Wednesday, October 14, 2009

UNRWA at 60: Are There Better Alternatives? Part II


by Nitza Nachmias

2nd  part of 3

Palestinian Self-Reliance Requires an End to UNRWA's Operations

During its six decades of operation, UNRWA has deepened and propagated the Palestinian dependence on its services. This has been detrimental to the development of Palestinian economic and social self-reliance. It probably helped the rise of Hamas which presents itself as a genuine, self-supporting economic and social Palestinian institution. We argue that UNRWA's inflated bureaucracy and the unrestrained scope of its non-emergency services hinder rather than induce Palestinian self-reliance. UNRWA's operations have been particularly damaging to the fledgling PA that has to accept the existence of a competing United Nations governing authority within its boundaries . The World Bank recently reported that the PA is "developing strategies that encourage productivity and growth in the industrial, agricultural, housing, and tourism sectors and allow the Palestinian economy to develop a diversified export portfolio"[22] UNRWA's operations have the reverse effect of nurturing and advancing dependence. We will present feasible alternatives to UNRWA's operations that have been developed by Palestinian scholars who see that UNRWA undermines their road to self-reliance

While UNRWA has no legal governing authority, it issues building permits, authorizes commercial activities and acts as a "private banking system" distributing millions in cash and loans to those it favors. Not surprisingly, thousands of residents of the West Bank and Gaza, and millions in Jordan know only one governing authority: UNRWA. In its "UNRWA at 60" document the agency reports that in FY 2009, it has outstanding 169 million USD in loans, granted to 157,000 people! "The agency has been providing loans worth USD 30 million each year". UNRWA boasts that "it is the largest micro-finance service provider in the occupied Palestinian territories and the second largest micro-finance institution in Syria". [23] UNRWA does not include details concerning this unusual financial activity in its annual reports, and we wonder: how can a skeleton body of 120 international advisors properly control and manage this high volume financial activity? One must also ask the donors: if the international community wishes to distribute millions of dollars (cash loans and grants) to Palestinian people, shouldn't it be done in the proper manner, through national banking institutions that exercise control, accountability and transparency mechanisms, and not through the shady bureaucracy of UNRWA? .

Ending this detrimental anomaly requires the termination of UNRWA's non-emergency operations and the transfer to the proper local authorities the responsibility and authority to plan and execute public policy, namely, educating the Palestinian children and running health clinics. The termination of UNRWA's status as a "non-territorial government" in the West Bank and Gaza will establish the PA as the only legal, governing authority. The PA leadership will gain the respect and trust of the people that is needed to counter Hamas influence in Gaza. Indeed, in the West Bank, where UNRWA's presence is weaker, the PA's position and authority is secure and growing. The trade off is clear: a strong and "fat" UNRWA means a "lean" and weak PA. In Gaza, Hamas leadership grew stronger under the protection of UNRWA, and undermined the PA efforts to gain control of Gaza. Many Palestinians openly criticize this role of UNRWA and express the hope that "UNRWA is not forever."[24]

The following are a few working plans suggested by Palestinian scholars that show a Palestinian desire and appeal for self reliance. "One possible way of easing the transition (from UNRWA to the PA and other host governments) would be to create a flexible transitional funding mechanism, which would allow donors to transfer resources for a variety of purposes with some assurance of accountability and transparency. Such a facility would work as a flexible multi-country, multi-purpose mechanism for channeling donor assistance."[25] The possibility of UNRWA being in charge of a transitional fund was not accepted because "donors would be concerned whether the Agency could maintain the appropriate degree of objectivity if it were asked to manage the financial aspects of the transfer of services."[26] Another alternative suggested that "UNRWA might be gradually wound down over 2-5 year period. During this period, its previous functions would be gradually assumed by host governments. UNRWA might also take on new tasks, whether to assist host governments in upgrading the quality of their own service delivery, or in assisting the implementation of various aspects of a permanent status agreement. Or, UNRWA would face an indeterminate transition period between initial agreement on a framework for resolving the refugee issue and agreement on specific modalities. This would then be followed by a subsequent wind down period of 2-5 years."[27]

Another alternative suggested: "A first step would need to be reaching of agreement among key donor countries that the time had arrived for UNRWA and the PA, and where possible, UNRWA and the host governments, to enter into firm arrangements for the transfer, over a specific period, of UNRWA's functions to the PA and to those regional government…Establishment of a cooperation agreement between UNRWA and the PA, and the PA encompassing secondment of staff from the PA to UNRWA schools and clinics, with the PA to be given additional financial assistance from the donors for the purpose (to cover salary and allowance differentials). Increase outsourcing to the PA of refugee education and health services. Refugee children should be able to go to school wherever there is capacity in PA schools to absorb them – as currently happens to some extent in the West Bank." [28] "While the government of Syria could absorb current UNRWA expenditures in Syria relatively easily, the task is more difficult in LebanonJordan faces substantially greater relative costs than do either Syria or Lebanon. Additional resources should be given to the PA since in the Palestinian territories; there is no prospect that the Palestinian budget could suddenly absorb the costs of providing under UNRWA health, education and other social services in the immediate future."[29]

In summary, UNRWA's clients, the Palestinian people, are highly critical of the "patron" that was imposed upon them. We agree with them that the termination of UNRWA's operations is not only feasible but is imperative. Donors to UNRWA actually harm the Palestinian community by perpetuating UNRWA's superfluous existence.


UNRWA is Neither an Exclusive Nor the Best Aid Provider

For sixty years, more than thirty international organizations, hundreds of NGOs, and all members of the OECD have been transferring billions of dollars and in kind aid to the Palestinian community. However, hardly any cost and benefit analysis is carried out to compare the value and consequences of the generous, annual contributions to UNRWA with the efficacy of aid given through other institutions. Notwithstanding the lack of evidence that UNRWA's operation serves the cause of the Palestinian community, in March 2009, at an international donor's conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the administration's pledge of $900 million aid package that includes hundreds of million to UNRWA. [30]

UNRWA is only one of many aid providers and indeed, the Palestinian environment resembles an "aid bazaar" with international organizations and donor states competing with each other over "who is the biggest aid provider". Donors come from all creeds, faith, agenda, ideology, size, affiliation and intentions. The Big Four are the USAID, the European Commission, the World Bank, and the United Nations Development Program. Others include FAFO (The Norwegian Peace Building Center), the Finnish government, the British Council, the Italian and Japanese governments, and many international NGO, including Catholic relief, Care, Save the Children, OXFEM, UNICEF, to name a few. All the aid providers work simultaneously, at the same locations, and provide aid to the same population. In this diffused system, UNRWA is seeking to preserve its dominance position even after its original task has long been achieved.

We argue that UNRWA's operations are redundant and irrelevant vis-à-vis the vast assistance campaigns executed by the international community. The US in particular needs to stop transferring vast amounts of resources to UNRWA while the USAID is simultaneously carrying out independent development projects to the same population. . "Most aid to the Palestinians is provided by USAID to U.S.-based NGOs operating in the West Bank and Gaza. Funds are allocated for humanitarian assistance, economic development, democratic reform, improving water access and other infrastructure, health care, education, and vocational training."[31] If the USAID autonomously carries out all these development projects why provide UNRWA's inefficient organization with billions of dollars for the same activities? Indeed, between 2002 and 2009 the US increased its contributions to the Palestinians by more than 200%-- from $ 72 million in 2002 to $ 150 million in 2006 and to $ 414 million in 2008!

The picture repeats itself with aid provided by the European Commission. In 2008 the EC announced a contribution of $ 461 million Euros to be spent on humanitarian, food, and non humanitarian projects.[32] The World Bank is carrying out independently, a variety of community development projects in the west Bank and Gaza, supporting a pioneering new community driven development project, the Village and Neighborhood Development Project" (VNDP).[33] The UNDP (United Nations Development Program) is also heavily involved in Palestinian community and economic development projects.[34] UNDP autonomous operations include: democratic governance, crisis prevention and recovery, environment, poverty reduction, gender and HIV/AIDS. UNDP reports that its 2008 budget for economic aid for Gaza was only $ 80 million, but this lean yet efficient project has already generated over 50,000 jobs for Palestinian workers.[35] In addition since 2005, the Finish government has also been assisting the education sector in the West Bank and Gaza.

