UNRWA in Transitionredfade.jpg (875 bytes)

Ben Schiff
Oberlin College
Department of Politics
email: ben.schiff@oberlin.edu
February 22, 2000

This paper was written following the workshop meeting: "The Future of UNRWA", held February 19-20 in Minster Lovell, U.K. It is for discussion purposes only. Do not quote or cite without the author’s permission. Comments are welcome.

1. Assumptions

The discussions explored many aspects of UNRWA operations and refugee needs from the present until some time after a final status agreement (FSA) is reached, a planning horizon of perhaps10-15 years. The discussions were sometimes difficult because the outcomes of as-yet unresolved political controversies may shape aspects of UNRWA’s future activities. Assumptions to be made about such outcomes are themselves politically charged. I take the following planning assumptions to be reasonable:

1.1. UNRWA will continue to face financial difficulties and refugee per capita funding will decline because of the natural increase of the client population and donor resistance to expanded funding of ongoing programs.

1.2. UNRWA will seek to avoid engaging in activities and discussions that it perceives to entail political liabilities for its relations with hosts, clients, and donors.

1.3. Some kind of FSA will emerge (although it may take several years) as a consequence of which the current formal status of UNRWA’s clients may change, but how and when this change will occur is unclear.

1.4. Because Palestinian refugee status is anomalous (as compared to UNHCR refugees) and has been defined operationally but not clearly in legal terms, refugee status and identity may persist beyond creation of a Palestinian state and citizenship.

1.5. Because of humanitarian and political concerns, UNRWA will not be rapidly terminated even upon conclusion of an FSA.

1.6. The material circumstances of many of UNRWA’s clients will remain relatively unchanged by the final status agreement, barring rapid and large-scale compensation.

1.7. The institutional capabilities of the host states and the Palestinian Authority to provide for the needs of the refugees will change slowly, if at all, during the time period under consideration.


2. Issue typology

In an effort to begin developing a typology of issues that UNRWA planners should consider, the following dimensions can be used to characterize various planning and activity areas. The purpose of the typology is to assist in thinking about which activities can and should be undertaken or planned for soon, as opposed to those that can or must wait:

2.1. Political content: Planning exercises and organizational actions that are politically sensitive will be hard to initiate in the short-run.

2.2. Logistical/technical component: Exercises and actions that focus on logistical and technical planning with the Agency, host governments, the PA, and U.N. and NGOs will be easier to undertake than those that are more politically sensitive.

2.3. Inevitability: Planning exercises and organizational actions on issues that will arise regardless of the outcome of the final status negotiations should be considered for initiation prior to conclusion of the final status negotiations.

2.4. Urgency: Some kinds of planning and information gathering will be very useful rapidly upon conclusion of the final status agreements and may be of intrinsic value even in the absence of an FSA. Such planning and research should be undertaken soon.

2.5. Range and variety of participants: The more parties involved in an issue, the more difficult it may be to engage in fruitful discussions and constructive actions, but it may also be more important to begin soon.

3. Minimizing resistance and maximizing benefits

A top-down, comprehensive planning exercise for UNRWA’s future role would be both politically very difficult, requiring planning assumptions that would be highly controversial, and practical assumptions whose basis would be problematic in advance of the FSA. The more heroic the assumptions, the likelier such a plan’s irrelevance. The more options considered, the more costly the exercise itself. Therefore, following the proposed typology, activities should be considered for initiation by UNRWA that will generate minimal resistance while serving the most useful possible purposes.

