As the primary provider of education, basic health care, relief and social services, and more to Palestine refugees, UNRWA is constantly adapting to best fulfill our mandate, honouring the trust and investments placed in us by the international community through the United Nations General Assembly.
The modernization of UNRWA has been underway for years. The Agency is always striving to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of our operations, seizing opportunities and mitigating risks and challenges.
In 2021, UNRWA began a full-scale digital transformation process intended to modernize the Agency while ensuring that Palestine refugees continue to receive quality services that contribute to their wellbeing. From modern education to primary health care, to improved data that informs the way we deliver humanitarian assistance and relief and social services, to ensuring that all infrastructure-related work is environmentally friendly, modernizing means updating and refining operations, including through digital tools for the well-being of Palestine refugees. These efforts started within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and ever-growing financial challenges.
A large part of the vision for modernizing UNRWA is informed by a comprehensive modernization and digital transformation strategy. The strategy provides an overarching framework that creates coherence on the implementation of various ongoing digital initiatives across the Agency and provides a strong foundation and clear direction for future endeavors.
The Agency’s digital transformation strategy is being rolled out under a unique set of circumstances. In addition to human hardships and operational constraints imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Agency’s resource challenges have dramatically increased in recent years, forcing UNRWA to push efficiency gains to the limit, while exploring innovative funding sources.
Since 2015, due to intense funding pressure, all parts of the Agency have been making difficult choices that led to increasing efficiency and reducing costs. Measures implemented have resulted in over US$ 500 million in cost reduction. However, these efforts have also had a significant, and at times detrimental, impact on our ability to deliver services across core mandated areas.
MODERNIZING SERVICE DELIVERY
In the past decade, the three core UNRWA programme areas of education, health, and relief and social services have undergone major modernization. The ongoing digital transformation significantly enhanced the quality and accessibility of services for Palestine refugees, as well as the reliability, accuracy and privacy of refugee registration data.
Education is both a human right and a pathway to success. Our holistic approach to providing quality, inclusive remote education in times of crisis, including conflict and the COVID-19 pandemic, is renowned in the region and validated by external expert bodies such as the World Bank and the British Council.
Through our Education in Emergencies (EiE) programme, UNRWA helps to ensure that our students across Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem can continue to access their right to quality, inclusive and equitable education, even in times of crisis and conflict. When schools transitioned to distance learning with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, EiE was expanded to meet the needs of all UNRWA students.
In response to those needs and the broader push to modernization, the UNRWA Digital Learning Platform (DLP) was launched in April 2021, aimed at supporting Palestine refugee student education during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. Prioritizing safety, accessibility and quality, the DLP provides students, parents and teachers with a safe and easy way to access remote learning materials and supports review processes to ensure high quality content and alignment with UN values and UNRWA education objectives.
ICT for Education (ICT4E) Strategy
UNRWA strongly believes that access to Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in pedagogy is key to the realisation of SDG4, inclusive and equitable quality education. ICT is a critical tool for UNRWA students to become independent actors who can actively and critically engage globally with their peers through digital technology. In 2021, UNRWA began developing an ambitious ICT for Education (ICT4E) Strategy, which was finalised in March 2022. The UNRWA ICT4E Strategy seeks to improve the learning, teaching and management of education through the use of ICT.
Expanding the DLP: the Learning Management System
Under the ICT for Education (ICT4E) Strategy, the Information Management and Technology Department and the Education Department are developing a Learning Management System (LMS). The LMS is a virtual learning environment that allows students and teachers to interact among themselves, collaborate on projects and participate in online classes.
An Agency-wide online learning platform will also be developed for technical and vocational education training (TVET), and technology-related TVET courses will be developed or upgraded to be in line with today’s labour market needs in a digital world.
Education Management Information System
The UNRWA Education Department has used an Education Management Information System (EMIS) for several years, primarily for data collection and reporting on indicators. However, as part of the ICT4E initiative, the use of EMIS will expand to help streamline and refine data collection. EMIS will also lay the foundation of an Admissions Portal and Parent Portal, thus serving parents and students in addition to the UNRWA management and educators.
