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18 November 2009

UNRWA Commissioner-General Closing Remarks

Hosts and Donors Meeting
Mövenpick Hotel, Dead Sea, 18 November 2009

I thank you for your farewell messages and am glad I can turn first to a summary of the HDM’s activities to be able to compose myself for a few remarks to thank you in turn.

When we embarked on these discussions yesterday, I offered the thought that the ultimate goal of adding value to our core services to refugee communities– as required by our Medium Term Strategy - would help us focus our discussions on the theme of partnership and provide creative thinking on how UNRWA could work better with others. There is much that we would like to do for refugees but that we simply cannot do alone without additional capacity, without additional competencies and without additional resources which we know can only be accessed through partnership.

So although I opened this meeting with high hopes, the quality and depth of the proceedings I witnessed have surpassed my expectations.

The panel discussion yesterday morning gave strong impetus to these discussions, setting broad parameters at the same time as giving us the benefit of the practical experience of other organizations. Thanks are due to the panelists for setting the practical tone of the discussions, giving us the benefit of their broad experience in developing partnerships.

We have learned that partnerships must be based on shared values, interests and understanding. We are clear on the importance of innovation, creativity and that two way communication is an essential component of successful partnerships. Likewise, partnerships have to be more than purely funding relationships and UNRWA must take a broader view. We also recognize that UNRWA itself has to develop policies, tools and mindsets to be able to promote partnership working successfully.

UNRWA is a highly operational Agency and it is this operational focus which has always been one of our key strengths. We have heard first hand from our Field Directors about the challenges that the Agency is facing at the present time. Many of these challenges – such as the issues of access and shortage of resources – have been with us for many years and require constant management. We have learned, too, of the many successes which have been attained in spite of the difficult operating environment, as a result of dedication, innovation and a commitment for reform of services.

It is in this context that concepts of partnership have to be operationalised if they are to serve our mission. We recognize that we are at an early stage of developing a new partnership framework for UNRWA, but we are committed to see this through. The prize for investing in these structures will not be only an enhanced level of service delivery for refugees but stronger, more empowered communities.

You have made it very difficult for me to conclude – or even to speak.

First let me compose myself – and then thank you (and your predecessors) in turn for offering more than I deserve – as without your engagement, involvement and support – indeed your insistence (accompanied at times by pleading and prodding), UNRWA (and I) would not have been able to accomplish what we have managed to do or to reach where we are today.

So a sincere dose of gratitude to you all. Here I’d like also to particularly recognize the entire external relations team, under Fabian and Graham, and the enormously important and competent role played, in particular, by the AdCom Secretary, Ian Mitchell. Ian, you and your external relations colleagues, are a bit like miracle workers – exercising magic in dealing with last minute glitches and changes. Also, the efforts and glorious products of our Public Information colleagues are visible everywhere – and evidence of the creativity and innovation we are all striving for –thank you Chris, Sami and Fritz and all your staff and your many volunteers who have worked so hard.

At the close of the AdCom Tuesday, I paid special tribute to my management team – field, programme and support directors and their staff, to whom I, and all of us, including the refugees, owe a great debt for their abilities, their ideas, their many achievements and their conscientiousness in serving Palestine refugees. (As I often say, refugee work is contagious – and Palestine refugee work is a particularly lethal affliction.) My appreciation reaches to my 29,680 staff who, sometimes in the worst of circumstances, carry out, uncomplainingly and with dedication, their important and essential every day tasks.

I made special mention on Tuesday as well of my extraordinary front office team, my deputy Filippo, office director Michael and personal assistant, Chloe, for their incomparable professional competence and personal qualities – I can only repeat my praise and thanks to them many times over.

Perhaps you will allow me a few additional personal remarks, as this is my last opportunity to address this forum as Commissioner-General. [And may I note here, that I am, like all of you, looking forward to the Secretary General’s imminent appointment of my successor.]

In my years with the Agency, first as Deputy Commissioner-General, I have never failed to be amazed at the unassailable strength in adversity of the Palestinian people, and the commitment and dedication of our Palestine refugee staff, eager to meet the needs of their own communities.

I joined UNRWA in the summer of 2000 when there were high hopes and expectations based on the Camp David negotiations. These were very soon disappointed when the second intifada broke out in September of that year.

While conditions for many of the refugees for the most part have deteriorated since then, UNRWA, as I see it, has grown stronger and acquired traits and capacities necessary to function in the 21st century. From a deliberately-chosen position of some isolation and a great deal of autonomy (which has distinct advantages), we have moved to adopt the reforms underway in other UN agencies. From embracing a long standing centralized, hierarchical model (again a matter of choice and an approach with strong adherents), we have become more open, participatory and transparent, decentralizing decision-making to those most directly accountable for results. Budgeting according to expected resource constrained funding has given way to results-based budgeting according to needs (with the resulting large deficits we now show in our approved biennium figures). Similarly, decisions are taken in a much more consultative manner, creating ownership, but, again, resulting sometimes in longer periods required for action.

By way of a simple example of technological contrast, when I arrived, the small conference room in Gaza Headquarters was not equipped even with a telephone. Now we are set up for video-conferencing among our field and headquarters offices and with UN and other offices around the world and undertaking our own Enterprise Resource Plan.

We have grown in numbers, physically and materially, and we have also grown in spirit, in togetherness, in enthusiasm and in greater confidence in reaching out with our agendas of human rights, gender, protection, in addition to attempting to improve the quality of the basic public services we offer.

Having worked for 19 years in many other refugee situations around the world, I am very proud and pleased to have been part of UNRWA for the past nine years, promoting and witnessing its changes and accomplishments, despite, as I’ve noted, the difficult circumstances of too few resources and too many conflict-related challenges.

What I, as those before me, have not been able to witness is progress toward a ‘solution’ for Palestine refugees, despite the passing of 60 years. While there are glimmers of hope here and there—possibilities of West Bank and Gaza reconciliation, improved access in and out of Gaza, West Bank recovery, rebuilding of Nahr el-Bared—we have learned not to be too soon confident of positive developments.

But I, again, like others before me, continue to count on being able to return to celebrate with UNRWA staff, Palestine refugees and all of you who have contributed to their care and cause over the years, the realization of an independent Palestinian state, living in peace with its neighbours.

That time, as I said last week in a lecture at the American University of Beirut, cannot come too soon.

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