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

22 May 2017
UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl (second from left) addresses member states’ delegates at the opening session of the first biannual Advisory Commission Meeting of 2017. © 2017 UNRWA Photo by Marwan Baghdadi

“Wherever they turn today, [Palestine refugees] see no horizon, no identifiable political solution, no genuine determination, no respect of their rights,” UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl tells member states’ delegates at the first bi-annual Advisory Commission Meeting of 2017, held in Amman   

Mr. Chairman, Mr. Vice Chairman, Mr. Secretary-General,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to attend this session of the Advisory Commission, and important as ever to review strategic developments in the situation of Palestine Refugees and the work of UNRWA.

I sincerely thank the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan for its generosity as the host of the Commission’s meetings. I was honored to have the opportunity to express my appreciation for Jordan’s trust in UNRWA to His Majesty King Abdullah at the World Economic Forum this week-end and to meet the Minister of Foreign Affairs Ayman Al-Safadi and the Minister of Planning Imad Fakhouri. And we are honored to have with us this morning the Secretary-General of the Jordan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, H.E. Ms. Arij Al Hawamdeh.

Mr. Chairman, Ambassador Bessler, you have my special gratitude for the extraordinary role you played in leading consultations with Member States of the United Nations, at the request of the Secretary-General.  It was truly an intensive, unprecedented effort, and it resulted in a report of the Secretary-General that should help us find new avenues to secure sufficient, predictable and sustained funding for the Agency.  You have made your mark as an impressive advocate for UNRWA.  

Noting that this is your last meeting as the Chair – barring another extraordinary meeting before 1 July – I truly commend you for your outstanding contribution. 

Mr. Vice Chair, Dr. el-Dandarawy, I express my continued gratitude for your strong engagement and insights on key issues affecting UNRWA. Your voice is important to this Commission and to me, and we look forward to a year of Egypt’s leadership which comes at a pivotal time for UNRWA.

To Mr. Esman Topçu, Deputy Consul-General of Turkey in Jerusalem, on behalf of UNRWA I express deep gratitude for your government’s role as Vice Chair of the Steering Committee that conducted consultations with Member States and others, and the excellent role Ambassador Ulusoy played, in partnership with Switzerland. 

It is very much a pleasure for me to also welcome our guests for this meeting. Your participation – each of you – in this meeting is especially important to UNRWA. From the Russian Federation, H.E. Mr. Boris Bolotin, Ambassador to Jordan; from South Africa, Ambassador Ashraf Suliman who is Head of Mission in Ramallah; and from the World Bank, Senior Director for Education, Mr. Jaime Saavedra Chanduvi, MENA Education Manager, Ms. Safa’a el Tayed El Kogali, and Mr. Hideki Matsunaga, Chief Economist covering the Middle East.

I look forward to our exchanges here today and tomorrow.

We have had some new senior appointments which I would like to recognize. I welcome Claudio Cordone as our Field Director in Lebanon, Mohamed Adar as our Field Director in Syria, and Allan Canonizado, who is our Director of Information Management.  

Allow me to offer some observations about the situation of Palestine Refugees.

We will hear from our Field Directors shortly, so I will share with you some impressions from my own visits to UNRWA's areas of operations since our last Adcom meeting in November 2016.

As I do so, I will be guided by the parameters that today define the horizons of Palestine Refugees.

Horizon in the form of the relentless destructive force of conflict

This I saw during my recent trip to Aleppo. In my 25 years of working in conflict zones, I had never witnessed devastation on such a scale. I travelled to Aleppo to thank my colleagues, the head of office and her deputy, the doctors, nurses, school principals, teachers, sanitation laborers, social workers, guards and other who have kept UNRWA installations continuously open to refugees since the conflict began in Syria over six years ago.

I also went to visit Palestine Refugees surviving in Neirab camp or displaced from Ein El Tal. In meeting after meeting, I heard the stories of families affected by conflict. Millions of Syrians have been impacted but the uniqueness - in the Palestinian case - is that it is a community enduring yet again the trauma of displacement, dispossession and loss.

