Wednesday, October 14, 2009

UNRWA at 60: Are There Better Alternatives? Part I


by Nitza Nachmias

1st part of 3


The United Nations Relief and Work Agency for the Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) was established in 1948 as a temporary relief agency. In spite of its failure to solve the refugee problem, it has been renewed and expanded for 60 years, with support from the entire United Nations community, including the United States and Israel. UNRWA's annual budget now exceeds half a billion dollars, and it has come to be treated as a permanent protector and advocate of what are depicted as millions of Palestinian "refugees" who, UNRWA claims. lack a homeland, citizenship, and governments to serve their needs. Its mandate has been renewed repeatedly by the UN General Assembly albeit with restrained criticism demanding more transparency and additional budget controls.

The purpose of this paper is to explore three questions: (1) Are most of the Palestinians in the Middle East in fact "refugees", and does treating them as "refugees" contribute to solutions or prevent them? (2) Is UNRWA the agency best suited to address the issues facing these populations most effectively, or does it create more problems than it solves? (3) If UNRWA is a problem, is it the least bad of the alternatives, or are there, in the balance of costs and benefits, other solutions with a better probability to bring the issue to a just and rightful resolution?

The paper concludes that UNRWA is not merely an "imperfect" agency, but one that is profoundly inimical both to the higher interests of its own Palestinian clients, and to the search for a political settlement of the conflicts in the region. It describes alternative solutions that could more effectively deliver services to these Palestinian populations while strengthening rather than undermining moderate elements and governments in the various host countries, including the Palestinian Authority. Strengthening the PA would help to advance the peace process. The paper proposes more effective ways to channel the enormous sums misappropriated to UNRWA, to achieve vital objectives of the donors that perpetuation of UNRWA will continue to subvert.



Sixty years ago UNRWA was created as a temporary emergency relief agency. Its main duties were constructing temporary shelters and providing essential food to the Palestinian families that left their homes during the 1948 Israeli-Arab war. Sixty years and billions of dollars later, UNRWA has become an entrenched permanent, overstaffed, affluent bureaucracy. Hardly any traces of the original mandate can be found in its current operations. In a surprising and unprecedented move for any emergency aid organization, UNRWA launched in September 2008 a two-year global celebration entitled: "UNRWA at 60". The celebrations are taking place at the UN headquarters (NY), Vienna, Geneva, Brussels, the Gulf States, and in the donor countries, among others. In the 60th celebration announcements UNRWA expresses the hope that its operations will grow and flourish for many more years to come.[1] The lavish events put an additional financial burden on the donors that astonishingly did not stop to ask: is UNRW's 60th anniversary a cause for celebration, or is it a testimony of failure? We will show that "UNRWA at 60" is indeed a testimony of failure.

While the United Nations Relief and Work Agency for the Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) was established in 1948 as a temporary relief agency, it has for 60 years enjoyed broad support from the entire United Nations community, including even Israel and the United States. UNRWA is treated as the protector and advocate of what are known as millions of Palestinian refugees who claim that for four generations they have lacked a homeland, citizenship, and a government to serve their needs.[2] UNRWA's mandate has been renewed repeatedly by the UN General Assembly albeit with restrained criticism demanding more transparency and additional budget controls.[3] The purpose of this paper is to explore three questions: (1) Are most of the Palestinians in the Middle East in fact "refugees", and does treating them as "refugees" contribute to solutions or prevent them? (2) Is UNRWA, on balance, the agency that is the most able to address the issues facing these populations most effectively, or does it create more problems than it solves? (3) If UNRWA is a problem, is it the least bad of the alternatives, or are there, on the balance of costs and benefits, other solutions with a better probability to bring the issue to a just and rightful resolution?

UNRWA claims that about five million Palestinians are refugees. We will show that most are not. Most Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza and Jordan have been integrated in the local communities, and many in Jordan have acquired Jordanian citizenship. In the West Bank and Gaza the residents carry PA official documents. Others have immigrated to the US and Europe where they are either legal residents or citizens. For most Palestinians, the transition from refugee camps to urban dwellings occurred decades ago. As early as 1950, the majority of the original 1948 refugees and their families began to move out of the camps and resettle in neighboring states and regions. Simultaneously, non-refugees began to move into the camps for economic advantages, especially to receive UNRWA's free services.[4] UNRWA's bureaucracy soon adapted to the situation and moved away from its original relief mandate to providing non emergency, civil services. [5] Yet UNRWA has been perpetuating the myth of "millions of 1948 Palestinian refugees"; a myth that provides the raison d'etre for UNRWA's oversized bureaucracy[6]. Moreover, UNRWA has succumbed to major bureaucratic pathologies. It has become an ineffective self-serving, work-creating agency suffused with favoritism and patronage. UNRWA is definitely not a typical international humanitarian aid organization. The UN agency is the largest non government employer in the region, employing over 29,000 Palestinians with a superstructure of 120 international advisors. Because UNRWA's international staff is very small, the operations are planned, executed and controlled by tens of thousands of Palestinian employees. Consequently, UNRWA's operations follow its own institutional imperatives rather than its international mandate. [7]

