The decision by United States (US) President Donald Trump’s administration to stop funding the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has politicized humanitarian aid, threatens to add yet more fuel to one of the world’s most combustible conflicts, and jeopardises the futures of a half-million Palestinian children and young people.
Originally created to deliver basic assistance to refugees displaced during the creation of the Israeli state, the UNWRA has provided health care, employment, and emergency food and shelter for displaced Palestinians since 1949. Today, nearly two million refugees receive emergency food and cash assistance from the organization, and each year millions use the 143 UNRWA-run health clinics.
But the majority of UNRWA’s budget goes towards educating children and young people, half of them in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, and the rest in Gaza and the West Bank. UNRWA runs nearly 700 schools, serving more students than any other United Nations (UN) organization. Some 75 percent of the population of the Gaza Strip receives some form of UNRWA assistance, and 60 percent of Gaza’s children from first to ninth grade attend UNRWA schools.
Without aid from the US, however, UNRWA’s ability to deliver its most valuable service will be severely diminished. This directly contradicts the commitment made by world leaders, as part of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to ensure that every child is in school by 2030.
Though UNRWA has more than 100 donors, almost a quarter of its total budget – nearly US$400 million annually – previously came from the US. In fact, for nearly 70 years the US has been UNRWA’s most generous and reliable donor, with both Republican and Democratic administrations recognizing the organization’s value.
Now, UNRWA’s other donors – the top 10 of which contribute some 80 percent of the body’s total budget – are under pressure to bridge the funding gap. And some donors are already stepping up.
In Germany, UNRWA’s third-largest funder, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas recently announced that the government is “currently preparing to provide an additional amount of significant funds” to the organization. Similarly, the United Kingdom (UK) has just added £7 million (US$9 million), bringing its total contribution for the current year to £45.5 million (US$58.7 million).
Sweden recently committed US$206 million of non-earmarked funding over the next four years. The European Union (EU), UNRWA’s second-largest donor, has provided an advance on this year’s funding, and pledged to maintain its contribution in 2019 and 2020. Other donors – such as Denmark, Finland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, and Switzerland – have agreed to frontload their funding as well.
This is good news, but we will need to do more to offset the coming loss of US support at a time when budgets are already strained by the fast-increasing humanitarian needs of the world’s other 60 million displaced people, including more than 20 million refugees (a post-World War II record). Likewise, the Education Cannot Wait fund, established in 2016 to aid children and young people affected by wars and emergencies, now must consider 40 separate emergencies and protracted crises. As yet, the organization, led by Yasmine Sherif, lacks the necessary funding to help close the huge financing gap.
Beyond reducing substantially the UNRWA’s capacity to deliver basic services to Palestinian refugees, the shortage of resources will also threaten the already tenuous stability of the West Bank, Gaza, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan.
As Maas put it, “the loss of this organization could unleash an uncontrollable chain reaction.” Kids would be pushed from UNRWA classrooms onto the streets, where they would be more vulnerable to dangerous scenarios such as recruitment efforts by terrorists, who will surely jump at the chance to argue that if we can’t keep our aid promises, peaceful coexistence with the West is impossible. Child marriage, child labour, and child trafficking would rise. A generation of children and young people would be lost, in a region more unstable than ever.
The Trump administration has offered a number of imaginative but unconvincing justifications for its decision. For example, it claims that other countries should have been paying more for a long time. But, even if that were true, it would hardly justify the sudden elimination of all support.
The administration also asserts that UNRWA is inflating the number of Palestinian refugees, not all of whom deserve the “right to return” (a major sticking point in peace negotiations with Israel), and that the organization has outlived its usefulness. But, again, the argument is not convincing.
To be sure, UNRWA has long been criticized by some for passing down refugee status across generations since 1948. The Trump administration is now considering a proposal to restrict the right of return from five million Palestinians to a few hundred thousand.
But, in response it is argued that the practice of defining refugees’ descendants as refugees is in accordance with international conventions governing refugee rights, as well as with international human rights and humanitarian law and the approach taken by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
The fact is that, since UNRWA was created, the UN General Assembly, including the US, has not only renewed its mandate every three years, but also extolled its performance. An overwhelming majority of UN member states, recognizing the unique role UNRWA plays in a volatile region, have consistently recognized the need to provide it with robust financial support.
As the world continues to seek an agreement for lasting peace in the Middle East, UNRWA (under the reforming leadership of Pierre Krähenbühl) is an important stabilizing influence and humanitarian force that advances the cause of peace. Palestinian refugee children are already deeply disadvantaged. If UNRWA is not given the support it needs, these children and their societies will pay an even heavier price.
Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer of the United Kingdom, is United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education and Chair of the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity. He chairs the Advisory Board of the Catalyst Foundation.