Statement by UNRWA Commissioner-General to the Advisory Commission

13 November 2017
UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl (left) addresses the Agency’s Advisory Commission during its second bi-annual meeting in Jordan on 13 November 2017. © 2017 UNRWA Photo by Marwan Baghdadi

UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl pays tribute to the Agency for building and maintaining “one of the most successful” human development institutions in the region, highlights encouraging efforts to achieve financial stability for UNRWA and concludes with an urgent call for action to close a US$ 77 million deficit in this year’s budget


Mr. Chairman, 
Mr. Vice-Chairman,
Mr. Secretary-General,
Excellencies, 
Distinguished delegates,

As always, it is an honor to participate in this meeting of the Advisory Commission, and under the Chairmanship of His Excellency Ambassador Tarek Adel of Egypt.  Thank you so much for your leadership and support during this important phase.  And I also thank Ambassador Türkoğlu of Turkey for his role as Vice Chair. 

Also present are the members of the bureau, who I would like to recognize with appreciation. The Chair of the Subcommittee, Ms. Unni Ramboll of Norway; and the Vice Chairs, Engineer Yasin Abu Awwad of Jordan and Ms. Briana Olsen of the United States.

The hospitality of the Government of Jordan in facilitating meetings of the Advisory Commission is most appreciated.  Moreover, as generous host to the largest number of registered Palestine Refugees, Jordan is an absolutely crucial partner for UNRWA.  The strength of the relationship was reaffirmed in my meeting this morning with the Foreign Minister, His Excellency Mr. Ayman Safadi. 

That spirit of cooperation and support was also reflected in your opening remarks, Excellency, and I also welcome you, Ambassador Al-Lozi. Jordan’s support is indispensable to UNRWA and the refugees; I am deeply grateful for it, and for the historic responsibilities for Palestine Refugees that all the hosts continue to assume.  

I would like to extend a welcome to all members of the Advisory Commission and express deep appreciation for the participation of the high-level delegation from Poland, and the representative from the Mission of Indonesia who is also with us today.  I take this as an encouraging demonstration of the diversification of our partnerships.

I look forward to a productive session, in particular about developments in 2017, the challenges ahead and ways to address them.  First, in keeping with custom, I would like to inform you about changes in my senior management team.  I have appointed as my Chief of Staff Hakam Shahwan; Peter Mulrean is now heading our New York office, and Elizabeth Campbell was recently appointed and heading our office in Washington, DC; Matthias Schmale has taken up responsibility as our Gaza Field Director; and Adbdirahman Aynte has just started as UNRWA’s Director of Planning. 
 
This has been a special year for UNRWA and its stakeholders.  We generated powerful renewed engagement with the UN General Assembly and its Member States, and we enjoyed a particularly special year with you, the members of the Advisory Commission. With inspiring 
unity, you answered the call to step up interaction with the Agency and reaffirm your support.  

The mobilization of diplomatic and political support in 2017 was truly global, but I am particularly honored to acknowledge the immense value you – the Commission – added to this mobilization. The unprecedented UN consultation process from January to March, the report of the Secretary-General on “sufficient, predictable and sustained” funding for UNRWA, and follow-up on its recommendations, are new milestones that you helped put in place.  

The Hosts remained essential throughout the process, and in relation to the consultation process in New York, I recognize in particular Palestine, whose diplomacy and follow-through has been without equal.  

To the delegations of Switzerland and Turkey, I reiterate my gratitude for your invaluable contributions.  This includes the substance you provided to the Secretary-General, on which his report is based, a sincerely living document which should enhance UNRWA’s resource mobilization for years to come.

Furthermore, I warmly acknowledge Egypt’s support during this process, as well as Ambassador Adel’s recent initiatives in support of our fundraising efforts.  I very much appreciate that, Ambassador. I will turn with confidence to Egypt in the period ahead in its capacity as Chair of the Advisory Commission, which it holds until 30 June 2018.  

Challenges 

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

You will hear in more detail in the next session about our operations directly from the Field Directors, but allow me to share some thoughts with you at the outset.

In every visit that I carried out to our field of operations this year, I saw the depth of despair and mounting expectations from different quarters.  In 2017, as we are all aware, Palestinians marked 50 years of Israeli occupation in June, 10 years of the blockade of Gaza and the conflict in Syria entered its seventh year.

And sincerely, we cannot be indifferent to the pain and suffering of the Palestine Refugees.  

We cannot be indifferent to what occupation means in the lives of individual refugees.

In the West Bank, it means living in a shattered space where they are boxed into enclaves.  

On average, Israeli security forces mount two incursions into refugee camps every day.  Fieldwork carried out this year by renowned health experts suggests residents of Bethlehem’s Aida camp are exposed to more tear gas than any other surveyed population globally.    