In the particular case of the West Bank and Gaza, UNRWA has created unique political and administrative dilemmas. UNRWA has become a non-territorial administration, taking on national-governmental responsibilities, though the Palestinian Authority rather than UNRWA has the legal jurisdiction over the territory and inhabitants. Operating as a "non-territorial, Palestinian government" UNRWA provides non-emergency, civil services (education, health, welfare, microfinance, etc) to an assorted population regardless of their refugee status. Ironically, the PA, that is the legal governing authority in the West Bank and Gaza, is forced to compete with UNRWA in providing civil services to its own citizens.[8] Regrettably, the PA is no match for the bureaucratic network and expertise UNRWA has accumulated during 60 years of operation. Thus, as a result of UNRWA's operation the PA's credibility, legitimacy, and ability to gain the respect of its citizens are greatly diminished, causing the weakening of the PA's authority and most likely playing a role in the rise of Hamas.[9]

The existence of UNRWA after the 1993 creation of the Palestinian Authority creates an anomaly. While the residents of the West Bank and Gaza are citizens of the PA and have enjoyed full political rights, including suffrage (as have most Palestinians of Jordan), they are at the same time international wardens of a UN governing authority that provides them with non-emergency civil services. UNRWA has created a de facto "state within a state" albeit with ambiguous legal status. Normally, no government would accept the presence, beyond its control, of an autonomous international organization that provides substitute services to its citizens. However, the PA lacks effective authority over either the "refugee camps" or UNRWA's operation in these areas. This is an abnormal situation.


Are UNRWA's Clients "Refugees"?

Defining the populations to whom services are administered by UNRWA as "refugees" is in most cases both misleading and harmful to the search for a solution. UNRWA's refugee registration process was profoundly flawed from its inception, and the original mistakes have been compounded over the succeeding decades. In the beginning, to gain the status of a "protected refugee" and qualify for an UNRWA refugee ID card entitling the holder to benefits, applicants must have been resident in Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948 and to have lost both their homes and their livelihoods as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. UNRWA itself reports that its original registration figures are based on information voluntarily supplied by applicants primarily for the purpose of obtaining access to Agency's services and hence can't be considered statistically reliable "demographic data."[10] A simple declaration by the applicant was accepted as sufficient. UNRWA later granted benefits eligibility to the descendants of these self-declared 1948 refugees. As a result of these financial incentives, the number of putative "refugees" swelled from an estimated 914,000 in 1950 to over 5 million in 2009. UNRWA itself admits that the agency's "registration records do not necessarily reflect the actual refugee population owing to the factors such as: unreported deaths; false registration; and undetected absence from area of UNRWA operation".[11] Thus, for six decades, UNRWA's vast budget is based on enormously inflated numbers of clients that have never been refugees. It is important to acknowledge the fact that for decades, UNRWA has been evading the donors numerous requests to replace the 60-year old refugee ID cards with a new picture ID cards. Such a process would have required UNRWA to execute a census, a process that UNRWA never conducted. The census and the demand for the refugees to come to UNRWA's offices, be photographed and get a bone fide UNRWA ID card would have resulted in a big embarrassment for the agency. Most probably the majority of the "registered refugees" will turn up to be none existent or settled.

A review of UNRWA's history reveals the unacceptable fact that for decades, UNRWA has thwarted all efforts to settle the issue and terminate its operations. UNRWA was created to provide short-term, emergency, humanitarian aid to Palestinian refugees, just as the newly formed United Nations sought to assist millions of refugee populations in other parts of the world created by the upheavals of World War II and its aftermath. The UNRWA operation was expected to be completed within two or three years, once the emergency conditions were resolved and the refugees resettled. The Palestinian refugees were at the time but a small percentage of the tens of millions of refugees worldwide receiving various forms of United Nations assistance. Dag Hammeskjold, the second UN Secretary General (1953-1961), initiated a plan for the reintegration of the Palestinian refugees in their host countries. Under his leadership, the UN General Assembly specifically instructed UNRWA to work to reintegrate the refugees in the places of their refuge.[12] At the time, the refugee camps in the West Bank were under Jordanian authority and the refugee camps in Gaza were under Egyptian authority. The premise was that these two states would absorb the refugees through a process of reintegration financed by the international community.[13] With the exception of Jordan, the Arab host countries' rejected the resettlement and reintegration proposals, and UNRWA instead, became a permanent, self-perpetuating bureaucracy.

