Statement of UNRWA Commissioner-General to the Advisory Commission_June_2018

27 June 2018
UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl (centre) addresses representatives of host and donor countries at the opening session of UNRWA Advisory Commission held in Jordan on 18 June 2018. © 2018 UNRWA Photo by Marwan Baghdadi

“At this point, we do not have income to ensure the schools will open on time in August. And from July we will have to take very difficult measures impacting services and staff if we do not progress further,” Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl tells the assembled member states’ delegates at the first bi-annual Advisory Commission Meeting of 2018, held in Jordan.

Mr. Chairman,

Mr. Vice-Chairman,

Mr. Secretary-General,


Distinguished delegates,

I am honored to participate with you all in this meeting of the Advisory Commission, under the Chairmanship of the Ambassador of Egypt, His Excellency Tarek Adel.  Mr. Adel, thank you so much for your leadership and firm support during this critical period for UNRWA.  And let me acknowledge Ambassador Türkoğlu of Turkey, the Vice Chair; I am grateful for his ongoing contributions to our work.  

With us for this meeting are the members of the bureau, who I would like to recognize with appreciation; Mr. Jonathan Conlon of Ireland as Subcommittee Chair, and as Vice Chairs Mr. Nidal Haddad of Jordan, and Mr. David Fournier of Canada. 

I extend a warm welcome to Mr. Ahmad Abu Holi, who joins us for the first time as Director-General of the PLO Department of Refugee Affairs, following his recent appointment by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. I express my sincere appreciation to the former head of DORA Mr. Zakarya Al-Agha who represented it in the Advisory Commission for much of the past 15 years, and has now retired.

Also present is a special guest, Mr. Anish Rajan, the Representative of India to Palestine.  Thank you Mr. Rajan for participating, reflecting the important, generous and growing involvement of your Government with UNRWA.  I would like nothing more than to be able to welcome India as a member of this Commission.

The hospitality of the Government of Jordan in facilitating meetings of the Advisory Commission is most appreciated.  As generous host to the largest number of registered Palestine Refugees, Jordan is one of our crucial partners. 

On UNRWA’s side, I would like to inform you that Mr. Nino Brusa is our new Director of Human Resources, and Mr. Robert Stryk attends on behalf of the Department of Internal Oversight Services, following the departure of Mr. Nick Kaldas.

2018 has been an extraordinarily difficult year. Since our last meeting, the extraordinary “virtual” session on 21 January, the region and UNRWA have faced momentous challenges.

It was a year in which Palestinians commemorated 70 years since the Nakba. Today, we might be tempted to record it as another moment in history, a particular event in a troubled post world-war two world. It was in fact a tragedy of immense magnitude. A forced displacement and flight of over 700’000 men, women and children, whose lives and destiny were disrupted and changed forever.

In my meetings with Palestine refugees in all five fields who are over the age of 70 and experienced the Nakba, I often hear the pain about what was left behind. I hear the stories of the generation that believed that this disaster would be short lived and a return to preexisting conditions would come quickly.

This however has not been the case. The world needs to be reminded that no Palestine refugee wanted to be a refugee and certainly not to remain a refugee for so long.

In my meetings with Palestine refugees who are from my own generation and above the age of 50, I often hear the stories of men and women who have lived their entire lives under occupation.

The word “occupation” has now been used so often that people outside the region have come to forget what it really means. We must not allow this to happen, nor the world to forget about the profound scars, humiliation, dispossession and trauma that the occupation inflicts every single day.

In my meetings with Palestine refugees below the age of 25, mostly our proud and remarkable students, I am moved to hear from a generation that faces an absence of horizon, both personal and political.

It is a generation that is highly connected with the outside world and has genuine and positive aspirations. They are boys and girls who wish to be recognized for their skills and qualities. Opportunities for them however are limited in the extreme.

2018 has also been a year which saw the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem that caused strong reactions and deep anxieties.

It has been a year which saw extensive violence in already traumatized Gaza, with many killed and thousands of people injured. This is a situation completely underestimated by the world. More people were injured in about 10 days of mostly peaceful demonstrations than during the 50 days of an all-out war in 2014. This should have generated far more robust reactions.

It was also a year in which Palestine refugees were marked deeply by the ongoing occupation in West Bank, the dramatic escalation of fighting and destruction in Yarmouk.

Field directors will give more detailed overviews and I wish to focus on just one issue: our students.

You know that I have always refused anonymity in death and suffering and I will therefore name the UNRWA students that have been killed as a result of conflict in Gaza and Syria.

  • Husain, 14 years old
  • Alla, 16 years old
  • Mohamad, 14 years old
  • Jamal, 16 years old
  • Iz Al Deen, 14 years old
  • Wesal, 15 years old
  • Sadi Said, 16 years old
  • Qusai, 14 years old
  • Bahaa, 15 years old
  • Abd al-Ghafour, 15 years old
  • Mohammad, 15 old

The best way to honor their memory is to persevere. In doing so, we will draw strength and determination from other UNRWA students. I wish to pay tribute to 9th grader Aya Abbas from Yarmouk, who was recently the highest performer throughout Syria. She symbolizes the courage and aspirations of young Palestine refugees throughout the region.

It has been an extraordinarily difficult year for UNRWA. There is no pretending otherwise.

This is an organization that has seen a lot over seven decades. It has seen the pain first hand, the injustice. It has also seen the achievements. Despite the extreme adversity, the challenges, it has been an extraordinarily agile and resilient organization, operating in one of the world’s most polarized environments.

Drawing the lessons from the 2015 funding crisis, we took our responsibilities seriously on several fronts to improve the financial stability of the Agency.

