UNRWA determined not to scale back amid crippling funding crisis

6 Dec
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Saturday, December 05, 2009
BEIRUT: The United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees is struggling with a “dire” financial crisis but will not cut back on its provision of services, its head of operations in Lebanon said Friday. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) said on Wednesday it was facing its worst budget deficit in history. According to a recent document posted on the agency’s website concerning UNRWA’s financial situation, a shortfall of $79.6 million for 2009 and $125.7 million for 2010 has been projected. It said a continuing lack of funds since 2005 had “resulted in the complete depletion of UNRWA’s working capital.
“UNRWA is faced with a dire financial crisis,” Salvatore Lombardo, director of UNRWA Affairs in Lebanon, told The Daily Star. He said the agency’s operations in Lebanon were facing a $9 million deficit for 2010. “We have been operating with approximately the same budgets for the last [several] years whilst the needs are growing considerably and the cost of services is increasing,” he said. “Our expected budget is 14 percent less than what UNRWA needs to cover the most basic requirements of Palestine refugees.” 
The UN official added that although the agency would continue to provide health care, education and relief and social services, the standards of those services would drop. “Whilst UNRWA strives to ensure services are not cut, the overall environment it operates in will deteriorate,” he added. 
There are over 422,000 Palestinian refugees registered in Lebanon, most of who live in the country’s 12 squalid refugee camps. 
The figure may no longer be accurate, however, as UNRWA does not remove refugees who have moved abroad from its records. There are also an unknown number of nonregistered refugees and an additional 40,000 Palestinians residing in 42 so-called “gatherings,” or ghettoized neighborhoods. 
UNRWA has routinely faced funding shortages in the past, but the ongoing international financial crisis and a lack of financial reserves have resulted in a “situation of unprecedented gravity,” the UNRWA website said. 
The agency held its annual pledging conference at the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, hoping the international community would respond to its financial emergency. “It would be timely, and extremely welcome, if UNRWA was to receive new pledges of support from unexpected quarters or else the announcement of increase in funding from those that have historically underperformed in this respect,” said Andrew Whitley on behalf of UNRWA Commissioner General Karen Abu Zayd ahead of the conference. 
“The refugees and our 30,000-strong Palestinian staff, who live in great anxiety these days about the prospect of further reductions in their modest living standards, would be enormously relieved.” UNRWA has warned salary cuts were straining relations with its employees. 
But Lombardo said that while pledges were made at the conference, it was “not enough to cover the shortfall for 2010.” 
Speaking in September on the occasion of UNRWA’s 60th anniversary, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon acknowledged the agency’s serious funding shortages and appealed to the international community to give generously. “The agency’s work is too important for it to suffer budget crisis after budget crisis,” he said. 
UNRWA’s funding shortfall will impact other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working with Palestinians, said John Viste of ANERA, an American NGO which provides humanitarian relief aid to Palestinian refugees. “It does affect us when UNRWA services are cut back.” 
Medicine, normally provided by UNRWA, was a case in point, Viste said. “If they don’t have any medicine available, others have to fill in the gap. If they can’t provide then the Palestinians are forced to buy, which places greater strain on their resources.” 
In spite of the financial difficulties, UNRWA is pursuing internal reform that requires no additional funding, Lombardo said. “We are committed to improving the management of our services. We will do so through decentralizing decision-making to the head teachers, medical officers and relief workers that run our schools, clinics and camp officers, communicating better with our beneficiaries and eliminating bureaucracy in our processes.” 
Nevertheless, the cutbacks have raised fears that the security situation in the camps could explode. “The consequences of the financial deficit extend beyond the level of quality of services we provide,” Lombardo said. “Instability feeds on poverty and a lack of opportunities. There are very concrete steps that can be taken to push back against such scenario. 
“Providing health, education, and relief and social services means not only teaching the young, caring for the sick and fending for the poor. It means creating a platform of stability on which future political progress can rest. UNRWA is part of the solution here in Lebanon,” he said.
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