I remember Walid, a young boy who lost his mother earlier in the conflict, and is displaced along with his family.  His pain and grief will mark him always, but I also saw in him courage and resolve to face the future. 

Horizon in the form of violence and social exclusion 

A few weeks earlier I visited Palestine refugee students in Ein El Helweh camp in Lebanon. I witnessed an evacuation drill of hundreds of young girls from their classrooms. There was nothing theoretical about that drill. Such evacuations have happened several times this year alone because of confrontations between Palestinian factions in the camp that affect the security of students and staff, as well as the delivery of education, health and other services.

In the camp, I also met again with Batoul, who is a Palestine refugee from Syria who fled the conflict there and is now in Lebanon.  I first met her just before the World Humanitarian Summit - she is a portrait of strength, despite unbearable tragedy, and so I spoke of her at the Summit.  At a young age, she has been displaced repeatedly and already endured much trauma, losing close members of her family to the conflict in Syria.  

Batoul, I should tell you, despite all the traumas she faced, has been a high-achiever at school, in a camp hit hard by factional violence in the past year. For her, 5,400 of her peers in our schools in Ein el Hilweh, and our dedicated teachers, life is about working hard and making a better future.  When I met her this time, I could see clearly how difficult her predicament is, now that Ein el-Hilweh has been swept up in violence. We owe Batoul – and others like her – our solidarity as they struggle every day to protect their dignity and rebuild their lives.

Horizon in the form of occupation and its impact


During recent visits to Shu’fat camp in East Jerusalem and to Jalazone camp in West Bank, I saw students and teachers who experience incursions by Israeli security forces and settlers on a regular basis, with violence and risks to life an enduring experience resulting from the occupation, now reaching 50 years.

50 years of occupation is a theme in and of itself, the human consequences of which UNRWA will raise as part of a communication campaign under the heading #forpalestinerefugees and #stillrefugees.

Horizon in the form of epidemic deterioration of psychosocial conditions

During my visits to Gaza this year, I saw not only the ongoing deterioration of conditions across the Strip in terms of water and electricity scarcity, lack of employment and freedom of movement but the epidemic deterioration in psychosocial conditions, creating the basis for catastrophic future developments.

In February, I met a family in Beach Camp trying to cope with an extreme situation. The husband, the main breadwinner, is a fisherman and is detained by the Israeli authorities; another member is detained in Gaza. The family’s youngest son has cancer, but permits are hard to get to access treatment in Israel. Another son was injured in the 2014 conflict. Despair permeates their shelter, but somehow UNRWA’s modest psycho-social interventions have helped the family stay on their feet.  I saw one of our social workers interacting with the family and commend her for outstanding commitment, and making a difference for a vulnerable family.

Let me pause here for a moment: what I have just described sounds eerily familiar to all of us. We have heard it before, we have discussed it many times and we may feel that there is nothing very new.

And we would be wrong.

Even our most genuine attempts to describe the situation will fail to adequately convey the utter senselessness and suffocation, horror and humiliation, abuse and alienation, violence and violations faced by Palestine Refugees.

Wherever they turn today, they see no horizon, no identifiable political solution, no genuine determination, no respect of their rights. The very foundations of dignified life and prospects are disappearing all around them.

Our Achievements

And yet, we recall how in November in this very conference room six UNRWA students blew our minds away with their powerful motivation and outstanding minds, their incredible courage and determination to contribute.

So this Advisory Commission meeting is once again a moment to pay tribute to the extraordinary quality and resourcefulness found among Palestine Refugees.  

And UNRWA - with your support - is and remains on the frontline of delivering the essentials services and support to the 5.3 M Palestine Refugees.

I am proud of the number of achievements and the changes introduced in recent years: 

Last year’s transformation from food aid to cash support in three fields is hugely significant. We will be able to continue meeting minimal food needs of some of the most vulnerable refugees, and to do it in a way that maintains dignity, increases choice, and lowers costs.  