In the Gaza Strip, the occupation means that a human nightmare is unfolding under our watch. Ten years of blockade have led to the highest unemployment rate in the world.  Electricity and clean water are scarce.   Except for a small number permitted to travel, for the Strip’s 2 million people – including a population of some 1.3 million refugees – there is no exit from Gaza. Rampant health and mental health crises mean things will worsen. 

In Syria, the cataclysm raging since 2011 has splintered the once close-knit Palestine Refugee community. Its social core in Yarmouk has been battered by 5 years of ruthless urban combat. Throughout Syria, a majority of the refugees have been uprooted.  120,000 have fled the country altogether, victims of the second largest cross-border displacement of Palestinians after 1948. 

Those displaced inside Syria are trying, in small numbers, to return to the camps or their homes elsewhere. But the conflict is still raging; there are no guarantees of safety.  For the 440,000 remaining in Syria, most of them robbed of their livelihoods, and their assets depleted, life is a precarious struggle to survive. Even when the guns fall silent, the struggle will continue in the ruined landscapes of Aleppo, Khan Eshieh, Yarmouk, and Dera’a.

In Lebanon, denial of rights means Palestine Refugees are shut out from most economic and social opportunities outside the camps.  It means they suffer one of the highest rates of poverty in the region and live out their days in over-crowded camps where criminality is on the rise.  

Even here in Jordan, where the refugees are comparatively secure, we remain concerned about the dignity of vulnerable refugees.

In this bleak landscape, Palestine Refugees need a horizon.  

We therefore strongly welcome the process of dialogue between Palestinian parties, and I want to acknowledge the role of Egypt in this regard.  I witnessed Prime Minister Hamdallah arrive in Gaza last month, a first step on what should be the road to Palestinian sovereignty in the occupied territory.  It was a historic moment that unleashed hope on a scale I have not seen in the three and a half years I have been living and working in the region.  Tens of thousands of people lined the street to welcome the Prime Minister and his delegation. Hundreds of thousands rallied on Saturday to commemorate the death of Chairman Arafat, in particular, Palestinian youth in search for a way forward. 

This is a moment, ladies and gentlemen, to be seized by all stakeholders. I believe sincerely it is not, a moment to sit on the fence.  It is time to engage.

Allow me to share a further personal reflection about the situation of the Palestine Refugees.  I often hear how admirable is their resilience. Resilience is something we all possess, to allow us to endure and accept the inevitable traumas of life like the passing of a relative, or surviving a natural disaster. But there is nothing inevitable in the situation of Palestine Refugees.  Changing their situation is crucial, by means of a political solution embraced by all. 

I would also say that resolving the deep, often personal, wounds of conflict requires people to rediscover humanity in the Other.  Without recognition of the Other’s pain, peace will remain fragile. 

Achievements

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Against this backdrop of severe hardship and instability, UNRWA faces extraordinary challenges at all levels, yet continues to operate and achieve results. Let me turn to some of them. 

With your support, UNRWA has built and maintained one of the most successful processes of human development anywhere in the region. It is a process that deserves continued attention and investment, an indispensable contribution to human dignity, to the pursuit of human rights as well as personal and regional stability.

With 515,000 students enrolled in our basic education system, we are equipping this generation of refugee children with knowledge and skills to lead productive, secure and improved lives.  Empowered by gender balance in our 711 schools, refugee girls are among the best performers.    

UNRWA’s primary health care system has reinvented itself in the last five years.  We have embedded the concept of a family doctor, put an end to the practice of mass antibiotic prescriptions, and are tackling non-communicable diseases.    

In Gaza, 85,000 families have – with our assistance – rebuilt their shelters that were damaged or destroyed during the summer of 2014 hostilities.   

Sustaining our achievements is a priority, and a serious challenge.   The need to improve quality, meet growing needs, and at the same time contain rising costs, are parameters that we are constantly addressing.    

So, with refugees, hosts and donors expecting action on these parameters, in the past two years, UNRWA has made transformative changes in programming, management and support, and delivery.  

Key reforms were envisioned, as mentioned in earlier statements, in our Medium-Term Strategy for 2016-2021.   The Strategy allowed for implementation over the 6 year period.   Instead, we decided to front-load the reforms and within the first 6 months of 2016 we had carried out some of the most difficult transformations.  Political and reputational risks were high but in our view the reforms have been imperative.
  
By mid-2016, food aid to the most vulnerable refugees, subsidies for critical hospital care, class sizes in our schools, recruitment and workforce size, were transformed in multiple fields.  

In 2016, statins were introduced for the first time in our clinics to fight heart disease, the leading cause of death among Palestine Refugees and one of the most costly NCDs to treat.  And costs were offset by innovations in medical procurement.

