Yesterday, as hinted at the start of the year, the United States cut its aid to the United Nations Relief Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, better known with its acronym UNRWA.
UNRWA has been running for over six decades, having been set up in 1949 to provide humanitarian aid in the aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. It was born of crisis and continues to deliver education in crisis in the five fields of operation where it works – Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank.
What does this new announcement from the US mean for UNRWA’s future?
In 2015, the US contributed nearly $369 million to the agency, for a total budget of roughly USD1.2 billion in 2016. The US was the UNRWA’s largest donor, contributing over twice that of the second largest donor, the European Union, which allocated $160 million.
The total contribution the US made in 2017 was above $350 million, but the funds announced for 2018 were “dramatically below past levels” according to the UNRWA Commissioner-General, Pierre Krahenbuhl, at $125 million, of which $65 million we now hear are “frozen for future consideration”.
And what does it mean for the UNRWA’s education support?
UNRWA spends more than half of its budget on education.
As its website tells us, and as we heard from its director of education on this blog site last year, with the help of these funds, the UNRWA/UNESCO education programme operates in no fewer than 677 elementary and preparatory schools, providing free basic education for around half a million Palestinian refugee children. Quite apart from just giving these children seats in classrooms, we showed that most children in UNRWA schools perform as well as, or better than, those in host country schools in Jordan, Gaza and the West Bank.
UNRWA also provides TVET training for 7,000 Palestinian refugees in all fields and for 2,100 students in two educational science faculties and teacher training institutes (one in the West Bank and one in Jordan). UNRWA students’ literacy and levels of educational attainment are among the highest in the Middle East.
In Gaza, UNRWA is responsible for 240,000 students in 252 schools, which is in addition to many other public services, including health care facilities.
Without these funds, UNRWA will either have to look at finding funds from other sources or will be forced to suspend, or downsize its activities.
Looking on its website’s news page, there are small signs of additional funds from others of the agency’s major donors, including the EU, which has just contributed an additional €10.5 million for 2017, for instance. But this is nothing compared to the over $350 million the agency has been depending on from the US each year.
There are signs of UNRWA having to downsize as well. This week, teachers who had their contracts cancelled were protesting in front of UNRWA’s offices in East Jerusalem. In a statement, the UNRWA workers’ association denounced the move and warned that the cutbacks would badly worsen the already poor conditions in refugee camps.
“There will be nothing – everything will disappear,” said Yazan Muhammad, an 18-year-old Palestinian refugee in the West Bank. “If the wakala [UNRWA] goes away, there will be no education, no healthcare, no sanitation”.
The factors at play are political, but the impact is personal. “At stake are the rights and dignity of an entire community” said Krahenbuhl. The agency has launched a fundraising campaign to help keep schools and clinics open throughout 2018 and beyond. Individual donors can support by donating too.
This serves as a reminder of the power struggles at play in the decision making around the education of migrants and refugees the world over. Our 2019 GEM Report, due out this November and focused on the theme of migration, displacement and education, will be analyzing the chronic needs of so many families on the move. It will show how important a continued education is for these people. Put so succinctly by Krahenbuhl: “to the boys and girls in all Palestine refugee camps and communities, I say: the schools remain open so you can receive your cherished education and remain confident that the future also belongs to you.”