Last month’s decision by the Trump Administration to substantially cut funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has cast a dark shadow over the lives of the 5 million refugees it supports. UNRWA and the impact it has had on the Palestinian cause have been debated, but there’s little doubt that its services matter. It provides not only food aid and shelter but crucially – in a region where refugees benefit from few political, civil or economic rights – basic education and health care. The claim that these cuts are a pay-back for the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to participate in US brokered peace talks is especially shocking: the peace talks have historically overlooked the refugees UNRWA is mandated to serve. But the funding cuts are notable in another way too. They mark a turning point in US relations with UNRWA, an Agency the US government was instrumental in creating and shaping.
UNRWA was the third iteration of the United Nations’ attempt to mitigate the fallout of its disastrous Partition Plan. United Nations aid to the refugees began with the United Nations Disaster Relief Project (July-December 1948) and continued under the United Nations Relief for Palestine Refugees (January 1949-April 1950). Both of these entities were, however, umbrella organizations whose work was limited to coordinating the aid provided by governments and NGOs. Based on UNGA 194(III), mediation efforts were to be dealt with by the United Nations Conciliation Council for Palestine (UNCCP), a completely separate organization. But UNCCP barely got off the ground. Israeli intransience and Arab insistence on the right of return, left it with little room for maneuver. Although nominally still in existence it has been inactive since the early 1950s. Instead, over the course of 1949, the US and British governments, began to consider alternative approaches to addressing the stalemate.
Early plans for UNRWA show an unquestionably strong American influence. They also reveal the dissonance of US policy in the Middle East. Concerns regarding the humanitarian situation of the refugees were overshadowed by narrower political calculations (notably a fear of Communism) and an overarching desire not to bear a long term financial responsibility for the refugees. Prompted by Bayard Dodge, the recently retired President of the American University of Beirut and Special Advisor to UNRPR, the US government therefore focused its efforts on job creation schemes which, they surmised, would provide a backdoor solution to the refugee crisis. Jobs would facilitate the refugees’ economic reintegration and, ultimately, their assimilation in exile. Further, by substituting relief for jobs and making the refugees self-supporting, the US and Britain hoped to reduce the costs of relief. In this vein, towards the end of the Lausanne Conference of 1949, an Economic Survey Mission (ESM) was assembled. It was modelled on the Tennessee Valley Authority’s work during the Great Depression: a top-down regional economic development agency that sought to modernize the economy and society in the Deep South. The mission received its terms of reference from UNCCP, met with the different delegations present at the Conference, and almost immediately headed to Middle East.
Led by Gordon Clapp, Chairman of the TVA, the ESM conducted its survey in late 1949. Its recommendations would form the basis for future UN involvement with the refugees. Characterizing the refugees as “both a symptom and a cause of grave economic instability”, the mission recommended that “a programme of useful public works for the employment of able-bodied refugees” be established.  Somewhat reluctantly, and largely at the behest of the Arab host states, the mission also made provisions for the temporary continuation of relief. The creation of UNRWA as a dedicated UN Agency to implement this relief and the works projects was both an attempt to restore the United Nations identity of the Mission and avoid US bilateral responsibility for the refugees.  UNRWA was created through General Assembly Resolution 302 in December 1949 and began operations on May 1st the following year. To counter the limitations experienced by the UNCCP the Agency was given an explicitly operational focus.  Its mandate, to act on the recommendations of the ESM, also reflected the equivocal meaning the mission (and its American and British backers) ascribed to the term refugee “reintegration”.  Finally, a Canadian Director was appointed to nuance the impression of overt US influence over its activities (Waldman 2014, 638) although the US government retained considerable influence through the appointment of the Chairman of UNRWA’s Advisory Commission John Blandford Jr. (who previously worked for President Truman, and later became UNRWA’s second Director).
The original vision for UNRWA was doomed from the start. It was an economic diversion for a fundamentally political problem and one that entirely overlooked the rights of the refugees. The works programs were spectacularly ill-suited to the economic, political and cultural environment: not least because the refugees and host states didn’t want them. Rightly suspecting that the employment schemes were a covert way to impose resettlement, Palestinian representatives refused to meet with the mission and, with the exception of Jordan, the Arab governments were non-committal about public works schemes. Clapp himself felt that large scale development schemes were infeasible, and instead shifted focus to “short term work project plans for refugees where they are”.  Gaza, the mission determined, was a lost cause. There the plan was to launch small scale projects to make the camps more self-sustaining and hope that refugees would accept to be relocated elsewhere to work on larger works schemes. 
Unsurprisingly, when UNRWA started operations, it was met with frequent strikes and protests by the refugees themselves. Whether through ignorance or hubris, attempts to implement the works programs continued into the late 1950s until finally, the post-Suez climate of the region made the futility of these efforts too obvious to ignore. At this point, the Agency changed track. The works projects were replaced by an expanded school program: a compromise solution that arguably succeeded because none of the stakeholders involved disagreed on it. Still, the United States retained its role as UNRWA’s main funder, viewing the Agency as a tool for political stabilization: first to contain Communist influences in the region and later to counter the spread of Islamism. And it continued to try and bend the Agency’s programs to its vision for the refugees.  In 1960, for example, as the Agency sought to expand its education efforts, US officials reminded the Commissioner-General that, “UNRWA must be operated so as to stimulate the resettlement of the refugees in every way possible”. 
