Statement of the UNRWA Commissioner-General to the Pledging Conference

26 June 2018
UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl thanked Member States for their support, particularly those who had made additional contributions already in 2018.  Pledging Conference for UNRWA held in New York on 25 June 2018. © 2018 Photo by the United Nations

“At this point, we do not have income to ensure the schools will open on time in August,” UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl told officials from more than seventy UN Member States at the UNRWA Annual Pledging Conference held in UN Headquarters in New York. “And, in the absence of significant new funding, we will have to begin taking very difficult measures in July impacting the level of services, as well as our staff.”


Thank you so much Mr. President,

Mr. Secretary-General,

Excellencies,

Distinguished delegates,

I

Allow me first to express my most sincere respect and thanks to the President of the General Assembly and the Secretary-General for their strong statements of support, and for standing firm with UNRWA and its mission, especially at this most challenging of times.

To all the delegations here, let me emphasize my deep appreciation for your participation in this Pledging Conference and for the continued support from the General Assembly.

Late last year, with a funding gap already looming in 2018, we decided to move this Pledging Conference forward from December to June. This allows us to consult with the General Assembly on the status of UNRWA’s finances in the middle of the year, when there is still time to take action to redress and address the remaining shortfall.

And then in January the financial situation became truly catastrophic. The sudden loss of $300 million in voluntary contributions from our largest single donor meant that our core funding fell by about 32% and our emergency funding by about 75%.This makes this mid-year meeting even more important.

Ironically, the drastic reduction in funding came at a time when we had a realistic prospect to overcome the original projected shortfall and stabilize UNRWA’s budget in 18 months, as a result of internal measures and implementing the recommendations presented by the Secretary-General in his report of last year.

Facing the most severe funding crisis in our history we had no time for pessimism or indecision. We reacted swiftly, launching a multi-dimensional strategy in January to mobilize support, sustain our programmes on the ground, and prevent a major humanitarian crisis from sweeping through an unstable region.

We engaged many of the Member States represented here in the first half of this year, and it is important to recap briefly the steps taken collectively to address this phase of the crisis.

  • UNRWA first took robust internal measures, imposing severe cost controls and austerity measures;
  • We then approached existing donors with a request to advance expected annual contributions to earlier in the year to help us avert a major cash-flow crisis. 25 partners came forward and responded to that call and we are immensely grateful for that sign of trust and commitment;
  • We then engaged with hosts to seek their support in this effort and they deserve significant recognition for their actions;
  • We also broke a new ground, as was mentioned, by launching a global campaign, Dignity Is Priceless, to connect with an impressive and strong show of solidarity, concern and interest; a special initiative was taken 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 March 15, and warm thanks go to Foreign Ministers Wallström, Safadi and Shoukry for their leadership. As well as to SG Guterres and HR/VP Mogherini;
  • We also attended multiple conferences and summits, in Brussels, Cairo, Dhahran, Dhaka and Istanbul and were given impressive recognition by the OIC, the LAS and EU in different fora. The initiative of the OIC to create a special fund for UNRWA and the LAS engagement at the head of state level are important outcomes;
  • There were also opportunities to meet with some 25 Presidents, Prime and Foreign Ministers, as well as His Holiness the Pope.

Allow me to again pay tribute to the Secretary General for his exceptional role played in this critical phase. His attention and leadership have been truly exemplary.

In addition, I would like to thank the UNRWA Advisory Commission and its members for their continuing efforts to address the crisis. Allow me to thank Egypt for its determined chairmanship of the Advisory Commission over the past year.

Allow me also to warmly welcome Turkey for its dynamic leadership as incoming AdCom Chair beginning on the 1 July. We look forward to working with Turkey and Jordan as Vice-Chair on a number of important initiatives.

II

As was mentioned, this collective mobilization of the first half of the year led to some remarkable results. More than $200 million were pledged in additional funding between March and May. 

And I take this important opportunity to recognize a number of partners who generously committed substantially higher levels of support.  This includes Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, each pledging $50 million. This is an unprecedented level of core funding from these three countries and deeply appreciated. I further thank the Government of Kuwait for its historic support.

