Statement of UNRWA Commissioner-General to the Advisory Commission Meeting on UNRWA

14 November 2022
UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini during the opening address of the November 2022 Advisory Commission Meeting on UNRWA in Amman, Jordan. © 2022 UNRWA Photo

Distinguished members of the Advisory Commission,

Let me start by thanking the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan for generously hosting this meeting in Amman.

Allow me to express my gratitude to Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi for your unwavering commitment to mobilize support to Palestine refugees and UNRWA. I have repeatedly witnessed firsthand your support.

My appreciation to Dr. Bassel el Hassan (from Lebanon) and Ms. Diane Corner (from the UK) for their leading roles as Chair and Vice-Chair of the Advisory Commission.

Allow me to thank Mr. Erling Hoem (from Norway) for his role as Chair of the Sub-Committee and Engineer Mr. Rafiq Khirfan (from Jordan) and Mr. Odoardo Como (from the European Union) for their roles as Vice-Chairs of the Sub-Committee.

I wish also to thank Mr. Abdelnasser El-Ayi (from Lebanon), and again Mr. Odoardo Como for their role as Co-Chairs of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Strengthening the Advisory Commission.

I am also grateful for the presence, at this meeting, of high-level officials.

I wish to welcome Ms. Julieta Valls Noyes (from the United States) who is with us today for the first time. Your and your team’s engagement has been key to our ability to function this year.  

Let me finally welcome the participation of our guests at this meeting: China, Algeria and South Korea.  We look forward to strengthening our partnership with you both politically and financially. And I hope you will soon become fully-fledged members of the Advisory Commission.

 

Dear partners,

Last week, I presented my annual report on UNRWA to the members of the General Assembly’s Fourth Committee.  

Following the strong support expressed by the Fourth committee members, the mandate renewal will be put to a vote at the UN General Assembly later this year.

We anticipate resounding support, and so do Palestine refugees in the absence of a just and lasting solution to their plight.

That support stems from the deep belief by most UN Member States that UNRWA is irreplaceable for the wellbeing and the fulfillment of human rights of Palestine refugees.

Over the last few months, I have reached out extensively to UN Member States and partners, to help secure solid funding to UNRWA.

I briefed the Security Council in August and the ministerial meeting of the League of Arab States in September.

I joined the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in Algiers to attend the Summit of the League of Arab States.

Since our last meeting in June, I traveled to London, Brussels, Washington DC, Tokyo and Berlin.

Jordan and Sweden co-hosted a Ministerial meeting on the margins of the UN General Assembly in September.

During these meetings, the Agency’s contribution to the human development of millions of Palestine refugees and to the stability of the region is widely recognized.

UNRWA is perceived as a pillar of stability in the lives of millions across our five fields of operation.

 

Dear members of the Advisory Commission,

I appealed last week in New York that the renewal of the mandate for the next three years should not just be a procedural rubber stamp endorsement.

The mandate comes with a responsibility to provide necessary resources to allow UNRWA implement the mandate it is entrusted with.

Over the last two years, it has been my priority to engage Member States on ways to equip the Agency with a sustainable funding base.

We have made progress with discussions on UNRWA’s financial challenges happening now at a strategic and political level.

Partners no longer ask me to adjust the Agency’s expenditure to match income.  

They no longer see UNRWA solely as a humanitarian agency.

Instead, they recognize the uniqueness of a UN agency that directly implements public-like services, with a huge development and stabilizing role.

They realize that the UNRWA financial model relying almost exclusively on voluntary and unpredictable funding has become inadequate to run public-like services.

Education, health and social protection services require stable, predictable annual budgets that take into account the changing environment, including conflicts, crises, rising costs and inflation globally. 

Since I joined UNRWA nearly three years ago, it has been my priority to seek this much needed stable funding base.

At the Brussels conference co-hosted by Jordan and Sweden last November, I sought to promote a mutual commitment between the Agency and donors: a strategy for a modernized Agency that operates with a three-year budget in exchange of increased pluriannual funding.  This, Minister, is about the financial burden sharing you referred to in your remarks.