Capacity Building for ICT4E
The increased use of ICT in education requires capacity building for teachers and other Education staff. Therefore, UNRWA has worked with internal and external experts to develop materials and guidelines that help train teachers, school principals and education specialists on pedagogy in remote and digital learning. Counsellors will be trained to provide psychosocial support online. Students and parents will receive training and awareness raising sessions that will enable them to fully utilise the new ICT4E opportunities.
As the provider of primary health care to more than 3.1 million people, UNRWA is constantly innovating and improving the access and quality of health services. Most UNRWA health centres are currently paperless, managing more than seven million medical consultations (in person and telemedicine) a year. Telemedicine services that were introduced with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 remain an active method of consultation today. Strong demand for telemedicine consultations suggests increasing acceptance of this method by Palestine refugees. The Agency recognizes telemedicine both as an efficient solution for safe patient care during the COVID-19 pandemic and as a good alternative consultation method to avoid unnecessary patient visits to health centres. The UNRWA Department of Health is now strategically pursuing this service as a permanent alternative method for medical consultations.
Electronic Medical Records (e-Health)
UNRWA launched the e-Health electronic health records system, which quickly became an essential tool for cost-effective, patient-centered, equitable, fair and sustainable health-care services. The e-Health system has been further developed in collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO) to include revision 11 of the International Classifications of Diseases (ICD-11) to strengthen and streamline the operations at the service delivery level.
The UNRWA e-Health system includes an emergency mode that helps cope with emergency situations such as mass displacement, closures and conflicts. Additional updates for emergency situations include the new Health Technical Instructions (TIs) for Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) and for Maternal and Child Health (MCH). The MCH allows access to the patients’ laboratory results integration to increase operational efficiency and productivity and enhance user satisfaction.
The e-Health system was a launch pad for mobile health (m-Health) applications. The UNRWA Department of Health developed Mother and Child Health app, “e-MCH,” in 2017 and the non-communicable diseases app, “Your Health” or “e-NCD” in 2020. Both applications have an Arabic-language interface to enable UNRWA-registered Palestine refugee patients to access their electronic health records and those of their children. Through these apps, patients receive appointments and medications notifications, and access information related to their health and the risks they may face. Both applications enable users to send questions and receive feedback from UNRWA healthcare workers. The e-NCD app also provides the users with a self-assessment and monitoring tool for their health.
Enterprise Business Intelligence (EBI) portal
As a part of the strategic plan to improve e-Health services, the UNRWA Department of Health and Information Management and Technology Department developed new e-Health dashboards for several modules (NCDs, medical consultations, child health, maternal health, lab tests, pharmacy, communicable diseases, training reports, COVID-19, and ICD-11). The dashboards and collected data inform the senior management of UNRWA on decisions regarding Agency-wide health policies.
Online training and staff capacity building
Online courses for health staff through the UNRWA eLearning platform (iLearn) help improve the access of healthcare personnel to learning and competencies at reduced costs and increased convenience and flexibility.
RELIEF AND SOCIAL SERVICES
The UNRWA Relief and Social Services (RSS) programme provides a range of direct and indirect social protection services.
The reform of the UNRWA social work aims to provide a family-based approach to beneficiaries, that helps strengthen their psychosocial resilience and social inclusion.
As of 2022, the social work reform was fully implemented in the five fields whereby social workers and their supervisors are now capable of providing safe and meaningful social work interventions that include the provision of direct psychosocial support to children, women, persons with disabilities and older persons to better cope with challenging living conditions as well as providing immediate response and referral to specialized service providers including GBV and child protection risk cases. The UNRWA Relief and Social Services Department uses the Primero software in partnership with UNICEF for social work related to protection. Primero was configured to meet the needs of the UNRWA family-based approach to social work and all social work staff received training on utilising the database for the management of their cases.