By the early 1950s, UNRWA's original 1948 emergency humanitarian mission was completed. However, due to the agency's autonomous status, UNRWA was able to shift its operational agenda and began providing non-emergency, regular, daily social benefits to anyone registered with the Agency who it decided to give assistance, whether refugee or not.[14] UNRWA and other reliable sources data show that the majority of the descendents of the original 1948 families ceased to be in need of relief assistance many decades ago. A 1987 General Assembly report found that, only 10% of UNRWA budget was dedicated to emergency relief, while the bulk was devoted "to educating children and furnishing advanced training, maintaining effective public healthcare services and providing basic welfare services to a largely industrious and self supporting [so-called] refugee population." [15] Already 30 years ago, it was reported that 95 percent of registered Palestinian refugees were self-supporting. A 2003 GAO report found that less than a third of the registered "refugees" live in designated so-called "refugee camps," some only because they prefer to build their homes in territory exempt from local taxes. Two thirds are integrated in the cities and states in the Middle East and beyond. Over two million are resettled in Jordan, most of whom are Jordanian citizens paying taxes and eligible to receive social services from the Jordanian government.[16] All the same, these millions of people are, inappropriately, holders of UNRWA refugee cards and enjoy all of UNRWA's giveaway programs.

Once we realize that UNRWA is not actually in the refugee business at all, but is a social welfare agency distributing benefits to a body of preferred clients whether they qualify as needy or not, the real issue becomes clear: If the world community wants to provide economic and development assistance to Palestinians, is UNRWA the best way to select the Palestinian beneficiaries and the best agency to channel the assistance? A systematic review of UNRWA and other existing government and non-government organizations shows that it is not.[17]


Alternatives for Better Education Opportunities

Education is UNRWA's single largest area of activity, accounting for half its budget and two-thirds of its staff. UNRWA provides education to over 500,000 students in 684 schools, and this is often cited as one of its supreme achievements. Commissioner General Ms. Abu-Zayd stated recently: "Education has been central to UNRWA's human development agenda throughout its sixty-year history. Today, more than half of our budget is devoted to the primary education of refugee children, with equal opportunity given to boys and girls".[18] However, UNRWA's extensive and costly educational activity is neither humanitarian nor consistent with UNRWA's mandate.[19] The students of UNRWA's schools come from a largely undistinguished and unidentified population, who could hardly be considered "refugees". Moreover, recent scholastic achievement reports show that the same students could be better served by educating them through the hosts' national school systems. If the international community wishes to assist Palestinian children by subsidies to their education, this could be accomplished more effectively and with fewer collateral problems by providing the same assistance to the state educational systems where they reside rather than through an over-sized international bureaucracy that perpetuates the political myth that the Palestinians are refugees and should be allowed to return to their former homes.

As mentioned earlier, UNRWA's claim to fame in education proves misleading. Its schools are not scholastically superior, in fact they are often inferior, to the local-national schools, and Jordan is a case in point. James Lindsay's thorough report shows that while UNRWA's services are free, students still prefer the national school systems. "UNRWA schools are losing students to Jordanian government schools (most Palestinian refugees in Jordan are citizens so they are able to choose which schools their children attend)." The loss of students is in contradiction to the rise in refugee rolls. "The number of registered refugees in Jordan increased by 32.4% from December 1997 to December 2007, while the number of students in UNRWA schools declined by 13%".[20] To avoid negative ramification of its deteriorating educational reputation UNRWA decided to launch an elaborate public relations campaign.[21] It is hard to believe that these tactic will dispel the criticism.

As we have shown, the answer to UNRWA's educational problems is clear: turn over UNRWA's costly and inferior educational system to the local governments. While the transfer will require a major structural change the process will be facilitated by the fact that the majority of the students are bone fide citizens of Middle Eastern states, all the teachers are local Palestinians, and the curriculum is adopted from the host countries and the PA texts. The transfer of the educational operation is necessary and timely. Money will be saved and overstuffed, inefficient bureaucracy will be terminated. The big winner will, of course, be the students!

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


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