doing the same.

We took against this backdrop some very robust and difficult steps  - and here I wish to thank my Deputy for her extraordinary role - to control and where possible reduce costs, demonstrating our commitment to lowering expenditure to a bare minimum without cutting our fundamental core services. My Special Report of September 2015 and Update of September 2016 lay out the steps which reduced our shortfall in 2016 by US$54 million and produced a zero growth budget. 

Despite the range of measures being taken internally and these significant budgetary results, UNRWA’s financial situation – as you mentioned in your opening remarks – remained a cause of serious concern.  A year ago, it almost led to the postponement of our school-year sending shock-waves through the refugee community, and triggering a strong reaction amongst the hosts, at a very senior level.  In the aftermath, we all agreed that we simply could not allow the same thing to happen again.  So I have to be honest with you that I am deeply saddened and worried me that despite the extent of that crisis, despite UNRWA's robust management measures and reforms, we were still carrying a shortfall in early September of US$ 96 million. 

Following the extraordinary Adcom and contributions from the United States, Sweden and Switzerland – we brought the shortfall down to US$74 million, where it was until just a few days ago. And it came down to US$48 million following additional contributions notably US$ 15million from the UAE. In other words, we are in a significantly better position than two months ago regarding the 2016 expenditure and shortfall, but still have serious work to do.

At the same time, we must be clear that the amount of work that was required, and the amount of political mobilization needed to reach this result with barely 6-7 weeks remaining in 2016 was phenomenal and not sustainable in the long term. 

I would like to stress that fact, because as we enter 2017 our bare minimum requirements for the year – let me repeat, the bare minimum we need to operate – are $715.5 million in terms of our core budget.  Based on current income projections, the shortfall for next year is $115 million.  Among the things we have taken into account is the results of this year’s salary surveys in all fields, which we shared with the unions as a matter of transparency.  In two fields, the West Bank and Gaza, the unions are challenging the outcome; in our other fields agreements have been reached in principle.   

It has now become clear, Ladies and Gentlemen, and it is visible for all to see, that we need new mechanisms to put UNRWA on a more stable financial footing. We need a paradigm shift. Grateful as we are - and we are immensely grateful - to our donors and to hosts for the remarkable support received, the current system is not managing to bring the needed predictability of funding. It is putting at further risk the stability of the Middle-East and the extraordinary results in human development of Palestine refugees achieved over decades with your support.

The humanitarian, political and security priorities of many of UNRWA’s stakeholders are not being served by the financial crises, nor by the annual process of bridging the gaps. 

It is important for me to emphasize that UNRWA has been investing significant time to explore different avenues to achieve financial stability.  In coordination with the Secretary-General and donor partners, major outreach efforts have been undertaken with new donors in the last year and a half.  We are also in senior-level contact with the World Bank about partnering that may give access to possible financing for education. And in recent years we have invested significant amounts to tap into private, charitable and foundation resources.  UNRWA is leaving no stone unturned in the quest for broad and diverse support.

In that regard I was very encouraged to see the commitments made by Member States in the New York Declaration in September.  In light of its affirmation that UNRWA requires sufficient funding to be able to carry out its activities effectively and in a predictable manner, I suggest that UNRWA’s crippling financial situation, and the many discussions about how to address it, present a timely opportunity to begin acting on the Declaration in relation to Palestine refugees. 

In light of the special role played by the General Assembly in establishing UNRWA and its mandate, I believe it has a critical role to play in finding means to stabilize UNRWA financially. 

We will have opportunity in tomorrow’s session, as Ambassador Bessler pointed out, to look into this issue more closely but I wish already here to acknowledge with deep appreciation the action undertaken by hosts, led by the State of Palestine at the UN General Assembly.  

Following their engagement with UNRWA this summer regarding funding to stabilize the Agency they held initial discussions with other Member States in New York with a view to consider, following broad consultations facilitated by the Secretary-General, conclusions and recommendations regarding all ways and means to ensure, sufficient predictable and sustained funding for UNRWA, including through voluntary and assessed contributions. The approach has been included, as mentioned by Ambassador Bessler, in a draft resolution of the General Assembly on UNRWA, under the title “operations of UNRWA”.  I also had the opportunity in recent days to discuss this with the Secretary-General designate, Mr. Antonio Guterres, who expressed strong support for UNRWA and its work. 

Distinguished Delegates,

I wish to conclude with a word about one part of the Palestine refugee community that I think and worry about more than any other - and that is youth. About half of the refugees registered with UNRWA are below the age of 25. As I mentioned earlier, their political and personal horizons are essentially closed. 

Beyond the 9 to 10 years of education received by 500'000 boys and girls in our schools, very few can today contemplate real opportunities in life. This is simply unacceptable, and should be a matter of grave concern to all of us in an environment where there are currents of extremism sweeping through the region, in search of footholds in vulnerable communities. We have a collective responsibility to protect Palestine refugees from such risks. 

One remarkable institution in our education system that my colleagues and I have been interacting with more decisively are UNRWA's school parliaments. School parliamentarians in our five fields are democratically elected young students, who have a lot to teach us. 

While not yet recognized citizens of a state of their own, no one can take way from them the fact of being citizens of the world. You will meet a number of them during this meeting, and I am fairly certain you will remember them, their presence, their sense of civic duty.  

During his last visit to Gaza in June, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon met with a number of student parliamentarians, representing 260'000 students in Gaza and whose president is a formidable 15-year old girl, named Razan. 

The Secretary-General spoke, in very touching ways, of his own youth in Korea after the war. He encouraged our school parliamentarians to study hard and to learn about human rights. At that moment, one of the students, young Ahmed, said and I quote: "Secretary-General, we are passionate about human rights, we study human rights in UNRWA schools, but I have one question for you Secretary-General: why do these rights not apply to us?" 

No question could better exemplify the maturity of these students and the plight that they face. They also understand better than we sometimes do ourselves that education provided by UNRWA in its schools is not an act of charity, it is the exercise of a fundamental right.

I thank you Ladies and Gentlemen.

Background Information: 

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.