Clearly, UNRWA's expensive existence is not indispensable! Terminating UNRWA's ineffective operations and shutting down its oversized bureaucracy will not result in lack of assistance for the Palestinian people.


UNRWA Inhibits the Peace Process

For decades UNRWA has used scare tactics to claim that its existence is essential to the peace process. The scare tactics seem to work because UNRWA's budget has grown exponentially. UNRWA strongest argument is that the Palestinian "refugees" need a patron to take care of them until a legitimate Palestinian government is established and takes over UNRWA's operations. In early 1995, when the donors proposed to begin a gradual transfer of UNRWA's operations to the newly created PA and the other host governments, UNRWA raised strong objections to the plan insisting that it should continue operating "for practical as well as political reasons"[36] We argue that nothing is further from the truth.

UNRWA's original mandate was neither clear nor specific on the question of "assist[ing] the refugees until their status was politically resolved". Our discussion clearly shows that the status of West Bank and Gaza Palestinians has been resolved, and UNRWA's services are redundant and superfluous. Jordan and Syria are two recognized, functioning states that could and should take over UNRWA's operations and provide all the necessary services equally, to all the Palestinians who have resided for four generations amidst them.[37] The only place where emergency aid may be needed is Lebanon. Here too, the international community is actively and intensely involved in providing aid to the camps. UNRWA is only one of many well funded non governmental and governmental aid organizations that provide assistance to the camp residents (mostly non refugees)in Lebanon. In the case of Gaza and the West Bank, UNRWA functions as a "non territorial government" competing with the PA as it provides civil services to PA citizens. Since 1995, the PA has been the legitimate Palestinian governing authority. It should run schools, operate health clinics, issue building permits, and collect taxes. UNRWA's existence denies the aspiring Palestinian people the right to self-government and self-reliance. The rise of Hamas may be linked partly to the PA's weakend authority

As we have shown, a major component in UNRWA's survival strategy is the nurturing of a mutual dependence syndrome, so that the Palestinian community thinks it cannot function without UNRWA's inflated bureaucracy. UNRWA needs the myth of "five million refugees" and in exchange, provides the Palestinians free services. The truth is that UNRWA's tactics actually hinder the peace process and any realistic resolution of the refugee issue. UNRWA's baseless and inflated registration numbers feed the impossible demand for a "right of return".

Thus, it is not surprising that UNRWA has consistently resisted any effort by Israeli governments to resettle the "refugees". Immediately after the administration of the West Bank and Gaza shifted from Egypt and Jordan to Israel as a result of the war of 1967, the Israeli Military Administration initiated a major camps reconstruction policy. The plan involved moving the refugees to permanent housing, as well as widening camps roads and improving Gaza infrastructure and living conditions, and demolition of temporary shelters. In a complete violation of UNRWA's mandate, these positive measures were vigorously protested by UNRWA, including protests before the UN General Assembly, calling upon Israel to abandon its plans and refrain from any action that might lead to resettlement of Palestinian refugees. Later, during the 1990s, UNRWA rejected plans initiated by local Palestinian municipal authorities to annex the residents of UNRWA's areas of control to the Palestinian areas of responsibility. Even the request to strengthen the ties between UNRWA's clients and the local Palestinian municipal authorities was rejected.[38]

In 2000, Palestinian leaders publicly expressed disappointment at UNRWA's resistance to relinquish its responsibilities. "While the Oslo Process of 1993 renewed the debate about the future of UNRWA, and for the first time since UNRWA was established it is possible to see on the horizon the end of the Agency's mission and UNRWA's ultimate dissolution…five years later, however, the future of the Agency remains unclear."[39] To date, UNRWA continues to deny the well known fact: most refugees are long settled. Only an acknowledgment of this fact will move the peace process forward.

Nitza Nachmias
Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.



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