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Source: United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)
11 October 2015


11 October 2015


President of the General Assembly, Mr. Mogens Lykketoft, Ambassadors, Distinguished Delegates,

On behalf of the Commissioner-General of UNRWA, Pierre Krähenbühl, and on behalf of the Agency I serve, I wish to express sincere gratitude to the President of the General Assembly for chairing today’s meeting, which comes at a tumultuous time for both the Middle East region and the Palestine Refugee community.

I am thus grateful for the President’s powerful words of support for UNRWA, an Agency that for six and a half decades has provided human development and emergency assistance to Palestine Refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, the West Bank and Jordan, who today number some 5 million. As mandated by the General Assembly, UNRWA will provide such assistance, adding significantly to the human capital of an unstable region, until a political solution is achieved and we urge all Member States to redouble their efforts to find a just resolution of the plight of the refugees we serve, in due time, ending the need for our historic mission and mandate.

Mr. President, Distinguished Delegates,

UNRWA is emerging from a financial crisis that was unprecedented in its severity and the pain it caused our beneficiaries. And if any here today doubt that, I invite you to come to the region and meet the families whose children came perilously close to having their school year delayed; families for whom education is a passport to dignity and the hope of a secure and prosperous future. Every day UNRWA educates some half a million children across the region, so the pain was not just profound, it was widespread.

In July it became clear that with a deficit in our Programme Budget of 101 million USD we might be forced to postpone the start of the academic year. Our coffers were empty. We simply did not have enough money in the banks to pay our 22 thousand education staff.

With tremendous effort and support from partners including donors and host governments, sufficient funds to address the $101 million funding shortfall were secured. This was the result of one of the most effective resource mobilization efforts in the history of UNRWA, coupled with high-level political support, spearheaded by the Secretary-General, the Deputy Secretary-General, and Minister Judeh of Jordan. On behalf of the Commissioner-General, I thank them for their personal engagement. Allow me here to also thank the countries and organizations that showed strong solidarity and came forward swiftly to help us bridge the shortfall to our programme budget: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, the United States of America, the EU, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Norway, the Netherlands and Slovakia. I also thank all those countries who generously and steadily contribute to our core programmes.

Having resolved the financial crisis for 2015, we are now turning our attention to 2016 and beyond.

The next phase of dealing with the financial crisis is based on two key actions: the pursuit of robust internal efficiency reforms and secondly, fundraising outreach, including the September 26 ministerial meeting, the Pledging Conference, which brings us together today, and direct engagement with donors in the region and elsewhere.

Mr President, Distinguished Delegates,

Just days ago the assembly adopted the Sustainable Development Goals embodying the noble ambitions of the future international order. Chief among them was the goal of ensuring that "no one is left behind" - including those furthest behind, such as refugees and displaced people. The Sustainable Development Goals also call for the elimination of poverty, reducing inequality, quality and inclusive education for all and the protection of the vulnerable. It would be inconsistent, to say the least, to see UNRWA's human development work decline when the Sustainable Development Goals demand the opposite. Moreover, education, including in emergencies, has become a vital element of our assistance to Palestinians in Syria and neighbouring countries. Without education and its sense of dignity and hope for a better life, people will have nothing else to turn to, and many will undertake the perilous journey to Europe and elsewhere. How many must die at sea before we take bold steps? How many will reach Europe before we decide to ensure dignity and a decent life for refugees in Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and elsewhere? A change of paradigm is urgently needed and the UN’s and UNRWA’s programmes in the region – vital, stabilizing assets in the hands of the international community - must be sure of your support to meet the coming challenges.


In the face of the unprecedented humanitarian crisis in the Middle East, and the shortages of worldwide resources to cope with needs, UNRWA faces immense challenges to sustain both its humanitarian and emergency programmes, and its human development work. And so we recognize the need to be innovative in developing new sources of funding such as World Bank Trust Funds, Islamic Financing, the Private Sector and Foundations; and we work tirelessly to broaden our donor base. But to be clear, the bedrock of our finances moving forward must come from UN member states. We urgently need consolidated, predictable, multi-year funding commitments.

In saying this, I acknowledge with gratitude the efforts of host countries whose resilience in the face of massive flows of refugees is challenging their economic and social cohesion. It is against that backdrop that we work closely with hosts to provide support to Palestine Refugees from Syria. As we strive to deal with these evolving emergencies, allow me to hold up UNRWA as an example of an Agency that successfully integrates humanitarian aid and development assistance, which is a key demand of the forthcoming World Humanitarian Summit.

Mr President, Distinguished Delegates,

Before addressing the specifics of our far-reaching reform programme, allow me to make some points about the increasingly grave operational context in which UNRWA works and which makes the need for our services all the greater, thus driving up our costs. The raging civil war in Syria continues with relentless barbarity, claiming lives and displacing people in unprecedented numbers, as the increased refugee flows into Europe so desperately illustrate. While UNRWA strives to deliver education, health, relief, social and emergency services in Syria, extremism continues to rise unabated. In Gaza, the blockade continues to affect every aspect of the population’s lives and restricts our work as disappointment, frustration and anger about the slow pace of reconstruction and the insufficient emergency services threaten to spill over into violence. In the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, escalating violence and the denial of rights and dignity under a restrictive and destructive occupational regime remains a powerful driver behind the need for UNRWA services. And in Lebanon, in addition to the established community highly reliant on UNRWA, some 45,000 Palestine Refugees from Syria are in desperate need of our assistance which continues to decline in the face of financial scarcity. To give you one small example: we were recently forced to cut our 100 USD per month housing subsidy to Palestine Refugee families, exposing tens of thousands to the prospects of homelessness on the streets of Lebanon, and to the temptation of flight from the region. These needs are not static!

Mr President,

In the face of these increasingly dire political realities and amidst our unprecedented financial crisis, what is UNRWA doing to increase the effectiveness of its interventions? As I have already said, UNRWA’s financial crisis was not only a sharp wakeup call on the immeasurable value of UNRWA’s services to communities – but it was also a reaffirmation of the commitment of UNRWA’s senior management to take bold steps to ensure the financial sustainability of the Agency this year and in future years. To combat the immediate funding shortfall: we increased the class ceiling for 700 schools; a hiring freeze was implemented; international consultancies were reduced by 85%; and an exceptional voluntary separation package was offered to staff in order to bring down operational costs. Still that was not enough and the start of the school year was jeopardized. Let me be clear: these measures were far from easy to put in place. They generated unrest among staff, the refugee community, and throughout the region, at a time when stability is needed.

The Commissioner-General’s Special Report to the Secretary-General dated August 3rd also sought to address the long-standing financial problems of the Agency. UNRWA’s management is committed to achieving excellence in both services and in operations. These commitments are embedded in UNRWA’s Medium Term Strategy, which kicks off in 2016 through 2021, and in the development of the 2016 programme budget. In-depth consultations between senior management, donors, host governments, and other partners have taken place before making strategic decisions to ensure improved financial management of the Agency.

Prioritization, cost efficiency, and innovative management of limited resources have been the driving factors in the preparation of the 2016 budget. Next year’s budget for UNRWA takes into consideration all of the measures implemented in 2015 and seeks to leverage UNRWA’s new enterprise resource system which provides additional opportunities to manage the Agency’s resources, used increasingly for direct service delivery rather than for unnecessary, outdated paper-based work. UNRWA defines its 2016 programme budget, as one of human development which captures the essence of the long-term objectives of the Agency in building the human capital of Palestine Refugees.

UNRWA’s 2016 budget is based on commitments to achieve the MTS targets by looking closely at ways to improve how we provide education – how we ensure health services – and how we support the most food insecure and poverty-stricken refugees.

With today’s pledging conference, we in UNRWA are launching our 2016 programme budget which reflects our two key objectives: put simply, these are to prioritize our assistance to the most vulnerable of Palestine Refugees and to build the human capital of Palestine Refugees. In the past few months UNRWA’s management has focused on reducing the current 2016 projected budget shortfall of $135 million USD to $81 million USD. If we are successful, this $50 million reduction will be the first time in 10 years that the Agency has a zero growth programme budget.

Distinguished Delegates,

In outlining UNRWA’s own internal austerity reforms and the robust steps we are taking to deal with the immediate and the longer term structural aspects of our funding crisis, we need your support for the emerging compact. My message to you is a stark one: without the long term financial commitment of the member states who hand us down our mandate for essential and life-saving services, UNRWA is unsustainable.

Mr President,

UNRWA is more than the sum of its services. It is the witness of the historic injustice from which Palestine Refugees have suffered. UNRWA in some way binds the 5 million Palestine Refugee community together. If it is destabilised, if education and health lapse, refugees will draw the conclusion that there is no hope or dignity left. The Palestine Refugee community will scatter and Palestine Refugee youth could become more susceptible to extremism. This is a risk the international community simply cannot afford to take. It is imperative therefore that UNRWA is fully supported until a just and lasting solution is found in accordance with UN resolutions.