The vision was endorsed but did not yield the increased financial commitment that I had been hoping for.

Earlier this year, I initiated a dialogue to promote new ways to increase and reinforced our partnerships with UN agencies, in line with Resolution 302 and in line with repeated recommendations of this Advisory Commission.

In the absence of a political process and horizon, this was perceived by communities as a way to further weaken UNRWA and, consequently, undermine their rights.

Subsequently, and immediately after the June Advisory Committee meeting, we began working with the support of Jordan and Sweden on a high-level meeting aimed at building political will to address our chronic financial situation.

At the Ministerial meeting in September, the UN Secretary General appealed to Member States to consider the sustainable options contained in its 2017 report on innovative funding.

Among those, he reiterated his strong appeal to provide UNRWA with greater access to assessed contributions from the UN regular budget.

Member States expressed support for this option and Norway with the support of Jordan spearheaded this discussion.

At the Fourth Committee, I called for a meaningful increase in assessed contribution which would be a game changer to our Agency.

An increase which would contribute to bring the Agency back into a sustainable funding trajectory.

Last Friday, the Fourth Committee has endorsed the proposal (and I quote) “to consider a gradual increase in the United Nations regular budget allocation to the Agency that would (… ) be utilizable to support expenses for operational costs related to executive and administrative management functions”.

I am very grateful for the opportunity it offers to continue increasing gradually assessed contributions to the Agency over the next years.

This will however not change our situation of precarity and instability.

It is not yet the game changer we were aiming at.

I am aware of the challenges faced, including by our closest supporters, who wholeheartedly were ready to support this demarche. Challenges that go far beyond UNRWA.

 

Distinguished members,

Over the past 18 months, we have put into the hands of the Member States at least three different avenues to bring stable funding to UNRWA.

Whilst we will continue investing in each of these options, none will bring the stability and sustainability we are all looking for.

These explored avenues come in addition to our incessant efforts to broaden our donor base and re-engage lapsed partners or those whose funding has declined.

By way of example, within the past year, we have hosted in our five fields of operation over 400 donor meetings and visits to UNRWA schools and clinics. And we have visited 20 capitals, some multiple times.

In many ways, our joint efforts were somehow successful.

After a record low level of Arab contributions in 2021, I welcome the Saudi contribution of US$ 27 million last month. It is now my hope that we will resume our solid and predictable partnerships with all Gulf countries, including by reaching again the level of funding that UNRWA received from the Arab countries between 2015 and 2018.

 

Dear colleagues and partners,

Some continue to ask the Agency what contingency plan is in place should we not receive the funds required to keep services running and pay salaries.

As we continue to make long term reforms to increase efficiency, we have exhausted our capacity to absorb the chronic underfunding internally.

After years of austerity, savings of the size of the current underfunding can only be achieved through cuts to services or to the eligibility to access them.

And this, as we have all come to agree, is fundamentally a political decision that can only be taken by the UN General Assembly, based on advice from this very Advisory Commission.

 

Dear partners,

By the end of this year, UNRWA will release its Strategic Plan covering the years 2023-2028. This Plan is the product of a considerable consultation with Advisory Commission members.

The Strategic Plan sets out our vision and objectives for how we can continue delivering for Palestine refugees.

It is underpinned by a drive for modernization, both in our programmes as well as in the management systems that enable effective and efficient delivery.

We are committed to achieving the Strategic Plan and to modernizing the Agency.

But a looming question in the back of our minds persists: can we do so under the current circumstances the Agency is going through?  

The status quo is not bearable anymore and we should not be locked into its tyranny.

 

Continuing to muddle through between

  • The mandate - which expects UNRWA to deliver critical public-like services to one of the most underprivileged communities in the region;
  • The financial resources capping at their 2012 level;
  • and the inability to change the scope or mode of service delivery because of the way it is perceived by communities;

Is not an option anymore.

The status quo essentially means doing more to respond to the increasing needs of a growing population, with less, given the rise in costs.

This will become increasingly impossible operationally and politically.

The status quo further erodes the quality of our services and prevents us from adequately responding to unfolding and new crises.

About 40 per cent of UNRWA students do not eat breakfast every morning.