In Gaza’s Saftawi clinic, we are pioneering new treatments to address the growing challenge of psycho-social stress, combining physical medicine, psycho-social interventions, and counseling through our clinics and interventions by our social workers.  

We should be concerned about the explosive growth of stress, and unless conditions which are fueling it are addressed, the problem will become critical in the future. 

None of the challenges we face are diminishing. From access and security problems, management of resources and finances things are not becoming easier. 

Exactly two years ago, I addressed this Adcom and informed you that if we could not close the 2015 funding gap of 80 M USD at the time, we may have to postpone the beginning of the school year. We remember the shockwaves this created among Refugees and hosts. And we all pledged to undertake everything in our power to never allow this to happen again.

We acted decisively on that:

Strategically, a process was initiated at the UNGA that led to an unprecedented consultation under the auspices of the Secretary-General and led by Switzerland and Turkey. This was the most remarkable engagement with UNRWA's governance in four decades.

I am immensely grateful for the remarkable result achieved, with the issuing of the SG's report at the end of March. We will look at the findings and recommendations more in detail in a separate session later today. Our emphasis will be on discussing the ways to implement the recommendations of the Secretary-General. 

Let me, however, say here already that UNRWA is determined to work on the recommendations that the SG has addressed to the Agency in his report, in particular:

  • Efficient and responsible management;
  • Living up to our fundamental principles. 

I would first like to speak about our fundamental principles, and in particular neutrality.  While it not listed specifically as a recommendation, it is a critical issue for the Agency, one that absorbs a significant amount of management’s focus.  There have been a number of allegations in the public domain about neutrality violations by UNRWA staff, and mostly related to the use of social media.   Following an upsurge of allegations in 2014 and 2015, we did sustained investigative work and set up a new mechanism to track and manage allegations and confirmed cases.  

And let us remember that the allegations received and addressed to date concern 0.33% of our staff. Not a reason to be complacent but the data shows it is far from being a generalized phenomenon.

Investigations and disciplinary action, intensive training conducted by our legal experts for all fields, ongoing face to face training in Arabic delivered by trained presenters, and firm direction from me to staff and their representatives, have helped. A new online course produced by our Ethics team specifically targeting neutrality and social media is about to be launched which will be a mandatory course for all 30,000 staff members

Robust systems are in place, and management remains focused and vigilant about its neutrality commitments. Two recent cases in Gaza have been raised by numerous interlocutors, and I can confirm that the persons in question are no longer staff members of UNRWA.

Why is this issue so important? Not because I believe that neutrality is a value per se. None of us in this room was born neutral. When faced with injustice, we feel strong indignation and if we don't then that is a different issue altogether. Neutrality is important because when respected it allows us to do more for Refugees and because it is expected of all staff – international and Palestinian, from the Commissioner-General to teachers or drivers, to abide by this principle.

The Secretary-General’s report flagged efficiency and stakeholder interests in sustaining it. There are a number of things I would like to say about efficiency.  UNRWA is about 95% voluntarily funded, and it is understandable that donors insist we deliver at the lowest reasonable cost.  At the same time, Palestine refugees rely on us to meet their most essential, growing needs, and to do so effectively.  So do the Hosts.  From every side, demands on UNRWA are constant and they grow. 

I welcomed the views in the report of the Secretary-General of many Member States, including delegations here, expressing strong appreciation for UNRWA’s efficiency.

Of course, increased efficiencies will not, on their own, stabilize our operations and ensure we can implement our mandate.  But they are one of the obligations UNRWA has to keep itself sustainable and appeal to results-oriented partners. 

We pressed forward with difficult and robust reforms in 2015 and 2016, convinced that they would help achieve key objectives in our Medium Term Strategy. For example, focusing on our core services, improving their quality and effectiveness. While containing and reducing costs wherever possible. We estimate our core requirements between 2015 and 2016 would have been $80 million higher if not for the management measures over those two years. This was done in a context of growing needs and sharp tensions with the refugee community. 