This is why UNRWA is reaching out to donors at an early stage to outline our plans and seek your support in setting us on a sustainable financial footing as we pursue the path of effectiveness and value for money. So in making the UNRWA case, allow me to outline key areas of investment in the human capital of the Middle East.

UNRWA contributes to health care of Palestine Refugees through its primary health care services. The key components are the family health team, or person-centered comprehensive primary health care, and e-health, which is electronic medical records.

The reform outcome is very encouraging. Introduced in late 2011 in 2 health centres, the family health team approach is now in place at more than 100 health centres. It is anticipated that the family health team approach will be introduced in all 113 health centres in Gaza, West Bank, Jordan and Lebanon by the end of the year. Health centres are more efficient and the roll-out of the e-health system has ensured better medical records and management of results. There are more opportunities for UNRWA to improve its health services including the revision of hospitalization service policies that now focus on the most vulnerable.

Education, so vital amid rising extremism, is a cornerstone of UNRWA’s services. As we witnessed during this year’s financial crisis, the very thought of the possibility of not opening schools due to financial constraints resulted in collective shock and indignation and an unshakeable belief that to deprive over 500,000 Palestine Refugee students of education would be to rob them of their future. While education is a red line for the international community, host governments, and the Palestinian Refugees, there are difficult decisions that need to be taken in order to ensure the viability of funding for this core human development commitment. In line with this commitment to ensuring the quality of education, the Agency will closely monitor the impact of the revised class formation exercise and look into ways to offer additional support for larger classes whenever it is deemed necessary. The Agency is also considering self-sustaining models for our vocational training programmes.

As extremist groups continue their recruitment drive amid poverty and desperation, UNRWA’s relief and social services for the most vulnerable offer an invaluable investment, given that more than 300,000 Palestine Refugees are dependent on our social safety services. The 2016 programme budget has taken into account the need to better support these vulnerable refugees through a shift from the provision of food to the use of food vouchers which is the common practice of many humanitarian and development agencies. This important shift will result in a decrease in administrative and distribution costs which will mean more goods and services in the 2016 programme budget will be directly provided to vulnerable Palestine Refugees. We have seen the successful, increasingly widespread and more effectively targeted use of cash for food – rather than food handouts - in emergencies such as Syria, which allows flexibility and choice for the refugees, leading to a more dignified way of serving refugees.

Finally, and before concluding, UNRWA has been heartened by the renewed efforts of the international community, led by Germany in its capacity as G7 Chair, to mobilise additional support for refugees and displaced persons in Syria and neighbouring countries in recent days. UNRWA, with its established infrastructure, is well placed to deliver both humanitarian assistance but also early recovery and human development services, including education, to Palestine Refugees, assisting them to weather the crisis where they currently reside. UNRWA’s needs are reflected in the document we are distributing today and I would encourage you to support our Agency in this vital work.

Mr President,

In concluding, I want to come back to the need for partnership. The Commissioner-General has made it very clear that the financial viability of the Agency is a collective responsibility. Until a just and lasting solution is found to the plight of Palestine Refugees, donors must remain committed to ensuring that UNRWA can deliver vital services to Palestinians. Host countries have also shown tremendous generosity and hold an important responsibility to continue to shoulder the burden of the unresolved plight of Palestine Refugees. As I have outlined, UNRWA senior management, under the guidance of the Commissioner-General, is setting the foundation – both operationally and financially – for the Agency to support the implementation of the Medium Term Strategy. These strategic operational and financial plans are undertaken in an effort to bring Palestine Refugees closer to a better future and closer to the aspirations of a community that refuses to allow conflict to deprive them of the dignity for which they yearn.

The time for humanitarian action alone is long gone. In making the case for financial support, I again stress that it could be rendered completely unnecessary if effective political action was forthcoming. In the meantime, the case for a fully funded UNRWA, contributing to the human capital of an ever more disadvantaged, marginalized, unstable and increasingly mobile community has never been so great. In closing, allow me to urge all Member States to redouble their efforts to find a just resolution of the plight of the refugees we serve, ending the need for our historic mission and mandate.

Thank you.

* As delivered.


UNRWA is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions, and financial support has not kept pace with an increased demand for services caused by growing numbers of registered refugees, deepening poverty and conflict. As a result, the UNRWA General Fund, which supports core essential services and most staffing costs, operates with a large deficit. UNRWA emergency programmes and key projects, also operating with large deficits, are funded through separate funding portals.

UNRWA is a United Nations agency established by the General Assembly in 1949 and mandated to provide assistance and protection to some 5 million registered Palestine refugees. Its mission is to help Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank and the Gaza Strip achieve their full human development potential, pending a just solution to their plight. UNRWA services encompass education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, and microfinance.

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