A Stocktaking Conference on Palestinian Refugee Research


Tuesday, 9 December 1997

Discussion Session: Future of UNRWA

Participants agreed that UNRWA has been under-researched in the past. Given this lack, there are many important and useful areas that could be examined, including the impact on UNRWA on the conflict, refugees, and host countries; the organization's current financial crisis; and the question of how UNRWA can or might modify its mission and implementation thereof so as to best respond to changing circumstances.

Finances and Sustainability

Since 1993 there has been a continuing degeneration of UNRWA's financial situation. Because of this, in 1996 and 1997 UNRWA was forced to call emergency donor conferences. The outlook for 1998 is even more bleak: even given optimistic budget estimates, UNRWA will be $25 million short of budgetary needs and will thus be unable to fulfil its core responsibilities during a critical period. UNRWA cannot continue to operate on a the basis of continuing crisis and semi-institutionalized emergency donor meetings; consequently, it has made efforts to both broaden and deepen donor support.

On the issue of donor support, one participant stressed that the US, UK, Germany and Israel should assume the primary burden of UNRWA funding, given their historic moral responsibility for the refugee issue: US, UK, Germany and Israel. Others suggested a greater reliance on self-generated resources and cost recovery. During earlier discussion in the main conference, the importance of donor budget structures had been noted: in many cases donors finance UNRWA out of the same envelope as other humanitarian expenditures. At a time of decreasing resources for foreign aid, this forces donors to make difficult choices between support for Palestinian refugees versus other, more serious and pressing humanitarian emergencies elsewhere in the world. It was also noted that, as the refugee population grows at a rate of 4-5% per year, the pressure on UNRWA's budget was likely to grow rather than diminish.

It was suggested by other participants that attention to UNRWA's financial sustainability may tend to obscure other important issues: namely, UNRWA activities and their impact.

Research Issues

Some participants noted that UNRWA has not been an introspective organization and has not been particularly accessible to researchers in the past. However, this has now changed, particularly in the last year. This has enhanced the quality of research, which should lead to both more useful data and a better self-understanding within UNRWA. Other participants stressed that external researchers had a particularly valuable role to play in this regard, given the constraints on long-term policy planning within the organization.

A number of specific research questions were identified by various participants:

  • How is UNRWA perceived, both by refugees and by host societies? Historically, a lack of transparency and participation has negatively affected the perceptions of refugee beneficiaries. How can beneficiaries be better integrated into program design and implementation?

  • How has UNRWA transformed Palestinian society and its proto-state? How has it affected both the heterogenization (affecting, for example, class relations) and homogenization (generation of a Palestinian identity) of Palestinian society?

  • Can UNRWA fulfil its current dual function: preservation of the refugees through support for basic needs, and protection of legal rights? Should some other guarantee of refugees rights and status be formulated?

  • What would be involved in a future wind-down of UNRWA, following the conclusion of a final status agreement on the refugee issue? How can post-peace UNRWA services be transferred to host governments in such a way as to protect the quality and coherence of services?

  • How, in the interim, have UNRWA's relations with the Palestinian Authority evolved? How might cooperation best be fostered? What is the optimal division of labour in providing services to refugees in the West Bank and Gaza under present circumstances?

There was broad agreement across most of the discussion group that, in the current context, further decline the the quality of UNRWA services would exacerbate feelings of deprivation and abandonment among refugees, with possibly destabilizing consequences.

The PRRN/IDRC compensation workshop was funded by IDRC and the Canadian International Development Agency thrrough the Expert and Advisory Services Fund. PRRN is a project of the Interuniversity Consortium for Arab Studies (Montréal).

Last modified 23/12/97. Rex Brynen/