Members of the Advisory Commission, hosts and donors, provided some additional political and financial capital which we needed to carry out the reforms, in particular, up-front investments that resulted in very large savings, and cost reductions, in the medium term and beyond. 

Continuing the reforms 

In 2017 and beyond we will extend existing reforms and management measures, and introduce new ones:

  • Medical procurement is being redesigned and we are able – at lower cost – to purchase more pharmaceuticals needed in our clinics, including for treatment of heart disease and dispensed for the first time recently in UNRWA clinics.  
  • In some Fields we are in the process of looking at restructuring operational support and administrative functions, including in Amman Headquarters. 
  • Agency-wide, we are reviewing closely the post structure and will phase out redundancies.  And education staffing in the West Bank is being closely analyzed, to make sure its capacity is appropriate to needs.  Some challenging decisions may have to be made in the period ahead.
  • Unfortunately, I can’t report to you any progress with UNRWA’s Qalqilya Hospital in the West Bank. I last informed the Commission that a partnership with a major medical institution was being sought actively by UNRWA and in coordination with the Palestinian Authority, to sustain and improve the hospital’s services by sharing managerial and operational responsibilities.  This was not successful and we’ll need to address this in the period ahead, in coordination with the Palestinian Authority. 
  • On a more positive note, we are improving how we manage our salary regime, by reducing some of the complexity, and by making it more fair and prudent. For example, we have established an occupational salary scale for the health programme. this occupational salary scale will be extended to our other programmes.   We will be in a better position to moderate the financial impact on UNRWA of host salary increases.

Our Director of Finance, Shadi el-Abed, will elaborate a bit more on some of the other measures which contained costs or produced savings. 

Despite the many actions taken, the continuing reforms, we find ourselves in a critical situation financially.  A month from now I will have to report to the Secretary-General – at his request – on our financial situation and will be able to report extensively on internal reform measures we have taken and further measures we are planning. But at this stage, I will not have anything positive to report on our shortfall and income projections.  

UNRWA is accountable to donors and hosts. But there is also a collective accountability we all have the refugees, and I assure you they are following UNRWA’s sustainability and efforts to improve it; I am questioned by them in almost every meeting with them.  

As we turn to the phase of implementation of a combination of measures proposed by the Secretary-General in order to ensure that UNRWA's funding is sufficient, predictable and sustained for the duration of its mandate, I must draw your urgent attention to the parallel challenge we face in 2017, with a shortfall that remains at above 115 M. Should we not be able to overcome this gap, there will be cuts in services, instability and a risk to the integrity of the efforts to stabilize UNRWA's financial situation.  The spillover risks are real and could impact public security in all our areas of operation.

A number of things have led us to this imminent crisis, and most of them are familiar. On the income side, projections for core contributions this year are lower than actual receipts for last year.  Moreover, following a Palestinian Authority decision to grant teachers an additional allowance effective January 2017, UNRWA honored its pay policy and approved a corresponding allowance for teachers in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip.  

One year after the World Humanitarian Summit, and 6 months after the New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants, I appeal to the international community to honor commitments recently made, including the Grand Bargain, and respond to the positive recommendations of the Secretary-General to give support to UNRWA and the refugees we serve.  

In a recent media interview in Moscow, I was challenged by a perceptive journalist about my repeated insistence on hope and keeping it alive for Palestine Refugees. She asked whether speaking about hope when a community is being crushed by multiple forms of injustice was not the equivalent of a perverse type of anesthesia. 

She has a point, I thought. And every time I walk into an UNRWA school, I wish the students would not see UNRWA as their sole horizon. And yet in many ways we are. And so for the moment, I see no other vision than preserving hope, rights and prospects for a better future for Palestine Refugees, in particular youth.

This is what is at stake for us in this meeting. It is a fundamental issue of dignity. 

Thank you.

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.

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