After nearly half a century of operation, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which was mandated by the United Nations General Assembly in late 1949 to assist Palestinian refugees after dispersal from their homes in 1948, is about to wind down its activities in accordance with a United Nations Resolution. As a first step, it will be moving its offices from Vienna, where its headquarters is located, to Gaza, and eventually handing over its responsibility to the Palestinian Authority there. This is not the first time that UNRWA is forced to relocate, although the conditions are now different. In 1978, with the civil war in Lebanon raging full scale, UNRWA moved its headquarters from Beirut to Vienna, and away from its field offices in the Middle East, which, as Schiff remarks, created immense administrative problems in terms of coordination between headquarters and field offices.
In this book, Benjamin Schiff, a professor of political science at Oberlin College, does not provide us with a partisan obituary of UNRWA, but an objective, yet sympathetic, and in places highly critical, account of the organization's management, and the plight of the refugees it has served. UNRWA's detractors are many, and since the start of the Middle East peace talks in 1992 various scenarios have been advanced to bypass, if not liquidate, the organization. For example, UNRWA was not formally invited to attend the opening of the multilateral peace talks on Palestinian refugees, which were held in Ottawa in May 1992. Israel and its supporters blame UNRWA for politicizing the refugee communities and even perpetuating their refugee status. Had it not been for UNRWA, they argue, the refugees, now numbering in excess of 3 million and almost four times their original size of 1948, would have been absorbed in the neighboring Arab countries. As well, UNRWA did not escape severe criticism from the constituency it was set up to serve. Palestinian refugees have at times blamed the organization for working towards their resettlement, and training them for jobs which will facilitate their emigration from the occupied territories and absorption in the host countries.
UNRWA went through several phases in defining its objectives, although Schiff claims it has now reached "an evolutionary dead end." As Schiff points out, when it became clear that the prospects for repatriation were slim, the organization turned to devising ways to integrate the refugees in the region through initiating economic, agricultural and irrigation projects, and even providing them with loans for small businesses. However, these efforts during the first seven years of the organization's history also failed. From 1957 onward, UNRWA's efforts turned to improving the quality of life for the refugees by providing them with free health care, financial assistance in hardship cases, shelter, and in particular free education from grades 1-9. It is the latter which distinguished UNRWA and earned it respect, even by its critics, and enabled Palestinians to leave their mark on modernization of the Middle East.
But what kept UNRWA, which Schiff calls "an organizational anomaly," "a sideshow" of the UN system, and "an avatar of colonialism with a paternalistic culture," in business for so long, after its original plans for refugee integration had failed? Schiff provides a complex explanation of UNRWA's longevity: first, as long as the refugee problem was not resolved, UNRWA's mandate remained operative and its work needed; second, lack of receptivity to the integration scheme by the host countries; third, Israel's intransigence in refusing to accept even a modest number of repatriated refugees; and fourth, the determination of the refugees themselves to reject resettlement plans in favor of returning to their homes. In short, according to Schiff, in light of the conditions on the ground, Arab governments would have had to invent UNRWA or an organization like it to cope with the refugees in their midst.
With responsibility for 59 camps scattered in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank and Gaza, a staff of 20,000, mostly local Palestinians who were managed by so-called international staff of 160, and an annual budget of $350 million for 1995, UNRWA might as well be another multinational corporation. Its experience in operating in the highly volatile and unpredictable environments of the Middle East has provided the organization with a wealth of experience in survivability, which I reckon can be the envy of other international aid organizations. Its programs in teacher training, vocational education, health care, administration and management have transmitted much needed skills to the refugees. Its innovations in educational training were described in 1986 by a Jerusalemite as "a model for the whole Third World." (p.62) Students attending UNRWA schools do much better than students attending the host countries' own public school system. The problem with UNRWA is that, for the most part, its educational cycle ends with grade nine, after which students have to transfer to local secondary schools, which in the case of Lebanon is not possible either now or ever due to Lebanon's hostile attitude to the Palestinian refugees. But above all, it is UNRWA's ability to deliver aid to millions of refugees in hostile environments which is the hallmark of its success.
Schiff details UNRWA's political and financial fortunes, and shows how UNRWA's resources, money and expertise, were the envy of the host countries whose relationship with UNRWA fluctuated from hostility towards the organization to grudging respect. The author shows how the emergence of the PLO, particularly after 1969, became both a blessing and a curse for the organization: a curse, for politicizing the camps and UNRWA's local employees, who were mostly Palestinians, thus jeopardizing the agency's non-political status with host countries; a blessing, for acting as a lobby group with Arab governments to secure financial support for the organization. The mode of operation of the PLO was not something UNRWA could appreciate, however. Here is how Schiff described a bizarre exchange between a PLO official and an agency representative. "When an UNRWA representative met with a PLO official in Syria to protest charges in a newspaper that the agency was seeking to liquidate the Palestinian problem, the PLO official explained that this was part of a long-term strategy to help the agency!" (p.129) The lesson to be drawn from this, is that only by scaring Arab governments with the prospects of dismemberment of the organization and resettlement of the refugees will they would be motivated to offer financial aid to keep it in business.
UNRWA did not escape Schiff's critical evaluation. For example, he shows how UNRWA's arcane accounting system tended to exaggerate the agency's financial woes. But strangely enough, the agency seemed to do well in times of crises. Schiff points out that the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and few years later the intifada, increased the level of sympathy to the Palestinians from the international community, and with it came an increase in financial support for the agency. However, as Schiff notes in his postscript, the signing of the Oslo agreement between the Palestinians and Israelis in September 1993 and the apparent normalization of relations between the two sides may signal ominous sign for UNRWA's future funding prospects.
Schiff's most critical comments, quite accurate in my view, were saved for the colonial culture of the organization. Originally managed by British, U.S, and other European ex-colonial bureaucrats, the organization from the outset embodied a condescending attitude towards its local employees. This was most evident in the differential treatment accorded to its international staff compared to local ones, the so-called "uncrowned kings of UNRWA," which included huge salary gaps, and other financial inducements from housing allowance, duty free shops, and other perks, to sheer status and authority of being "International." No doubt, this caused resentment among Palestinian employees, but there was little they could do, being themselves refugees and dependent on the organization for their livelihood. Here is how Schiff described the relationship between the organization and its local staff in an opening passage to Chapter Six, titled "Residual Colonialism": "British, U.S., and European bureaucrats naturally cast UNRWA's structure from enduring colonial alloy, a fusion of refugees' impoverished circumstances, the agency's hierarchical organization, and its leaders' benevolent paternalism. The agency's colonialism proved resilient. When the old mold was finally shattered by labor and political activism, instead of emerging with a more egalitarian structure, the hierarchy was reinforced, and local officials downgraded." (p.138)
The author devotes two chapters to discussing UNRWA's relationship with Israel, before and during the intifada. Israel related to the organization in ways similar to those followed by other host countries. It interfered with its personnel decisions, disregarded immunity given to it as a UN agency, accused the organization of engaging in political activism, considered the school system as a breeding ground for anti-Israel activity, refused to apply the Fourth Geneva Convention to protecting the Palestinian population, and so on. But UNRWA stood its ground, and defended the refugees to the extent it could. The unintended consequence of Israeli attitudes is that the organization widened the scope of its activities, and developed its own policies geared to offer the Palestinians physical and legal protection, as well as general economic assistance, and "protection by publicity." Thus the organization expanded its role by facilitating access to the territories by the international media, protecting human rights, and by providing temporary assistance to non-refugees. The agency added to its international staff in the field a new category of employees called Refugee Affairs Officers (RAO), who roamed the territories and monitored closely the situation on the ground (human rights violations, logistical requirements, etc.) during the intifada, and became an important source of information to both journalists and the Civil Administration. RAO's function was to "ensure a degree of passive protection of the refugees." As the agency's role expanded, it found itself increasingly engaged in bureaucratic warfare with the Civil Administration. Thus, when after instituting the new system of protection, the Civil Administration complained to UNRWA about transgressing its role, "the field directors and the commissioner-general seemed to relish tossing back at the Israelis the line that they had so many times received: they urged the Israelis to provide concrete information, to bring complaints to their attention, and they promised to investigate, just as the CA had many times promised the agency." (p.254) On one level at least, in UNRWA the Civil Administration found its match, something which can hardly be said for the current Palestinian Authority. The reviewer found the book full of insights, but it is regrettable that Schiff could not make the trip to Syria and Lebanon and write the definitive study of UNRWA.
Rex Brynen * email@example.com * 17 May 1996