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What’s so special about UNRWA?  Less, and more, than you would think.

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Donald Trump has fully, finally, abandoned America’s commitments to UNRWA.

I worked for UNRWA from June 2013 through September 2015, as the business and livelihoods consultant to the office of its Gaza director.  UNRWA could be hair-tearingly frustrating, and it seemed to me that Palestinians did not simply love the place either. It is no one’s ideal.

Still, I advocate for UNRWA because it is vital, and because it is vastly preferable to the alternatives at hand.  

Palestinians need (and have a right to receive) assistance to get by behind an illegal blockade that has choked their economy, endangered their lives with violence, and deprived them of their most basic rights – but why should it be UNRWA, the UN’s most elderly agency?  Why not a few fast-moving, lean, contracting companies, or a hundred NGO programs?


UNRWA serves 5.3 million Palestine refugees in Gaza (by far its largest field of operations), the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.  Education is its largest undertaking. It also provides physical and mental health services; construction and rubbish collection in refugee camps; relief food supplies, emergency services, and more.  None of these functions is mysterious. They are necessary because each host imposes different limitations upon the lives of refugees.

UNRWA is the only UN agency to directly provide such services.  UNRWA owns the schools and employs the teachers. Therefore, UNRWA also needs the internal systems to employ, fund, operate, procure and own assets, account and report on what is, effectively, a sizeable para-statal public sector.

Much has been written about the fact that UNRWA is the only UN agency assigned to a single community.  UNRWA has been tasked to serve Palestine refugees until a just solution resolves their dispossession. The existence of UNRWA is the humanitarian evidence of the ongoing occupation of Palestine.  With its consolidated operations, UNRWA reminds the world that Palestinians are a single community, displaced to a number of locations.  If a hundred NGO programs folded Palestine refugees into the population totals of each activity budget, within each organization’s fundraising appeal for each host country, Palestinians’ shared claim would be dissipated.  The prominent unity of UNRWA’s mandate makes it a beacon for Palestine-haters.

UNRWA’s mandate is its most visible point of difference.  There are a number of less-evident attributes (with details drawn from my knowledge of Gaza only).  They are not particularly exotic, but neither are they rapidly replicable.

  1. While aid structures are widely accused of failing to benefit local economies, UNRWA is remarkably local.  In 2013, UNRWA-Gaza employed around 12,500 Palestinians who spent their salaries locally, and 30 – 35 non-Palestinians.  To understand its local procurement benefit, I used figures from the previous 18 months. I calculated that UNRWA had purchased 67.6% of its goods and 90.9% of its services locally.  UNRWA is critically important as a local economic actor, not only as an employer. It provides liquidity and spends behind a blockade.
  2. UNRWA’s holistic services give it a dense web of lifelong contacts and knowledge, so that it can serve Palestine refugees as whole people.  Their medical records cover their whole lives. Their children attend the same schools throughout their education. They are not disadvantaged by the discontinuities of service or information that prevail among other displaced communities.  This information lets UNRWA make sound, local programming decisions where others may adopt cookie-cutter models.
  3. UNRWA has extensive infrastructure and logistical knowledge, from blockade regulations to warehouse-distribution networks.  Food distribution centers could not now be easily located in Gaza’s density, nor can fleets of trucks be readily brought in through the blockade.  it owns the schools, UNRWA knows the water storage capacity of each building that can be converted to use as a wartime shelter. UNRWA’s emergency management teams do not need to study the list of dual-use blockaded goods, or rent and refit buildings, or translate employment contracts into Arabic before they can act.  Instead, thousands of Palestinian UNRWA staff come to work, with experience, on the first day of any emergency. During a crisis, UNRWA has the team to procure supplies outside of Gaza, so that Gazans can buy the goods on local shelves. These are life-saving differences when Gaza is under bombardment, while the blockade bottleneck prevents the establishment of corridors for Gazan civilians to move to safety.
  4. It seemed to me that necessary services like food relief were dignified by being neighbourly functions.  I tested my impression one day, in a room of Palestinians who were complaining about UNRWA. I asked them what would change, if UNRWA contracted food relief out to a more efficient, international company.  They thought, squirmed, and grimmaced.

“Ugh,” said one.  “It would be kind of humiliating.  Strangers. Would they speak Arabic?”

“They wouldn’t know us.

I nodded.  “Would it be simpler to get help from people you don’t see again?”

Someone said, “But they wouldn’t understand us.  We know what it’s like to live this way. We know why we need the food.  What would they think when we are upset or angry?”

