European donors fast-track UNRWA funding to plug US gap

Pierre Krähenbühl, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. Photo by: © European Union 2015 - European Parliament / CC BY-NC-ND

LONDON — A series of European donors have made immediate disbursements to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East in an effort to make up for funding withheld by the United States.

The funding has been released immediately — instead of in instalments or later in the year — in order to help the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees keep up its work after its biggest donor “froze” millions of dollars in planned funding.

The Swedish government has become the latest to make an announcement, having disbursed $58.5 million to UNRWA over the weekend.

In a tweet on Saturday morning, Sweden's secretary of state for development cooperation, Ulrika Modéer, said it was supporting the agency’s “important work to support Palestinian refugees in these challenging times.”

“The world community has a responsibility,” she added.

The announcement followed a similar move from the government of Belgium, which released a three-year contribution of $23 million last week in consideration of “the financial difficulties which UNRWA currently faces,” it said in a press release. Belgium also said it would “continue to support UNRWA” in the “coming months and years.”

The Dutch government said it would fast-track $16 million of funding which had already been earmarked for the agency.

Sweden and Belgium did not immediately clarify whether any of the money represented additional funding.

The U.S. State Department announced last week it would withhold more than half of a $125 million contribution to UNRWA. That contribution was to be the first of two released this year, but the department said that future contributions would now be conditional on the agency making reforms.

Department spokesperson Heather Nauert told a press briefing that $65 million is “being frozen at this time. It’s not being canceled. It’s just being held for future consideration.”

She declined to give specifics of the reforms being requested, but said the decision is “not aimed at punishing anyone,” and said there was a need for other countries to contribute more.

The U.S. is responsible for a third of UNRWA’s budget, contributing $364 million last year.

In response to the announcement, UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl said that “after decades of generous support” the decision had put UNRWA in “the most critical financial situation in the history of the agency.”

“I call on member states of the United Nations to take a stand and demonstrate to [Palestinian] refugees that their rights and future matter,” he said.

Sweden, the Netherlands, and Belgium are already among UNRWA’s top donors, contributing around $95 million collectively in 2017.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also met with European Union ministers in Brussels on Monday to discuss the latest developments, among other issues.

The news of the European disbursements has been warmly welcomed by many in the aid community, with some representatives tweeting their thanks. Krähenbühl said on Twitter that the Swedish announcement was “outstanding news from an outstanding partner,” supporting the organization’s “education work for 500,000 students, in health care and emergency services.”

Helen Clark, former administrator of the U.N. Development Programme, also congratulated Sweden “for stepping up.”

Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said the countries had “come to UNRWA's relief” but warned that “it is not enough.”

UNRWA was established in 1949 to provide assistance to Palestinian refugees. The organization says it now supports around 5 million refugees in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan with education, health care, and housing.

The U.S. decision followed a tweet written by President Donald Trump at the start of the year in which he threatened to withdraw aid from the Palestinian territories.

Sweden, Belgium, and the Netherlands also offered extra contributions to the family planning community after Trump cut funding last year.

About the author

  • Jessica Abrahams

    Jessica Abrahams is Editor of Devex Pro. Based in London, she helps to oversee news, features, data analysis, events, and newsletters for Devex subscribers. She previously served as Deputy News Editor and as an Associate Editor, with a particular focus on Europe. Before joining Devex, she worked as a writer, researcher, and editor for Prospect magazine, The Telegraph, and Bloomberg News, among other outlets. She holds graduate degrees in journalism from City University London and in international relations from Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals.