The Commissioner-General of UNRWA Philippe Lazzarini to “Jousour”: There are indications that US funding would resume
“UNRWA is facing the biggest funding shortfall of its history”, but the commissioner-general of the international Agency Mr. Philippe Lazzarini hold out hope that the Biden administration would resume its funding for UNRWA, which was ended under Donald Trump in 2018. He considers that UNRWA health, education and social services are a lifeline for Palestine refugees and a key source of stability in Lebanon.
He revealed in an interview with “Jousour’ his expectation for UNRWA and Palestinian Refugees future:
Q: How do you see the future of the Palestinian refugees and the UNRWA in the context of the impulses of change, and new political alignments in the region?
The status, rights and wellbeing of Palestine refugees do not change with the regional changes. Palestine refugees await a just and lasting solution to their plight. Until then, UNRWA is the UN agency in charge of ensuring that they have access to basic services. It has been a very difficult year for Palestine refugees and for UNRWA, and the mix of COVID and regional changes have affected the funding available to UNRWA. UNRWA is facing the biggest funding shortfall of its history, so Palestine refugees are feeling distressed and abandoned. UNRWA calls for solidarity with Palestine refugees, and calls for support to UNRWA to allow all its services to continue until there is a just and lasting solution to the plight of Palestine refugees.
Q- What is your expectation for UNRWA funding and for the impact of Covid-19 on the refugee’s situation?
UNRWA was able to help contain the disease in the first stage, but the pandemic of poverty that came with the health pandemic soon hit Palestine refugees, and the COVID19 numbers flared up unfortunately. It’s extremely difficult to ask communities that live in crowded environments, most of whom are daily paid workers, to keep social distance and try to stay isolated as a measure of prevention. So even if UNRWA managed to alter the way it works (distance learning, medical consultations by phone, home delivery of medicines), people need to go out and earn an income for them and their families. The numbers now in Palestine refugee communities in the region echo the numbers outside it, it is not possible to keep a virus outside a camp.
Q- How to secure sustainable funding for the agency, or at least reduce the deficit in a way that preserves its basic services to the refugees?
The last few months have been extremely intense on the UNRWA senior management team: we have knocked on every door, from donors, to the host governments to the private sector to online fundraising. We have not stopped lobbying and asking for support to Palestine refugees. Our efforts have had some successes, especially from European and other countries like Japan and Canada (among others), but unfortunately, we were not able to raise funds from the Arab region. We also took a loan from the UN Emergency Fund in NY, which is what enabled UNRWA to pay full net salaries to its staff in November.
There is no secret: UNRWA has run out of cash and there is no cash coming in 2021 anymore. Some generous donors increased their contributions, others did not pay. Many donors themselves are hit with the economic impact of COVID19 and tell us that they must focus on their own people and economies so cannot contribute more to UNRWA.
Q- There is a new American administration. Do you rely on any change in the former administration’s decision to substantially cut contributions?
UNRWA has never recovered from the US defunding, despite a very generous support from 43 governments and partners in 2018, the US had always been the largest donor to UNRWA, so filling the gap is extremely difficult. We heard the public statement of the Vice President Elect about a resumption of support to Palestinians and are hopeful that this will include a resumption of support to Palestine refugees through UNRWA, and that the resumption will encourage other governments to support UNRWA.
Q- How do you look at the impact of COVID-19 on the Agency’s operations, do you see this as a potential moment for transformation its way of doing business?
There are many questions about the changes that COVID has imposed. In the field of education, for example, we ask: if physical presence is to be replaced by online attendance, how do we ensure that vulnerable families have devices/tablets and have electricity and internet coverage that allows children to learn remotely? Similar questions apply to the health sector: how does one replace primary health services obtained in health centers by telemedicine and delivery of drugs? What else is needed to ensure that health needs are covered, that older people keep track of their health if they do not own smart phones or do not know how to use apps? So, COVID is indeed forcing us to think differently, but digitalization is not easily accessible to everyone, and that is something we are looking at resolving for 2021 and beyond.
Q- How do you see the impacts of the Lebanese financial crisis on the refugee community, what would you ask from the government and people of Lebanon?
Palestine refugees in Lebanon face restrictions on their right to work and own property. Most of them live below the poverty line, with their situation made worse by the deepening economic and financial crisis and COVID19 pandemic. UNRWA health, education and social services are a lifeline for Palestine refugees and a key source of stability in Lebanon. As Palestine refugees are amongst the most vulnerable communities in Lebanon, UNRWA calls on the government and the international community to ensure that aid to them is built into the immediate emergency response and the longer-term plans to support all those living in Lebanon and needing assistance. UNRWA will continue to work with the government and all Lebanese parties on improving the living conditions of Palestinian refugees thus enabling them to live in dignity and to provide for themselves. Providing people with concrete opportunities and hope for the future is a right and the best contribution to stability.