Sample evaluation of possible UNRWA programmatic initiatives

  Political content Logistical content Post-FSA need Urgency Participants-UNRWA plus: Suggested UNRWA programming
1. Service harmonization/ turnover planning Low High High Medium Hosts*, UNESCO, WHO, NGOs Resume efforts now
2. UNRWA aid to host/PA institutional capacity building Low High Low High UNESCO, WHO,UNDP, etc., hosts Increase operational interaction with host/PA ministries now
3. Convert microfinance program to NGO or UN development agency Low High High Low Hosts, clients, donors, other NGOs and IGOs, clients Continue to operate program quasi-independently, explore issues of NGO or privatizing spin-offs
4. Infrastructure provision Medium High High High Hosts, donors, IGOs, NGOs, clients Continue needs assessments under hypothetical demographics
5. Demographic research Low-medium Research activity High High Hosts, clients, RWG Begin developing research program immediately
6. Return, resettlement, reintegration planning High High High High Hosts, clients-IGOs, NGOs Initiate methodological studies and needs assessment for the agency; initiate personnel exchanges and consultations with HCR and other refugee and development organizations
7. Reversion of camp areas High Medium Medium Low Hosts, private owners Determination of original camp areas’ landowners and boundaries would be useful
8. Protection role High Low Depends on FSA   UNGA, HCR, hosts, PA, clients None
9. Refugee compensation evaluation Very high High Depends on FSA   Designated UN agency (could be UNRWA), Israel, clients UNRWA could provide information to other entities upon request

*Hosts here includes the Palestinian Authority

1. Service harmonization/turnover

Demographic projections and likely donor funding patterns imply that UNRWA will decreasingly be able to maintain the quality of its services to the refugees as they are currently delivered. The growing Palestinian refugee population and alternative demands upon donor state humanitarian assistance in cases of greater material privation mean that the Agency is unlikely to be able to increase its operations to keep pace with the expanding refugee population.

UNRWA appears already to be operating at high efficiency. The per capita costs of its programs are generally regarded as quite low, in proportion to the quality and extent of services provided. Thus, while further rationalization and economies are possible, it is unlikely that they will enable savings of a magnitude capable of offsetting the financial squeeze caused by the expanding population and constant or declining contributions.

Under these circumstances, the Agency and the stakeholders in its operations (hosts, donors, clients, NGOs, other UN organizations) need to consider changing what the Agency does.

One possibility mentioned at the workshop was a switch from the provision of services on the basis of (refugee) status to provision on the basis of (material) need. This has already taken place in the relief and social services are to a large extent; however, to save significant amounts of money would require reducing expenditures for UNRWA’s education program and, to a lesser extent, its health program.

Were the host states and the PA to take over UNRWA’s operations, the agency could reduce its expenditures. Turning these duties over to the host states would not alleviate the general shortage of resources in the region, however, since the hosts face their own financial problems. The hosts could be expected to resist efforts to saddle them with the costs of UNRWA’s operations unless they would thereby gain external financing.

If donors are equally unlikely to finance ongoing programs of host countries as they are of UNRWA, the most likely outcome is simply a decline in the availability and quality of services that the refugees receive. In line with current thought in many countries (including UNRWA’s largest donors) this kind of pressure, in that it may result in individual initiative and privatization of services, may be desirable in the long term. In the past, however, the refugees and their host governments have argued that the likely consequence of such a decline in material standards is political upheaval threatening to the stability of the peace arrangements.

This argument is likely to remain persuasive for some time to come, even beyond conclusion of the FSA. It implies that UNRWA will likely continue to seek donations on the basis of the threat to stability, and the donors will have to weigh the consequent risks to regional peace against their desires to shift their attention to other humanitarian causes. Calls for donor support might be more successful were they based on a positive program ("education for democracy", "health for independence") than upon political threats. Efforts should continue to harmonize UNRWA operations with those of host countries, in anticipation of turnover, and the agency should explore with donors the possibility of transferring support to development assistance budgets rather than humanitarian aid.

2. UNRWA aid to host/PA institutional capacity building

Following 1., UNRWA might be proposed as a long-term administration and technical services provider to the host states, rather than the primary operational agency in education and health activities. UNRWA-host bureaucracy exchanges could be initiated in order to expedite harmonization and to transfer UNRWA administrative patterns to host ministries.

Until host capacity to absorb most of UNRWA’s operational personnel exists, such planning will be very sensitive for UNRWA’s internal staff relations, and must be clearly articulated as a long-term endeavor. Staff associations should be included in consultations to the extent possible, in order to reduce "conspiracy" charges.