We took internal measures, robust financial steps and reforms which have led to savings of $197 m over the past two and a half years. I am confident in saying that this sets a high standard among humanitarian organizations, especially in an unstable context like ours with growing needs on the ground.

We launched external initiatives such as last year’s major consultation of UNGA members which led to a series of important recommendations in a 2017 UNSG report. We had a realistic prospect with the combination of these measures to stabilize UNRWA’s budget within 18 months.

However In early 2018, the United States announced a $60 m contribution to UNRWA which represents a dramatic cut of some $300 to our income from the country that had historically and consistently been our most generous donor.

Faced with what immediately turned into the most severe funding crisis in our history and a combined deficit of $446 m, we launched a multi-dimensional strategy to make up for this loss and avoid negative impacts on our services and on regional stability.

  • we approached existing donors - you here and a few others - with a request to advance expected annual funding to early in the year to help us avert a major cash-flow crisis. 25 partners came forward and responded to that call. We are immensely grateful for that sign of trust and commitment.
  • we engaged with hosts to seek their support in this effort and you deserve equal recognition for your actions.
  • we launched a global campaign #DignityIsPriceless to connect with impressive solidarity and interest, as well as to partner with countries and institutions for the mobilization of Zakat during Ramadan, among others.
  • we organized, together with co-chairs Sweden, Jordan and Egypt, the Extraordinary Ministerial Conference in Rome on 15 March. Warm thanks go to Ministers Wallström, Safadi and Shoukry for their leadership. As well as to Secretary-General Guterres and HR/VP Mogherini.
  • we attended multiple conferences and summits, in Brussels, Cairo, Dhahran, Dhaka and Istanbul and were given impressive recognition in OIC, LAS and EU fora.  The initiative of the OIC to create a special fund for UNRWA and LAS engagement at the head of state level are important outcomes.
  • I met with some 25 Presidents, Prime and Foreign Ministers, as well as His Holiness the Pope. I can quote Palestinian colleagues who say that never before has UNRWA recognition and visibility been higher or more global.


Allow me to again thank the Advisory Commission members for this mobilization and to pay tribute to the exceptional role that UN Secretary-General Guterres has played in this critical phase. His attention and leadership have been truly exemplary.

Specifically, this mobilization led to some remarkable results. Over $200 m were pledged in additional funding between March and May.

I wish in particular to thank Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE for the $50 m each. This is an unprecedented level of core funding from these three countries and deeply appreciated.

I wish also to thank Turkey, Japan, Canada and Norway for additional contributions of around $10 each or slightly more. And finally, India for increasing its contribution from $1 to $5 m and making this the new annual level.

This reflects a remarkable diversification of funding sources and I am greatly encouraged by it. In that regard I am pleased to say we look forward to Qatar joining the Advisory Commission as a member, starting 1 January 2019.

Thanks to these collective efforts we have been able to protect the current school year and all our other services over the first half of the year. Let us be honest: few people thought this would be possible.

At the same time, it is critical that we build on this success and secure the needed funding to ensure the next school year opens on time and our key programs are preserved.

Our current shortfall is in excess of $250 M and we still have a big task ahead. At this point, we do not have income to ensure the schools will open on time in August. And from July we will have to take very difficult measures impacting services and staff if we do not progress further.

The situation is going to be extremely critical for emergency operations in West Bank and Gaza. And for all fields, including in relation to education.

We are currently expecting the results of our special campaigns in Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia and UAE, mainly around Ramadan, to see how much money will have been mobilized from Zakat and private donors. As this is a first, we will not speculate on possible amounts.

Then we will go to the pledging conference in New York next week, which the UN Secretary-General will attend.

In parallel, I have begun returning to some of our core partners, to explore the possibilities of additional funding. I understand the challenges, but I know we together understand the importance of succeeding in this effort and of preserving core services.

We have the contingencies in place to take measures should the money not come in, but the consequences will be extremely severe.

There will be an opportunity to discuss these concerns further in the programme item on our agenda, tomorrow.

As we mobilize to survive this year, we continue to work with great determination towards improved long-term stability. I reconfirm with absolute clarity that we are proceeding with important reform initiatives and work extremely actively towards managing the agency in a cost effective manner.

I warmly welcome the concrete progress achieved in the establishment of the OIC/IDB Waqf and the World Bank Trust Fund. These are very important signs of institutional partnership and prospects for sustained funding.

Before I conclude, I wish to highlight a separate and very important initiative underway. The credibility of humanitarian agencies has been impacted by a series of grave incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA).

In our line of work the risks of abusing the trust of beneficiaries in particular is real, as we have seen in recent grave incidents impacting the credibility of humanitarian organizations, and we are determined at UNRWA to significantly scale up our prevention and response to such appalling acts.

We are currently actively reviewing existing policies and practices, identifying gaps and bringing about changes. I have established a senior team dedicated specifically to this effort. As Commissioner-General I take this matter extremely seriously, and ensure we take further steps to combat SEA in all its forms. 

This is a message I emphasized to all 30,000 staff in my communication to them in March, and stressed the need to report any instances, including dedicated hotlines.  Following steps taken last year – among them preparation and roll-out of our SEA action plan – I will ensure we move forward in our efforts, and will also be keen learners from the solutions of others.  I appreciate the attention of Advisory Commission members to this issue, and we will keep you updated.

In conclusion, I think I have been very clear about how extraordinarily difficult this year has been. And about how remarkable the mobilization and support have been. And about how grave the risks are.

Let us stay on a successful path. For the sake of the rights and dignity of Palestine refugees. For the sake of regional stability. For the sake of the robustness of the multilateral system and the preservation of hope and opportunities.


I 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.