Statement of UNRWA Commissioner-General to the Virtual Advisory Commission

01 July 2020
Statement of UNRWA Commissioner-General to the Virtual Advisory Commission

Mr. Chair,

Mr. Vice-Chair,

Excellencies, 

Ladies and Gentlemen,


I am truly pleased to join you for my first meeting with the distinguished members of the Advisory Commission.

Let me start by thanking the Chair, Eng. Rafiq Khirfan - Director-General of Jordan’s Department of Palestinian Affairs - for his leadership over the last year.

I would like to acknowledge with appreciation the important role as Vice-Chair of H.E Mr. Sultan Mohammed Al Shamsi, Assistant Minister for International Development Affairs of the United Arab Emirates. I look forward to working together under your upcoming chairmanship of the AdCom.

I would like to acknowlege with appreciation also , Ms. Jessica Olausson, Consul General of Sweden; and the Vice Chairs, Mr. Jason Tulk, Head of Cooperation at the Representative Office of Canada and Eng. Rafiq Khirfan  of Jordan for your work at the bureau of the SubCommittee.

And we are honoured by the presence of India as a guest: Ambassador Sunil Kumar, the Representative of India to the State of Palestine.

And finally, let me thank the governments of Jordan and Sweden for their unwavering support, as demonstrated at the Pledging Conference for UNRWA hosted by both countries last week.

 

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Ladies and gentlemen

Crises in the Middle East remain unresolved and new ones always seem to be unfolding.

We are entering a period of renewed uncertainty.

The threat of annexation hangs over the West Bank and East Jerusalem. As political tensions continue to rise, what happens next is uncertain, but likely to affect Palestine refugees, as well as governments in the region.

Lebanon’s economy has collapsed. The monetary and banking systems are imploding, unemployment and poverty are skyrocketing and public service infrastructure suffers from decades of lack of reforms and investments. Palestine refugees are not spared.

The Syria conflict persists and continues posing an enormous political and humanitarian challenge in the region.

And now, COVID-19 is fueling a pandemic of abject poverty. Despair and hopelessness are growing among Palestine refugees. They are turning to us for more assistance and some are trying their luck through deadly migration routes.

In an unpredictable and unstable environment, we need, more than ever, a predictable and stable UNRWA.

Our greatest challenge is our financial stability. We are operating at full capacity with inadequate resources. 

Let’s be clear, UNRWA’s funding model is not sustainable.

This affects the Agency’s ability to deliver with the quality that meets the commitments of UNRWA’s mandate.

Over the last 5 years - with the exception of 2018 - UNRWA’s budget has not been adequately resourced to meet the needs of the Palestine refugees. This is happening even though UNRWA has made major efforts to keep expenditure under control by introducing efficiency and, at times, austerity measures. These measures have resulted in savings amounting to half a billion dollars since 2015, an average of 100 million dollars per year.

Still, the Agency kept all core services running. But even savings have a cost.

Next time you visit our operations and find yourself in a crowded classroom or one with a broken blackboard, visit a teacher support room without a photocopier, or get into an UNRWA car which is 10 years old, you can credit our savings.

While we remain committed to efficiency, I can assure you that there is not much left to cut without impacting deeply the scope and the quality of the services. 

It is almost impossible to run an organization of the size of UNRWA, with nearly 30,000 staff, when its cash flow is critically low starting in quarter two and the volume and timing of contributions are unclear. Year after year, month after month, UNRWA is on the edge of a financial collapse. This can simply not continue.

Despite the severity of the financial situation, I have chosen not to keep “publicly sounding the alarm”. This to avoid adding anxiety to the insecurity that refugees feel every day.

Our budgets are prepared ahead of time, they are predictable.

At the extraordinary pledging conference last week, I said that our financial and cash flow crisis can be addressed through a social compact between UNRWA and the Member States.

The conference was an important milestone to overcome our funding gap this year. It also laid the basis for increased predictability of funding through multi-year agreements.

The level of representation and the strong statements of support at the conference reflected once more the solid support of the international community for the UNRWA mandate. However, this unwavering political support has not yet been translated into matching financial commitments.

The funding gap in UNRWA’s Programme Budget, the backbone of the Agency, remains extremely serious and amounts to US$ 335 million after the pledging conference. We are in the dark and I do not know if we will be able to run UNRWA operations until the end of the year.

 

Let me now turn to the management initiatives.

2019 has been a challenging year for UNRWA. The Agency paid a high price. Its reputation was harmed. Its top leadership decapitated. And funding hit a record low since 2012.

Despite this, the Agency, building on the strength and commitment of its staff, kept all services running. Today, we have gone a long way towards rolling out the management initiatives, to strengthen transparency, accountability, oversight and governance.

I will be pursuing these initiatives with determination, by building on the management priorities and culture set by the Secretary-General for the wider United Nations, and on the best practice from other United Nations Agencies.

I will also keep the members of the AdCom closely informed and engaged on progress made.

Your continued support and expertise will be essential. We will discuss progress made in more detail later in the day.

After a few difficult years, I believe it is now time to turn the page and to focus on the challenges UNRWA is confronted with.

 

Going forward, we will need to focus on and prioritise the following:

  • First, building on the pledging conference hosted by Sweden and Jordan, we need to turn the compact into a reality and have a predictable UNRWA for Palestine refugees, the Hosts and the region.

My colleagues and I will spare no efforts to raise the necessary funds and I look forward to engaging the members of the AdCom in this collective resource mobilization endeavour.

Failing to achieve sufficient and timely funding would mean that resources would not match the strong political mandate given to UNRWA.

I was asked the other day by a journalist if Palestine refugee children would go back to school. I answered that I have no intention to delay the return to school of more than half a million girls and boys.

I also added that this could not be the sole responsibility of the Commissioner-General. Should such a situation arise again, I would have to come back to you, the members of the Advisory Commission, for guidance on the parts of the mandate you want the Agency to prioritize.

  • Second, we need to shield the Agency from increased political attacks. We are all too familiar with those who are trying to question the mandate and offer alternative solutions that disregard the rights of Palestine refugees and United Nations resolutions.

There are also those trying to delegitimize our teaching, which is grounded in human rights, tolerance, peaceful conflict resolution and United Nations resolutions. No other UN agency has invested as much as UNRWA  to uphold the humanitarian principles, including neutrality.

And we have done this because we know how important it is to keep the humanitarian space necessary to deliver effectively on our mandate. We continue to improve and strengthen the way staff understand, comply with and promote humanitarian principles.

Your investment in UNRWA contributes to human development and to the stability of the region. You can be proud of your investment, that has enabled over 2 million Palestine refugees to graduate from  UNRWA schools, secured universal immunization coverage, and prevented a major outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in overcrowded refugee camps and surrounding host communities.

I expect you to stand up jointly against these attacks.

  • Last, COVID-19 will have a severe long-term socioeconomic impact on the most vulnerable. Let us not fail Palestine refugees, particularly refugee youth, both women and men.  We must learn from this crisis. We need to “build back better” and continue to use innovation and digital solutions to better serve our community.

 

Let me give you one example: We have world-class technical and vocational training centres and a microfinance programme recognized for its social performance. These are a pathway to employment and have real potential to lift Palestine refugees out of poverty.  

This could launch a new generation of businesswomen, create jobs, and advance the sustainable development goals. We could partner to invest and expand.

Let the Palestine refugee youth take the development agenda into their own hands and create the opportunities and peace this region wants and needs.

As I mentioned at the Brussels 4 Conference yesterday, for Palestine refugees, UNRWA is more than a relief Agency.

It is a source of hope.

Thank you Mister Chair

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