Statement of the officer-in-charge UNRWA: special political and decolonization committee

14 November 2019
Officer in Charge of UNRWA, Mr. Christian Saunders addresses the United Nations Fourth Committee at United Nations Headquarters in New York. © 2019 UN WebTV photo.

New York, 11 November 2019


I. INTRODUCTION

Excellencies, Distinguished delegates, Ladies and gentlemen,

I am here today to present the report of the Commissioner-General to the General Assembly for 2018 and brief the 4th Committee on the operational and other developments affecting UNRWA, The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. I will also discuss the outlook for the period ahead.  

I am honored to return to the Agency, which I first joined in 1989 in Gaza, during the “first Intifada”.  Since then I have served in various capacities both in the field and here in Headquarters including being heavily involved in the Secretary-General’s recent reforms.

 

II. ORGANIZATIONAL UPDATE: LEADERSHIP CHANGES

On the 17th of August, I assumed the functions of the Deputy Commissioner-General, having been appointed by the Secretary-General soon after the departure of Ms. Sandra Mitchell. With Pierre Krähenbühl’s resignation as Commissioner-General on 6 November the Secretary-General asked that I assume the role of Officer-in-Charge of UNRWA.  It is in this context that I am presenting the annual report of the Commissioner-General to the General Assembly today.

 

III. STAKEHOLDER OUTREACH, MANAGEMENT INITIATIVES

Under the present circumstances, with the unexpected departure of the senior leadership, ensuring continuity of our operations and providing strong leadership with a focus on essential reforms are our priorities.

These are extraordinarily difficult circumstances for any organization. They are exacerbated by the Agency’s worst cash-flow situation in its 70 year history. These are critical challenges requiring urgent attention and we will need your strong support as we move forward in order to successfully navigate through this difficult period.

Externally I continue reaching out to our partners, bilateral and multilateral, within our areas of operation as well as in capitals, as well as through the Permanent Missions here in New York.  Engagement has been positive and candid - as it should be.

Events leading to UNRWA’s rapid leadership transition prompted an internal review and the development of a range of management initiatives. I should stress at this point that the Agency’s resilience is remarkable. Despite the extraordinarily challenging situation, the Agency has regained focus and worked diligently on how it can emerge stronger and ensure it is better able to implement its mandate to the benefit of Palestine refugees. They include: 

  • Revitalizing interaction between UNRWA and the Advisory Commission, which was created by the General Assembly through its founding resolution in 1949 to advise and assist the Commissioner-General in the execution of its mandate. The relationship is strong; but both want to step it up. More dialogue, and greater scope and quality of our reporting can enable the Commission to provide strategic advice robustly addressing our financial challenges and capacity to implement our mandate.

 

  • Re-delegating authority and accountability to the fields and HQ Directors, after years of financial crisis led had led to perhaps an over centralization. We will bring operational management and decision-making closer to the ground where it belongs, drawing on vision and strategy of the Secretary-General.

 

  • Further augmenting transparency and oversight, reviewing human resource management to ensure simplification and streamlining of process, with the ultimate goal of developing a workforce best able to tackle our evolving challenges, focusing on gender, the introduction of an informal dispute resolution mechanism, strengthening ethics, and aligning these with best UN practice where appropriate.

 

IV. FINANCIAL SITUATION

Excellencies, Distinguished delegates,

I wish to turn your attention to UNRWA’s financial situation.  Last year, the Commissioner-General reported on the shortfall of $446 M following withdrawal of funding by our largest single donor in January.  By November of 2018 the shortfall was reduced to $64 million, and momentum remained in our favor as partners stepped forward with additional resources to close the gap.

I do not wish to sound dramatic, but we are in an even more critical situation today than November of last year during what is the worst financial shock in our history. Our funding gap is $89M - $25M larger than the Fourth Quarter of 2018. Unless contributions are received in the coming days we will not be able to make November payroll for our 30,000 staff.  Core service delivery and our emergency operations are at imminent risk.

Already, vendor payments are being deferred as we have virtually no cash, and no working capital reserves.

Some partners who generously pledged funds this year have yet to transfer them. Others have conditioned pledges and transfers on actions to be taken by UNRWA and UNHQ addressing the management issues that have been widely reported on. I confirm here and now that these management issues are being addressed and addressed properly.  Donor discretion is a sovereign right which we respect fully. A service rupture would affect the most vulnerable beneficiaries including over 1.5 million refugees receiving basic emergency assistance, principally food.  It would affect the 23,000 patients a day we receive on average in our clinics in Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank including East Jerusalem, among them thousands of children receiving essential immunizations.

This week, UNRWA’s mandate renewal comes before you for a vote. I appeal to all our partners and the Membership to focus on enabling the Agency to continue to implement its mandate on which Palestine refugees are dependent, to urgently disburse pledged funds so as to enable the preservation of our operations.

 

VI.    INTERNAL PRESSURES: UNIONS

Among my immediate internal priorities is establishing constructive dialogue with UNRWA’s staff unions, representing 30,000 staff in our five fields and headquarters in Amman and Gaza City. Our first conference in September involving all seven staff unions ended amicably with agreement by management to increase a number of service benefits, at little additional cost to the Agency. This is somewhat symbolic, but essential to demonstrate that we recognize the difficult situation staff have faced in the past years as a result of the dire financial situation, along with our willingness to address it within available resources.