Trauma and psychosocial distress among students has become common place in several fields.

We need more resources if we want to maintain UNRWA ability to deliver the high-quality education we have been known for.

Our hospitalization programme needs more support to remain effective in protecting Palestine refugees’ access to hospitals, amid widespread poverty and collapsing public services, in particular in Lebanon, Syria and Gaza.

The status quo will increase health and security risks for refugees and staff as critical maintenance work and replacement of assets depleted by years of austerity will be further postponed.

The status quo will undermine our ambition to support the digital education and access of Palestine refugee children and youth.

And it will weaken our efforts to uphold humanitarian principles as we continue to rely excessively on daily paid workers to be teachers.

The status quo is not an option for those concerned about the human development of Palestine refugees and the protection of their rights under international law.

The status quo is not an option for the stability of the region.

It erodes our ability to deliver and will slowly lead us to our implosion.

 

And then what?

Already today, boats sink in the Mediterranean with Palestine refugees on board. This is a stark reminder of the level of despair among the refugees, particularly those living in Lebanon, Syria and Gaza.

The spread of cholera in Syria and Lebanon is another indicator of the massive deterioration of the living conditions for the people.

Deteriorating services in the West Bank are adding an additional layer of stress on a population facing levels of violence not witnessed in the last 15 year.

 

Mister Chair,

Failing to provide the Agency with a sustainable funding base cannot be an option.

It would only fuel further despair and anger and create space to a situation none of us would like to reach.

This scenario can still be averted though.

We do not however have the luxury of time nor of waiting.

Donor fatigue and the failure to resolve one of the longest lasting conflicts in the world does not absolve Member States from their responsibility towards Palestine refugees.

The changed regional dynamics should not stand in the way of supporting a UN agency’s development and humanitarian work.

Improving the living conditions of Palestine refugees, particularly in camps, will not weaken their rights, which are strongly enshrined in international law.

I am appealing to you, members of the UNRWA Advisory Commission, to work with me on three tracks:

First and most urgent, in the coming weeks, UNRWA urgently needs between US$ 50 to 80 million to be able to end the year and keep the schools and health centers and other basic services running.

Failure to muster that amount poses immense risks of industrial action, strikes, and consequently suspension of services.

Second, the Agency requires a capital injection of close to US$ 200 million over three years to reach the objectives of the UNRWA Strategic Plan.

The investment is required to restore assets depleted by years of austerity, to support our digital transformation, and to live up to our environmental sustainability commitments.

The capital injection will also help reinforce our current fundraising capacity.

Third, it is becoming urgent we agree on ways to equip the Agency with a sustainable funding base.

Over the last months, think tanks and academics have lay out different scenarios should the underfunding of UNRWA continue.

Some scenarios may look far-fetched, but a steady deterioration of the quality and quantity of UNRWA services can only lead to the most challenging scenarios.

I appeal to you to be open to new ideas and leave no stone unturned to ensure we can continue implementing the mandate.

 

Dear Members,

Under the new mandate cycle, UNRWA will turn 75.

These will be 75 years of what was supposed to be a temporary UN agency, and 75 years of failure to find a political solution.  

It should be a time of reflection on how we want to live up to our commitment and continue to support a dignified life for Palestine refugees until there is a just and lasting solution to their plight.  

Finally, I will not conclude without paying tribute to our over 28,000 staff, mostly Palestine refugees who, despite immense personal hardship, continue to do everything they can to deliver quality services.

They continue to innovate as we have witnessed repeatedly over the last years, from the launch of a digital learning platform praised by UNESCO to the spearheading of digital health care in the developing world.  

In this, they are supported by a dedicated and professional team of international staff.

I would also like to thank the donors around the table, particularly those who provided multi-annual and end-of-year funding to keep schools and clinics running as well as those providing flexible funding to manage our repeated cash crisis.

Last, a word of thanks to the Host countries, who despite increasing challenges, continue to lead by example by hosting millions of refugees.

I look forward to our discussions over the next two days and appreciate your advice on building a stronger UNRWA.  

Thank you Chair.

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 5.7 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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