Is UNRWA crying wolf?

New report shows lack of funding leads to lack of strategy, but funding hasn’t changed in a decade.

Palestinian schoolchildren take part in a lesson at a school run by UNRWA  (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
Palestinian schoolchildren take part in a lesson at a school run by UNRWA
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
A new assessment of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East that was published Tuesday by the Multilateral Organisation Performance Assessment Network (MOPAN) both contradicts and agrees with the United States’ assessment of the organization.
While on the one hand, the report showed that “overall, political turmoil, conflict, travel and trade restrictions and resource constraints, have significantly inhibited UNRWA’s ability to deliver results and to meet planned delivery targets,” it also claimed that UNRWA in 2018 was an organization that is “competent, resilient and resolute.”

The assessment, which examined the performance of the organization from 2017 to 2018, looked at its organizational effectiveness (strategic, operational, relationship and performance aspects) and the results it achieved against its objectives.
This was the second MOPAN assessment of UNRWA; the first was conducted in 2011. It will be discussed at a conference in Amman on June 18.
MOPAN is a network of 18 countries that share a common interest in assessing the effectiveness of the major multilateral organizations they fund, including UN agencies, international financial institutions and global funds. UNRWA was one of 14 organizations assessed between 2017 and 2018.
The report comes roughly one year after the United States stopped giving aid to UNRWA, cutting around $300 million dollars from the organization’s operating budget, which it reports to be $1.2 billion. In April 2019, it was reported that the agency had an overall deficit of $446m., though this was subsequently covered by increased contributions from other countries.
The US decided to cease funding after it found the agency to be an “irredeemably flawed operation,” it said at the time in a statement.
Among the many US complaints about the agency was the way the United Nations calculates the number of Palestinians officially recognized as refugees. It would like to change the number from the more than five million who are counted today to the few hundred thousand alive when the agency was created seven decades ago, according to US officials.
“It’s wild that UNRWA has already been debunked and already lost credibility, and then all of a sudden, a report would come out showing that UNRWA is largely OK,” said David Bedein, head of Israel Behind the News, a leading source on the agency.
MOPAN, however, touts the positive benefits of the agency having a staff of more than 28,000 people, mostly “Palestinian refugees” from the “refugee communities that UNRWA serves.”
On the other hand, the report did find that the organization’s work is affected by its operating environment. This includes the absence of political solutions regarding a Palestinian state, the Gaza blockade and the Syrian civil war, as well as the “fluctuations and scarcity of its resource pool.”
Operating at a deficit, however, is not new to UNRWA. Already in 2009 – before the first MOPAN report – UNRWA was reporting the same annual operating budget of $1.2b. with an annual shortfall of around $200m. At that time, the United States contributed around $248m.
“The persistent funding crisis has had a significant impact on UNRWA’s ability to invest in its services, development and systems beyond the ‘essentials’ of delivering education, health, relief and social services and camp services,” the MOPAN report stated.
On Tuesday, UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl said in response to the report that UNRWA is primarily funded from voluntary contributions and that in 2018, when it faced the biggest financial challenge of its existence, it responded by intensifying its fund-raising efforts and implementing extensive internal cost saving and austerity measures. Progress achieved on these fronts allowed operations to be largely maintained, although not without detriment to some services.
“We aim at maintaining the same level of expenditures as in 2018 and call on our donors to renew their contributions at the same level as last year,” Krähenbühl said. “This is the only way we at UNRWA can ensure the continuation of our services to 5.4 million Palestine refugees in 2019.”
Bedein said that UNRWA lacks a clear set of checks and balances within the agency, and MOPAN reported similarly, explaining that it was forced to evaluate UNRWA based on a “limited body of independent evidence,” which included reviews of 150 documents, 89 staff interviews and 42 partner surveys in the agency’s five field operations: Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
MOPAN said that UNRWA would benefit from addressing this lack of strategic evaluations.
“There is very limited independent evaluation to demonstrate and to guide both the organization’s progress towards its strategic objectives and its contribution to the learning and path of wider humanitarian and development goals in the region,” MOPAN found. It also reported that the agency could become more strategic in how it manages its workforce and could further advance its delivery of a protection agenda.
UNRWA’s mandate will be up for evaluation in late September at the United Nations in New York. Bedein said that he hoped the UN would use the opportunity to require UNRWA to make needed changes to continue receiving funding.

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