Recently, salary increases have been enacted by the Government of Jordan for public employees. It is well established Agency policy that the salary scales of the host countries serve as the comparator for UNRWA staff in equivalent functions and as you may recall, UNRWA does not follow the UN salary scale for local staff, which is significantly higher. Our union in Jordan sought a comparable increase, with Government support and under official mediation, the Agency has consented to an increase under the agency’s established principles. The Agency had resisted this decision due to the difficult financial situation we find ourselves in, however, we are also mindful that we cannot keep our staff eternally hostage to financial constraints, particularly if we want to continue to retain a quality workforce to provide quality services.

As the staff unions in other fields also seek increases, management will consult with all stakeholders including host authorities to ensure discussions proceed on the basis of UNRWA’s salary policy and in an atmosphere of dialogue.

 

VII.   DEVELOPMENTS IN THE FIELD

Gaza

Turning to development in our fields, I begin with the situation in Gaza where some 1.1 million Palestine refugees – almost its entire registered refugee population – now rely on UNRWA for basic needs and in particular food aid. This dependency is not of UNRWA’s making. It is a direct result of the collapse of Gaza’s economy since 2000, when at that time only roughly 8% of registered refugees received food aid from UNRWA.

Providing assistance remains a humanitarian imperative in Gaza, with astronomical rates of poverty and unemployment generating extreme social pressures on the society as a whole. There is no tangible easing of the blockade; there are also reports of donors stopping fuel subsidies that have kept Gaza’s electricity plant running up to now; and protests near the boundary with Israel continue amidst a shaky “ceasefire” that is from time to time interrupted by military activities. 

Against this backdrop the steep reduction in funding for our Emergency Appeal – declining by half from $141 M in 2017 to $72 M this year – will not help stability and security in Gaza and beyond.  UNRWA hopes the international community will do all it can to increase its support for our emergency assistance programs.

West Bank

The report of the Commissioner-General for 2018 summarized developments relating to UNRWA’s presence in East Jerusalem and the public statements by the municipality about replicating UNRWA’s services, and closing UNRWA’s facilities.  We are monitoring the situation and are engaging with the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs on this matter. In parallel we are ensuring the quality of programme delivery in East Jerusalem and have seen a significant increase in enrollment in our schools, following a number of years of declining enrollment.

Throughout the West Bank protection is an ongoing challenge.  Among the areas of focus are incursions by security forces into refugee camps, and the use of live fire and tear gas.  The Agency continues to advocate with Israeli security officials and we have in some instances seen changes on the ground. We remain committed to advancing the protection agenda in the West Bank through appropriate channels.

Syria

Eight years into a devastating conflict, in Syria there are glimmers of hope for the 450,000 refugees we assist.  The resilience of this community is truly an inspiration - among them are our staff – nineteen of whom have been lost to the violence, and well over half of whom have been displaced – who have kept the Agency’s critical programs operating throughout.

The Agency continues to restore services in camps where security conditions permit. Recently we have started resuming operations in Dera’a in the South, long a hard-to-reach area that was the scene of intense hostilities until last year.

Our Emergency Appeal for Syria has also not received the resources needed which has required us to adjust the targeting of assistance to only the most vulnerable. Sustaining this assistance – and our core services – is a continuing priority. UNRWA hopes the international community will do all it can to increase its support for our emergency assistance programs.

Lebanon

In Lebanon, the community of Palestine Refugees from Syria – numbering roughly 28,000 – continue to languish in extremely difficult living conditions. Inability to obtain or renew civil documentation impacts on the legal status of many, often affecting entire families. Though living conditions are eased by the Agency’s assistance, Palestine Refugees from Syria are actively exploring ways to leave Lebanon with some demanding to de-register from UNRWA in a belief that this would offer access to resettlement opportunities available to other refugees from Syria.  For many, a return to Syria is preferred but the situation is not yet conducive for such returns. 

We are monitoring the situation closely.

 

CONCLUSION

Excellencies, Distinguished delegates, Ladies and gentlemen,

In closing, let me express my deep gratitude for the strong and unwavering support of the Secretary-General for UNRWA and to quote from the statement of his Spokesperson issued on 6 November:

“At this time, it is vital that Member States and other partners remain committed to the Agency and the services it provides.  It is also critical for the international community to support the crucial work performed by the Agency in the areas of health, education, and humanitarian assistance, which is a source of stability in a volatile region.” 

The Agency is on the cusp of a vote to renew its mandate this week. Our financial situation is dire. Industrial tensions amongst our workforce are rising over conditions of service and there is a renewed threat of strikes in multiple fields, and virtually all of our executive management has departed in recent months.  We have taken strong measures not only to steady the ship but to use this as an opportunity to generate positive momentum and introduce broad reforms. However, there are limits as to what we can do on our own. We need the financial basis to continue meeting the needs of Palestine refugees.

Excellencies, Distinguished delegates, UNRWA was an extremely effective and professional organization that used donor funds judiciously when I joined it  30 years ago, today, it remains an extremely effective and  professional organization that uses donor funds judiciously

No doubt, we have our hands full, but I am committed to stabilizing the Agency and to guiding it through its current challenges.

The importance of UNRWA’s mandate cannot be allowed to be overshadowed or diminished in any way by the actions of a few individuals and we are relying on you, as representatives of the international community, to take decisive action in support of UNRWA in order to meet the basic human rights and preserve the dignity of more than 5.5 million Palestine refugees.

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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