But UNRWA remained a multi-lateral organization. The politics of aid vie for influence alongside the liberal internationalist principles of the UN, host state realities and, of course, the actions and aspirations of the refugees themselves, who comprise the overwhelming majority of the Agency’s staff. It’s an uneasy, and often contradictory, mix that accounts for what Husseini calls the Agency’s “incremental and distorted administrative and institutional development” (2017, 304). Herein lies the irony of the recent US led demands that UNRWA reform. It was precisely American attempts to subordinate the United Nations that created so many of UNRWA’s anomalies.
Yet while the shackles of its past remain visible, the UNRWA of 1950 is not the UNRWA of today. Historical complications notwithstanding, the Agency and its services matter. Over half a million children attend UNRWA schools. This can’t be taken for granted in a region where 3.7 million Syrian refugee children remain out of school. In Gaza, already experiencing a humanitarian crisis, the withdrawal or even scaling back of the Agency’s services to over 70 per cent of the population would be unconscionable, to say little of the situation facing many Palestinian refugees in Syria right now. Overall, 30,000 Palestinians are employed by UNRWA. In places like Lebanon where the refugees are barred from working many professions, these jobs are a lifeline. Then there’s the ironic, but hardly less significant, fact that UNRWA has evolved into a tangible reminder of the international community’s responsibility to uphold the refugees’ right of return. Considered in the wake of the Jerusalem announcement, that seems to be exactly why the Trump Administration wants to eradicate the Agency.
1. First interim report of the United Nations Economic Survey Mission for the Middle East. November 1949. The Department of State. AFSC archives.
2. As one United Nations official wrote at the time, “in view of the United States and United Kingdom monopoly of technical consultant functions in the Mission, I too have been a little concerned that the United Nations character of the Mission was becoming more formal than actual. The comparative absence of a United Nations outlook has, in fact, been my major concern, and I have had some difficulty in preventing this from appearing in the draft report [of the mission]. The issue arose most seriously over a recommendation to set up a body to assist economic development and to take over as a temporary task the direction of relief and work relief programmes recommended”. Correspondence from John Reedman, Beirut, to Martin Hill, Lake Success, 28 October 1949. There were also important differences in the British and American viewpoints. The British were keen for an autonomous agency, independent of the UN to be established, an opinion echoed by the Survey Mission itself. The US government however, was “determined that the agency should be established within the “UN framework” – in other words sponsored by and responsive to the GA”. See, Memorandum of Conversation, by the Second Secretary of the Embassy in the United Kingdom (Root), Subject: Interim Report of the Economic Survey Mission (ESM) in the Near East, 9 November 1949. Office of the Historian, US Department of State.
3. Memorandum by the Assistant Chief of the Division of International Organization Affairs (Halderman). Palestine political and refugee problems. 23 September 1949. Foreign Relations of the United States, 1949, The Near East, South Asia, And Africa, Volume VI. Office of the Historian, US Department of State.
4. Memorandum of conversation, by the Second Secretary of the Embassy in the United Kingdom (Root). Subject: The Interim Report of the Economic Survey Mission (ESM) to the Near East. 9 November 1949. Foreign relations of the United States, 1949, The Near East, South Asia, and Africa, Volume VI. Office of the Historian, US Department of State.
5. Correspondence from Donald Stevenson to Branson Clark re. Clapp Commission. 3 November 1949. AFSC archives.
6. Ibid. See also Memorandum from Elmore Jackson to Bronson Clarke, re. Conference with James Baster (Chief economist to the Clapp Mission). 22 December 1949. AFSC archives.
7. Memorandum of Conversation. Dr Johnson’s Mission to the Middle East. 29 September 1961. Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961 – 1963, Volume XVII, Near East, 1961 – 1962. Office of the Historian, US Department of State.
8. Cited in Husseini (2017, 306). Memorandum of a Conversation, Department of State, Washington, October 5, 1960. Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958–1960, Arab-Israeli Dispute; United Arab Republic; North Africa, Volume Xiii. Office of the Historian, US Department of State.
Al Husseini, J. “An Agency for the Palestinians?”. In Makdisi, K. and Prashad. V. Eds. Land of blue helmets. The United Nations and the Arab World. (University of California Press, 2017), 301-317.
Buehrig, E. 1971. The United Nations and the Palestinian Refugees. Bloomington, Indiana University Press.
Schiff, B. N. 1995. Refugees unto the third generation. UN Aid to the Palestinians. New York: Syracuse University Press.
Waldman, S. 2014. “UNRWA’s First Years, 1949 – 1951: The Anatomy of Failed Expectations.” Diplomacy and Statecraft, 25: 630-645.
*Thanks to Anne Irfan for her comments on an earlier draft of this article