Donald Trump and UNRWA: Part II: Humanitarian Implications

I will discuss the cancellation of financial support for UNRWA by Donald Trump under the following impact headings over the next five blogs:

  1. UNRWA as a Humanitarian Organization
  2. UNRWA’s humanitarian program
  3. Refugee self-sufficiency versus dependency
  4. UNRWA: Corruption and Inefficiency
  5. Politics of the Region – Palestinians
  6. Change in the economic and political status of Palestinian refugees
  7. The Right of Return
  8. The PA and Hamas
  9. Politics of States in the Region
  10. Israel
  11. Arab states
  12. Palestinians in American Politics
  13. American refugee policy
  14. American domestic politics
  15. American Foreign Policy
  16. International Regimes
  17. The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process
  18. The International Refugee Regime
  19. Refugee Resettlement Countries


  1. UNRWA’s Humanitarian Program

Pierre Krähenbuehl, UNRWA’s Commissioner General, said that the effort to remove the refugee issue from the peace negotiations by cutting funds to UNRWA would a) not succeed and b) create an unprecedented financial crisis for UNRWA. Indeed, the action was unprecedented and it was explicitly done to remove the issue of the right of return from the negotiations. And it was a crisis, but not a cataclysmic one. A hysterical headline in Haaretz claimed that in Gaza alone $200 million in food aid would be needed, with the implication that this was a result of the cancellation of the American contributions to UNRWA. Gaza might possibly need $200 million in food aid, but very little of that problem is a result of the cancellation of the UNRWA contribution from the U.S.

Approximately one and a quarter million of the registered Palestinian refugees live in Gaza, about 25% of the total. America cut $350 million in support, therefore roughly $87 million from Gaza. 54% of the funds go to education and 17% to health. Of the remaining 29%, over half goes to administration and 4% is allocated for infrastructure improvements. That leaves 9% for relief and social services. Though unlikely, assume for a moment that every cent of the latter money goes to food aid, that would amount to less than a $9 million dollar cut in food aid, not $200 million. The latter figure confuses general aid to Gaza with food aid for the refugees in Gaza. The real cut means an annual decrease per registered refugee in Gaza of just over $7.

When I lived in Dadaab refugee camp as a comparison, when the food intake was already only sufficient for 1,600 calories a day, the food supplied was cut to 1,400 calories a day per day, a cut of 12% from an already starvation rate with virtually no sources to make up the difference. In Gaza, the cuts do not come from a food intake at the starvation level and the amount of the cut re food aid is relatively miniscule.

Further, other resources have been offered to at least partially offset the losses. In 2018, Gulf states, Norway and Canada have stepped in with a total of $200 million to help meet a planned $465 million budget for Gaza in general, not just UNRWA. Donors, such as Qatar, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, have also come forward. And Krähenbuehl has, to the best of my knowledge, not yet asked Germany, France, Sweden and Britain for an increase in contributions.

The real impact is not on food, except for a small number of hardship cases, but on education and health services, the two major portions of the UNRWA budget. This is in direct contrast with the UNHCR budget, in which food aid constitutes the major portion of expenditures on refugees. UNRWA educates a half million children. Its primary health services are up to the standards of the host countries, especially with regard to infant and maternal mortality. In addition, UNRWA’s Microfinance Programme begun at the beginning of the 1990s is renowned and now offers over 10,000 small loans per year.

The reality is that the educational and health programs of UNRWA were so successful that general dependence on relief evaporated. The refugees had mostly become self-reliant, though it took until the late 1980’s for the general ration program to be replaced by a selective hardship program. In the interim, for forty years, the exchange and sale of ration cards had become an integral part of the economy of the Palestinian refugee camps.

The reality is that UNRWA emerged as the education, health and welfare ministry for the registered Palestinian refugees. Of UNRWA’s 30,000 employees, the vast majority are teachers. None of this takes away from the economic pressures on Gaza and particularly on the poorest segment of its population, the refugees in Gaza resulting from the partial blockade imposed on Gaza. But that blockade does not apply to food or necessities. Further, monies that should have been spent on infrastructure upgrades, such as water and electrical supplies as well as sanitation, let alone health and education, were diverted to episodic bouts of violent conflict.

  1. Refugee Self-sufficiency versus Dependency 

Will the cuts encourage self-sufficiency versus dependency? Self-sufficiency is not only the mantra of the Trump administration; it is now the slogan of refugee NGOs and international agencies around the world. As Elizabeth Ferris, a refugee scholar of international renown, wrote, “Increasingly, NGOs are turning to supporting refugees in becoming self-reliant so that they can ‘graduate’ from humanitarian aid. Even when refugees are not legally able to work, many do so in the informal sector and NGOs are increasingly supporting programs of refugee livelihoods.” Self-reliance is “the social and economic ability of an individual, household, or community to meet its essential needs in a sustainable manner.”