The reforms continue at present. This year we will begin rolling out changes to our microfinance programme, which, I would like to note, was recently assessed by Microfinanza – an international authority in this field – and received an “A +” for social impact, the first microfinance institution in the MENA region to earn this distinction.  Our microfinance programme reforms will further enhance its performance, as more loans go to more clients building their livelihoods. The programme covers operating expenses through its loan income; new branches it is opening in the field to support the reforms come at no cost to UNRWA. 

UNRWA estimates that had it not carried through key reforms in 2015 and 2016, its programme budget would have been 81 million US Dollars higher in 2017.   

Another serious challenge we face is neutrality. It’s an important issue for UNRWA, and unfortunately, I often see it misrepresented by other parties.  I want to emphasize that UNRWA has a strong regulatory system that promotes neutrality, it is comprehensive and I think UNRWA, in significant ways, goes further than others to uphold neutrality principles.  We have policies and protocols to prevent, to monitor and detect, and to address neutrality issues if they occur, and they cover a multitude of areas. 

I want to illustrate with two cases, how this year we had to deal with two very important neutrality problems, which I have brought to public attention on other occasions.  Through an internal investigation early in the year, we found that two staff members had been elected to positions in Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The staff members were terminated. These actions were taken swiftly – in record time, actually.  We later discovered what appeared to be tunnels under two UNRWA schools. Verification was done quickly, and the tunnels were sealed.  UNRWA will not allow the integrity of its operations, the safety of students and staff, or stakeholder trust in UNRWA, to be undermined in this or in any other way.

Financial Situation  

Before concluding my remarks to the Advisory Commission, I must update you on UNRWA’s financial situation, and how, after the Secretary-General issued his report this year on ways to secure UNRWA’s financial health, stakeholders rallied in support of the recommendations.  

We have made remarkable progress towards implementing them, in particular through plans to establish a World Bank Trust Fund for UNRWA, and with a proposed specific waqf in support of Palestine Refugees under the auspices of the Islamic Development Bank.  In Jeddah two weeks ago I had my second round of meetings with the IDB and OIC leaderships, and am most grateful for the positive discussion to move forward with a proposal.  I am also grateful to Turkey for support in pursuing the Waqf avenue.

In the context of the Secretary-General’s report, a range of member states outside the Advisory Commission have pledged significant increases in their financial commitments to UNRWA, including Russia, India, China, Thailand, Malaysia, and Pakistan, for example.  This is a trend we are keen to develop further. Moreover, we are benefitting from a growing number of multi-year agreements and commitments to sustain or increase annual contributions for the medium term.  

These are important developments and I wish to once again acknowledge Poland and Indonesia in this regard.

In addition, last month UNRWA’s humanitarian assistance was designated as eligible to receive zakat philanthropic donations, a success in the efforts to tap into the broadest possible range of funds for UNRWA identified in the Secretary-General’s report. 

Looking back at this year, however, I really must tell you, and we will speak about this in the course of the next session, that we have been very encouraged by the major efforts underway to achieve financial stability for UNRWA.  It is an achievable goal.  And we will work with you to realize it in the next few years.  

Unfortunately, I must draw your attention to the 2017 shortfall of US $77 million in our programme budget, which poses a threat to service delivery to the refugees in all fields.  

At the recent session of the General Assembly’s 4th Committee on 3 November in New York, I informed member states that if no money had come in by the time of the Advisory Commission meeting, I would have to assess risks to the continuity of our operations. 

And we are still at a shortfall of US$77 million today. Now, to be very clear and practical, what this means is we can maintain operations for the better part of this week, so I have a few days to consider what steps we need to take if income is not received at the earliest possible time.   

So, I urge – humbly, respectfully but also urgently – the donors who are prepared to make contributions to make them swiftly to help us avoid risks to our operations in November and December. This is of critical importance. It was mentioned, and I want to mention again, the meeting in UN Headquarters under OIC auspices, co-hosted by Jordan and Sweden, and the pledges made.  No new pledges have been made since.

77 million US Dollars is large at this stage, and the potential consequences for our programme would be very serious for the region. I trust our partners do not want to get to the point of no return and hope this shortfall can be bridged at an early time.

In a recent meeting, a close partner of UNRWA indicated that its funding should not be taken for granted.  I fully agree with this principle and reassure the Members of this Committee that I would never take support for granted. However, I ask in return that no one take for granted that thousands of UNRWA staff continue to risk life and limb year after year so UNRWA can assist refugees in places as difficult as Aleppo, Homs or Dera’a, as challenging as Shatila or Ein El Hilweh, as tense and complex as Balata or Shu’fat, or as acute as Khan Younis or Beit Hanoun.

Humanitarian partners, I think we all feel in this room, do not take each other for granted. They recognize each other's value. And they build on it.  I say to every single delegation in this chamber, one and all: Let us ensure this remains the principle on which we strengthen the good work that UNRWA does. 

Thank you for your trust, your presence, and your support.

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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