UN Palestinian refugee agency faces ‘existential’ budget crisis

Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of UNRWA participate in an UNRWA summer camp in Gaza (AP)

The National  /  October 2, 2021

At stake is the agency’s ability to keep 550,000 children in school and provide health care for thousands.

The UN agency helping Palestinian refugees is facing an “existential” budget crisis and is appealing for urgent funding of $120 million to keep essential education, healthcare and other services running this year, its chief said on Friday.

“We keep struggling, running after cash,” Philippe Lazzarini said at the UN headquarters in New York.

“The financial situation is a real existential threat on the organisation, and we should not underestimate this because it might force the organisation to decrease services,” he said.

“We risk collapse very quickly.”

At stake is the agency’s ability to keep 550,000 children in school, provide health care for thousands and pay the salaries of its 28,000 staff in November and December, Mr Lazzarini said.

He also said it was seeking $800m at a donor conference scheduled for November in Brussels.

To fund UNRWA’s “three core activities” – education, health and social services – “we are seeking $800m a year,” Mr Lazzarini said before the gathering, organised by Jordan and Sweden.

“The main objective of the conference is to have a better predictability” and to “promote visibility”, he said.

The funding would allow the agency to keep open the 700 or so schools it managed, as well as health centres, and to provide social welfare to Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

In addition to the $800m, Mr Lazzarini said there was also a need for funds for the humanitarian aid provided by UNRWA in Gaza and Syria.

This varies from one year to the next, depending on the crisis, but which the agency estimates will be about $500,000 in 2022.

He emphasised the importance of the US returning as a major donor to UNRWA this year after former president Donald Trump stopped all funding in 2018.

The Biden administration announced in April it would provide a total of $235m to projects in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as to the agency.

But Mr Lazzarini said the US funding had been offset by decreased funding from other donors as a result of the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

He pointed to the UK’s cut in its overseas aid budget from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent of GDP, and the decline in Arab support to UNRWA from $200m in 2018 to about $89m in 2019 and $37m in 2020.

He said UNRWA’s uncertain funding had caused anxiety among Palestinian refugees that the “lifeline” provided by the agency could be weakened, and a feeling of being abandoned by the international community.

Palestinian refugees, their children and grandchildren now number 5.7 million.

Mr Lazzarini said UNRWA only helps the 550,000 in school and 2.8 million who have health benefits.