Maintaining, updating and preserving Palestine refugee records is another critical aspect of RSS. In 2020, UNRWA launched a secure and user-friendly online registration application for the refugees to update their registration information and submit proof documents online without having to approach UNRWA offices in person. Ongoing modernizing our Refugee Registration Information System seek to establish a fully integrated registration portal that will allow refugees to directly access their records and download electronic family registration cards and individual service cards.
The Palestine Refugee Record Archive Project aims at rebuilding and preserving the family trees and, by extension the refugee status and associated rights of hundreds of thousands of refugees who were displaced from their homes in 1948. A small UNRWA team, all of them Palestine refugees themselves residing in Lebanon, started to reconstitute the family trees of those who were displaced from one northern Palestine village during the Nakba. They rely on historic digitized UNRWA refugee records containing key information including refugees’ family composition, their place of origin and life events such as marriages, births, migrations and deaths over the last 72 years.
The physical files of refugee records remain archived in the five UNRWA field offices in Amman, East Jerusalem, Gaza, Beirut and Damascus.
MODERNIZING INFORMATION MANAGEMENT AND TECHNOLOGY
The Information Management and Technology Department (IMTD) leads the delivery of IT services while strengthening the understanding of available IMT (Information Management and Technology) applications and how they can be instrumental in providing high quality services.
In 2021, an IMTD partnership with Microsoft enabled 20,000 UNRWA educators and 540,000 students to access Microsoft accounts and applications. The partnership strengthens the education management and information systems used in its schools while simultaneously fostering collaboration within schools using industry leading technologies.
The Department also launched the UNRWA IT Service Center (ITSC) in 2020. ITSC features cutting-edge information technology (IT) services and provides efficient IT solutions across the Agency’s five fields of operations, and to United Nations agencies worldwide. The services of ITSC include web and mobile application development, software quality assurance, UI/UX design, cyber security, cloud computing, data science, project management, and service desk. Since its establishment in 2020, the Centre has grown 20 times its original size, with 120 employees today.
MODERNIZING ORGANIZATIONAL PROCESSES AND STRUCTURES
Under the new executive leadership, UNRWA is modernizing organizational processes and structures, from human resources and broader management practices to fiduciary transparency, strategy communications, ethics, conduct and discipline, conflict resolution and more. This restructuring and the ensuing new strategies have improved effectiveness and productivity across the Agency, ensuring that UNRWA is well-positioned and recognized in the digital sphere, thus making it a great partner for donors seeking to support innovation.
MODERNIZING LEADERSHIP AND MANAGEMENT
As an active and proud member of the UN family, the UNRWA approach to modernization is informed by the broader UN agenda. As an Agency whose work spans the humanitarian and development spectrum, UNRWA embraces the principles and practice of the Triple Nexus, improving linkages between its humanitarian, development and peace actions. It is also fully aligned with the Secretary-General’s 2017 reform agenda, notably its development system and management tracks and their emphasis on accountable leadership, transparency, improved business processes and risk management.
In 2020, UNRWA established an executive committee mechanism to allow for quicker and more accountable and transparent decision-making. Management structures, practices and culture have been revamped to make decision-making more accountable, inclusive, transparent and effective, building on best practices from other UN agencies and focused on the following priority management initiatives.
THE PATH AHEAD: Continuous Modernization and Improvement Needs Predictable Funding
At the 2021 international conference on UNRWA co-hosted by Jordan and Sweden, member states agreed on the centrality of UNRWA in the lives of Palestine refugees and its positive impact on regional stability.
To be able to continue modernizing its critical services to Palestine refugees, UNRWA needs predictable financial resources. The 2023-2028 strategic plan will be informed by the needs of the Palestine refugee community and the services that UNRWA must make available to them as per its mandate. The availability of modern services, including through the use of digital and information technology, largely depends on the availability of adequate resources.
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