3. Convert Income generation activities to NGO or UN development agency

The Microfinance operation is financially very successful and is operating with a high degree of independence from UNRWA. Its continued operations will be little affected by either staying within UNRWA or being independent, as long as it is not absorbed into government structures in the host states. In long-term anticipation of UNRWA’s withdrawal, some consideration should be given to the program’s being spun off into a free-standing NGO or U.N. development aid structure. Perhaps more importantly, host states should be helped to understand that the success of the program is due to its high degree of independence, and its capture and subordination to state authorities will destroy it.

4. Infrastructure provision

UNRWA has long planned infrastructure development projects for implementation in the event that additional resources became available, as they did after the Oslo Accords. These efforts should continue, but with attention paid to demographic projections based on refugee return/resettlement discussions. Planning should be initiated that would grapple with the difficult issue of how current camp areas might be converted into more permanent and more desirable living areas, in the event that some but not all of their current residents depart (particularly in the West Bank and Gaza).

5. Demographic research

UNRWA should expand demographic/economic research beyond the requirements of the special hardship case evaluation, in order to assist in eventual refugee return/resettlement/reintegration planning. Characterization of the refugee population does not have to be done with specific FSA assumptions in mind, and thus could be relatively unpolitical.

6. Return, resettlement, reintegration planning

UNRWA could initiate methodological studies and needs assessment under the assumption that the agency will need to reorient toward serving the eventualities of the FSA at some point. It cannot, however currently go far in planning the actual return/resettlement/reintegration strategies since to do so requires major assumptions about the shape of the FSA, assumptions that are inherently political and will thus be highly controversial among agency stakeholders. Meanwhile, however, it can initiate personnel exchanges and consultations with HCR and other refugee and development organizations to consider the likely problems that will confront it in the event that refugee mobility becomes possible under the FSA.

7. Reversion of camp areas

Similar to 6., research relevant to eventual status change should begin soon, however planning for implementation should await greater political clarity.

8. Protection role

In the absence of a UNGA resolution altering the status of Palestinian refugees (which seems unlikely), formal consideration of a protection role will not likely be productive. UNRWA cooperation with UNHCR on matters of refugee status determination and documentation should continue.

9. Refugee compensation evaluation

Because of the extreme political sensitivity of this issue, and because the need for it will depend upon the FSA, UNRWA should not initiate action in this area. However, it should respond to informational requests initiated in other quarters, such as the Refugee Working Group.

Final Thoughts

UNRWA’s massive operational and informational assets can continue to serve its client population throughout this period of transition. No other agency has the combination of experience, connection to the refugees, credibility and resources to carry out many important tasks.

The agency will experience pressure to reduce its operational activities in education, health and social welfare services because of limited financial resources. It should respond to these pressures by (1) continuing its fund-raising efforts and if possible reorienting them from the negative objective of averting instability to the positive role of contributing to the development of strong local institutions; (2) smoothing as much as possible the transfer of its operations from its own administration to that of host countries, including making good provision for the futures of its employees and including them as much as possible in the discussions and negotiations toward that end; (3) maximizing the production of information useful for the transition process, even before the FSA clarifies the shape of that transition; (4) maximizing the flexibility needed to carry out different kinds of activities in different fields, since it is likely that the needs of its clients will not evolve consistently in all areas.

To successfully pursue this course will require large-scale consultation and coordination with stakeholders including refugees, governments, NGOs and other elements of the UN, and it will require a commitment to flexibility at the highest levels of the agency. For an organization with a 50 year history and well established bureaucratic routines, shifting the nature of its operations and increasing its responsiveness to new demands will be a challenging task. However, UNRWA has faced challenges before to which it responded with flexibility and innovation, and there is no reason to expect that it is incapable of doing so again. Top administration should resist the compelling power of inertia, consider their agency to be in part a research and development, rather than service production organization, and thus encourage and reward innovation and imaginative thinking in connection with the new tasks that will likely arise in the near future.

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