UNRWA is locally owned in that solidarist sense.  

5. UNRWA knows it is the elephant in every room.  Not every aid actor is willing to acknowledge that.  The notion of aid doing no harm is a fantasy. Aid introduces scarce and valuable resources, which alter the surrounding economic, power and social arrangements.   Someone is going to benefit, and someone is going to lose as a result. Some aid actors would rather not know that. Others, with only a passing knowledge of the environments they affect, leave a trail of unintended distortions.  Among my close colleagues at least, UNRWA was a cognizant, learning elephant.


Every one of UNRWA’s strengths is subject to the abuse of long familiarity.  Power can breed self-importance and turf. However, a new, locally ignorant agency is at least as likely to be taken advantage of, without providing the benefits of continuity.  UNRWA’s bureaucracy might not be any less expensive than dozens of new entrants, each straining to expand their mandate, starting and stopping after a few budget cycles, competing to rent space, resisting the sharing of information, hiring co-ordinators to improve their co-ordination…

UNRWA’s advantages are important, from procurement to operations to emergency.  In my view, they are most important for two reasons of politics.

First, the community of refugees is vulnerable, living in deeply unsatisfactory environments.  What does it mean to live three generations in a camp – should you cultivate pride in your surroundings or disavow their permanence?  Lacking state protection in a world of states, who represents you? If you are powerless, who has your best interests at heart?

I do not write this in order to attribute any paternal goodness to UNRWA.  UNRWA is not necessarily able to protect anyone, and at times any agency will be harmful.  However, for all the reasons above, UNRWA is attuned to the currents around and within its community.  It has more sources of well-informed advice than others.

Second, any agency that is bold or foolish enough to stand between Israel and Palestine will be poised between conflicting political interests.  A few perpetual arguments will suffice to illustrate:

  • UNRWA relieves Israel of the responsibilities of an occupying power and / or it relieves Hamas of its governing obligations and / or it relieves the donor states of their obligation to do something more effective.  
  • UNRWA should be funded by the West as the cost of indulging Israel and / or by the Arab world as a gesture of solidarity.  
  • UNRWA keeps a lid on simmering Palestinian rage, by grafting a little global welfare onto the most egregious suffering caused by the occupation / UNRWA keeps refugees in a static and passive state, holding them up as a living symbol of the occupation / UNRWA holds out a false hope of return by adhering to UN resolutions
  • UNRWA is not neutral.  It hates Israel / it collaborates with Israel / it collaborates with Hamas.   As this week illustrates, those who pontificate about neutrality do not want neutrality.

Imagine the swarming political pressures.   UNRWA is a 360-degree target of opportunity. UNRWA’s UN General Assembly mandate is safely beyond the reach of any single interest.  UNRWA’s heft and its wide networks help it to stand at a global vortex. Less ponderous organizations find it more difficult to resist.

I glimpsed the change when I moved from a NGO to UNRWA.  I had recently written an NGO donor report that could not include the words ‘occupation’, ‘blockade’ or ‘war’.  Without those words, Gaza’s, um, manifold challenges are, um, muted.

At UNRWA, we were sketching what would become the GGateway, a social enterprise creating IT outsourcing employment.  I asked Bob Turner, then UNRWA’s Gaza director and his deputy Scott Anderson, (now UNRWA’s director in the West Bank), “What shall I call it?  The blockade, the occupation – what’s your language?”

They frowned at each other.  Scott turned to me and said with exaggerated diction, “We call the blockade a blockade, and we call the occupation an occupation.”

“Really?  And your donors –?”

Scott shrugged.

UNRWA’s skills are not unique, but not one of them can be quickly replicated or scaled by others – particularly not in Gaza, Syria, or the West Bank.

That is UNRWA’s real, underlying strength:  it is there.   That’s what has made it a straw man target for Donald Trump’s hatred.

Donald Trump has set upon Palestine refugees with reckless turpitude, seeking to starve them into concessions in lieu of dignified discussion.  It is not Jerusalem, nor the Right of Return that Trump has taken off the table; it is America. The injustice persists. The issues remain.

Other interests will surely flow into the vacancy America has left.

Marilyn Garson

Marilyn Garson worked with communities affected by war, including Afghanistan and Pakistan (2005 – 2010) and the Gaza Strip (2011 – 2015). She is a co-founder of the Gaza Gateway, a social enterprise creating employment in Gaza. She writes from New Zealand, and blogs at Contrapuntal: Transforming Gaza. You can follow her on Twitter @skinonbothsides.

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