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In conjunction with the General Assembly’s discussions on UNRWA: MAS examines the Agency’s future funding - Press Release

24 sep 2023


Ramallah, Wednesday, September 20, 2023:- The Palestine Economic Policy Research Institute (MAS) held a roundtable meeting entitled “Sustainable Financing Options for UNRWA from the Perspective of Palestine Refugees,” with the participation of experts and stakeholders, both in-person at MAS headquarters and via Zoom technology. Professor Michael Dumper of the University of Exeter drafted the background paper for the meeting. Comments and insights to the paper were provided by H.E. Ambassador Dr. Omar Awadallah, UN Assistant Secretary of State; Ms. Tamara Al-Rifa’i, External Relations and Communications Officer at UNRWA; and Ms. Lubna Shomali at the BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights.

Mr. Raja Khalidi, MAS Director-General opened the session by emphasizing the importance of the topic and its policy repercussions on livelihoods. He stated that this topic is key component of the Institute’s priorities, forming part of a group of research activities focused on the financing of UNRWA and refugees’ rights since 2020. Khalidi pointed out that from MAS’s point of view, the issue of UNRWA and its financial crisis constitute a need to securing alternative financing sources, after the U.S. cut its funding. There is a need to search for financing alternatives and recreate a state of sustainability. He stated that the issue of refugees and their rights is at the heart of the Palestinian question, as this issue is both political and legal. Finally, he thanked the Heinrich Böell Foundation’s Palestine and Jordan Office for supporting this (and previous) roundtable meeting.

Ms. Dorothy Sigmund, Director of the Heinrich Böell Foundation, welcomed the participants, and stated that the Foundation has been supporting such roundtable meetings since 2019, in order to discuss political and economic issues that contribute to increasing awareness on various aspects of policy analysis. She affirmed that the topic for this roundtable meeting falls within the scope of the Foundation’s research interests. The defense of human and gender rights, and the issue of Palestinian refugees, are both important issues that must be researched in order to find options and alternatives for underwriting UNRWA’s future sustainability.


MAS Background Paper

The paper highlighted that UNRWA’s financial crisis is not a new phenomenon. The Agency rarely had sufficient funds to fulfill all its obligations, and over the past 75 years of its existence, it has repeatedly been subjected to pressures forcing it to adopt austerity measures, significantly reducing its service levels to Palestinian refugees. The paper discusses new funding options for UNRWA, whose funding crisis has become more severe than ever. This is due to several reasons, especially political and financial. First, the paper proposes increasing allocations from the regular budget of the United Nations (assessed contributions), to demonstrate the UN’s seriousness and its continued commitment to Palestinian refugees. This also assists UNRWA in planning its work more efficiently. Resultantly, the paper highlights the need to involve the private sector as an additional, complementary funding source, and to start exploring opportunities in the Islamic charitable sector and the green economy.

In terms of linking UNRWA’s funding with refugees’ assets, the paper shows that this long-term option requires radical changes in the political environment. However, it is an option that must be kept alive, as it has great value when mobilizing support and advocacy to link the dispossession of Palestinians’ in 1948 (loss of properties and lands) vis-à-vis their current situation in exile and asylum.

Dr. Awadallah emphasized that the fundamental issue is refugees, and not UNRWA. Since this issue is political, it is the UN’s responsibility. He explained that refugees are the real witnesses to the Nakba, and the direct hostile targeting of UNRWA over many years culminated in Trump’s threats to the UN and in trying to change the definition of a Palestinian refugee. Dr. Awadallah stressed that the issue of UNRWA's financial sustainability is the responsibility of the international community, especially Israel and its allies, and must remain so.

Meanwhile, Ms. Al-Rifa’i indicated that UNRWA’s income is in a constant state of stagnation, in light of increasing needs and the increasing number of refugees. She explained that the role of UNRWA is directly linked to the right of return, as fulfilling the rights of refugees must be a basic pillar of any political solution. She pointed out that during the past three years, UNRWA has tried by all means possible to resolve the financial crisis through increasing partners’ contributions, as well as expanding its base of funders, whether from UN member states or bilaterally. She emphasized that the private sector’s contributions did not reach 10% of the Agency’s budget, and therefore more attention must be placed on the issue of funding UNRWA across different types of forums.


In her contribution, Ms. Shomali indicated that UNRWA was established by the UN to provide relief, education and healthcare, as well as improving the environment in refugee camps and providing humanitarian aid to complement the UN’s overall efforts - until a solution for refugees is found.  UNRWA should not be relied on to carry out the tasks of member states in terms of providing funds. The Agency called for converting voluntary funding to mandatory funding for member states, as well as reviewing the definition of Palestinian refugees. There is also a need to expand the geographic scope of UNRWA’s work, in addition to widening its legal mandate to include legal protection and the protection and management of refugee property. She stressed the importance of the international community assuming its responsibility in order to resolve UNRWA’s financial crisis.

Other participants in the audience reemphasized the importance of this topic, agreeing on the need for the international community to assume its responsibilities towards UNRWA, and to examine alternatives that can enhance the Agency’s work environment. In the coming days, MAS will issue a policy statement based on the recommendations of the background paper and roundtable session, identifying ways to follow up on this vital issue is key, in terms of supporting Palestinian refugees and their human and political rights.