However, the Trump cuts undercut transitional programs to foster self-reliance. Further, there is a failure to recognize that UNRWA has all along been fostering self-reliance through its educational efforts. At least in Gaza, the refugees do not need work permits. However, it is the political-economic and military context, not aid, that undercuts self-reliance. That is what the Trump regime wants to change. Boycotts and other trade measures rather that humanitarian and development aid are intended to shift the political goalposts and enhance a greater willingness to make peace on other than the terms that have been the foundation of the Palestinian polity. There is no clear evidence that this strategy will work.

Self-reliance is unequivocally superior to long-term care and maintenance programs and warehousing refugees. But it may be that a shock rather than a programmatic approach may enhance desperation, extremism and an increased propensity to take up arms. Certainly, there is little evidence that changes in funding effect the chances of a permanent solution to a refugee problem.

The reasons are obvious. Only 3% of refugees in the world find a permanent solution and over 80% of them do so by returning home when a conflict is over. But the vast majority do not go home and virtually none return when the enemies they fought were from a different ethnic group or religion and were the victors.

The Palestinian refugee situation in this regard is radically different. Of the current 5.2 million registered Palestinian refugees under UNRWA auspices, all but one million live in territories governed in part or whole by Palestinians, half in Jordan and the other half in the West Bank and Gaza. A peace, or even a pre-peace, which settled the refugees in situ would resolve 80% of the Palestinian refugee problem. Further, refugees once ejected from Kuwait and who fled Iraq and then Syria during their respective wars, as well as many refugees in Lebanon, could be resettled in Palestine.

  1. UNRWA: Corruption and Inefficiency 

In no other refugee situation has the mandate of the organization evolved to be a continuing one, that is, to be kept in place if, and only if, a “just” and comprehensive solution emerged for the Palestinian refugee population as a whole. In that sense, UNRWA was founded on a corrupt premise. In other cases, refugee situations are often resolved independently of a peace agreement. Thus, there is no peace agreement on the Korean peninsula, but the situation of the refugees was resolved over a half century ago through resettlement following the armistice in the inter-Korean war. UNRWA, in contrast, was established as an alternative to repatriation envisioned by its short-lived predecessor, the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP), but has evolved into an organization resistant to settlement in the first country of asylum where 80% of the refugees live.

The second element of financial rather than mandate corruption, typical in many if not most refugee flights, was the inflation in the refugee counts to attract more donor funds to allow for a sufficient level to assist the refugees. Instead of 720,000 registered Palestinian refugees, UNRWA had on its original roster 960,000 refugees, a basic count that took decades to correct. The emergence of the trading in ration cards mentioned above provided the other leg to built-in corruption in UNRWA.

Thirdly, conceptual corruption emerged within the first year or two of UNRWA’s operations when it emerged that works and relief projects, such as hydro dams in Iraq, and emigration of all Palestinian refugees to the development area, were not feasible on either political or economic grounds, though it took until the Suez crisis to bury that vision of resettlement. Continuing antagonism among Arab states as well as with Israel, lack of the substantive funds needed, and mostly the commitment of both the refugees and Arab states to return via the elimination of Israel, doomed such hopes.

A fourth element of corruption emerged when education replaced emergency assistance as the major program ingredient of UNRWA, not in the education itself, but in the political messages woven into that education concerning return and Israel. This element, unlike the others, has grown worse over the years, not better, and contributes to the resistance to peace among Palestinians that is strongest in the camps. On the other hand, as I have indicated above, education has been an overwhelming success as measured in school attendance, literacy rates, levels of education and training, gender equality, and facilitating access to advanced and professional education. UNRWA currently operates about 700 schools.

There is a fifth element entailed in political corruption and the continuation and even expansion of UNRWA programs that undermine the ability of a Palestine political regime to integrate health, education and welfare programs in the regions where there is Palestinian shared or full governance – Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza where most refugees live. In the Oslo years, moves were made to harmonize and partially integrate UNRWA and Palestinian Authority and Jordanian health, education and welfare operations with a view to eventual integration. This has since been severely set back.

None of these problems should take away from other positive aspects of UNWRA’s operations in addition to health, education, infrastructure improvements and microfinance, such as the development of its emergency response capacities (for understandable reasons), its vastly improved decentralized management, longer term planning, financial accountability using results-based measures and not just accurate bookkeeping, and the innovations introduced over the last two decades to enhance the protection of human rights.

The implication of the above is that bringing a broad hammer approach to UNRWA funding with charges of inefficiency and corruption seems out of order for the main problems are conceptual, structural and political. UNRWA is not by any general measure an economically corrupt and inefficient organization whatever its problems. One may want to wind UNRWA up, largely for political reasons, and there are certain to be pockets of corruption and inefficiencies endemic to large organizations, but general charges of corruption and inefficiency are slogans rather than reasons for reducing aid to UNRWA.


With the help of Alex Zisman


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