I wish also to thank Turkey, Japan, Canada and Norway for additional contributions of around $10 million each or more. And I am pleased to acknowledge India for increasing its contribution from $1 million to $5 million, and making this a new annual level. 

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 2018. Let us be honest: few people thought this would be possible.

Our current shortfall remains now in excess of $250 million and we still have a very big task ahead. At this point, we do not – I repeat, we do not have income to ensure the schools will open on time in August. And, in the absence of significant new funding, we will have to begin taking very difficult measures in July impacting the level of services, as well as our staff.

The situation will be particularly critical for emergency operations in the West Bank and in Gaza. What is at risk is food for one million refugees in the Gaza strip, as well as psycho-social support to people, particularly students in Gaza, as well as food, cash-for-work and essential assistance to 100’000 people in the West Bank.  Overall, services in all of our fields of operations will be affected, including in relation to education for 526,000 boys and girls.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, when I see the courage of our students, for example young Aya Abbas, a 9th trader from Yarmouk camp in Syria, who was the highest performing student across the whole of Syria in annual exams, I cannot imagine going back to her and her classmates to say that we have failed to mobilize the needed resources to keep their schools open.

When I see the strength of UNRWA staff, for example, heroes like our practical nurse Maghda, who treated countless wounded from the recent demonstrations in the Gaza Strip, I cannot imagine going back to her to say that we have been unable to close the critical shortfall to ensure that her services to the community will continue.

It is therefore critical that we build on the success of the first half of this year and secure the needed funding to ensure that the next school year opens on time and our key programs are preserved.

III

While reaching out actively on every front to donors, UNRWA and its stakeholders have also made concrete progress in the establishment of a Waqf, or endowment fund, for Palestine refugees we assist, thanks to backing of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Islamic Development Bank. 

We also expect to see a World Bank Trust Fund take formal shape this year. These are very important signs of institutional partnership and prospects for sustained funding.

These were important recommendations contained in the report of the Secretary-General last year and I thank Switzerland and Turkey for their remarkable lead in overseeing the consultations of Member States that led to this report in 2017. 

I look forward to their interventions and reflections on the progress made in implementing the report and the path ahead towards sustainable and predictable funding.

We are currently also awaiting the results of special campaigns in Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia and the UAE, mainly during the holy month of Ramadan. While I cannot speculate currently on the financial results at this point, the clear support demonstrated by the governments, civil society, private sector and individuals is very encouraging.

IV

At the same time, UNRWA has persisted in carrying out reforms and other measures to further develop efficiencies.  Drawing from the lessons of the 2015 funding crisis, we have acted on several fronts to improve the financial stability of the Agency.

Robust action has led to savings of $197 million over the past two and a half years, and a further reduction of $92 million for our core and emergency budgets this year – a difficult but important step we chose to take.  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, and no political horizon for the refugees.

V

2018 has been an extraordinarily challenging year for UNRWA. There is no pretending otherwise.

This is an organization that has seen a lot over 7 decades. It has seen the pain first hand, the injustice. It has also seen achievements. Despite the extreme adversity, it has been an extraordinarily agile and resilient organization, operating in one of the world’s most polarized environments. 

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

*****

In conclusion, I think it is clear for all to see how extraordinarily difficult this year has been for the Agency, but also about how remarkable the mobilization and support have been. And about how grave the risks that we currently face.

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

I thank you, Mr. President.

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. 

For more information, please contact:

Christopher Gunness
Spokesperson, Director of Advocacy & Strategic Communications
Mobile: 
+972 (0)54 240 2659
Office: 
+972 (0)2 589 0267
Sami Mshasha
Chief of Communications, Arabic Language Spokesperson
Mobile: 
+972 (0)54 216 8295
Office: 
+972 (0)258 90724
UNRWA launched the #DignityIsPriceless campaign in Gaza on 22 January 2018. © 2018 UNRWA Photo Rushdi Al Saraj
Join the #DignityIsPriceless campaign to stand up #ForPalestineRefugees