UNRWA staffers consider how will they survive without salaries

A UNRWA staffer at work in Gaza. Photo by: UNRWA via Facebook

NEW YORK — Ghada al-Jadba, head of health services for the United Nations’ Palestinian relief agency in Gaza, has countless financial obligations at home. She and her husband, a semiretired surgeon, have three children in college and secondary school, and they also help support other family members.

But two years after the White House cut off its U.S. funding, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East is on the verge of running out of money. Al-Jadba and tens of thousands of other staffers — who provide most of the schooling and health care available in Gaza — are struggling to determine whether they can continue to work, even if they stop receiving pay.

“Maybe I am in a better position than others, others who have more relatives they need to support and their children in universities. If they don't have the money, how will their sons or daughters continue their studies in their universities? How will they provide for their families?” al-Jadba said.

UNRWA announced last week that it has nearly run out of money, two years after the U.S., its largest donor, cut off funding to the relief agency. The move followed claims that the U.S. was providing a disproportionate amount of funding to the agency and that a growing number of Palestinians were qualifying as refugees.

UNRWA has sought new fundraising strategies since 2018. The agency also froze expansions of existing programs, increased classroom sizes, and delayed repairs of infrastructure, computers, and cars. But the agency has “not been able to make up the loss from the U.S. cuts,” which totaled $364 million in 2017, according to Elizabeth Campbell, director of UNRWA’s Washington office.

“[Staffers] will think about how they will serve their families, not how they will serve refugees. So it is a huge challenge.”

— Ghada al-Jadba, head of health services in Gaza, UNRWA

UNRWA now needs to raise $70 million by the end of the month to prevent salary cuts for the agency’s 28,000 employees — most of whom are Palestinian refugees — in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, Campbell said.

“As of today, our services are operating and what we have said and informed staff of is that we have to make our monthly payroll, which comes at the end of November. If there is no additional cash, there will be a partial deferment of the staff salaries,” she said.

“There is some money in the bank, but it is an insufficient amount to pay those salaries. If we receive no money from now until the end of the year, we are looking at very, very significant actions that would include reducing services,” Campbell continued.

UNRWA is the largest employer of Palestinian refugees in Gaza and also directly provides the bulk of the education, food aid, and health care services for the nearly 2 million people in Gaza, in addition to 3 million other people registered as Palestinian refugees. These services may now be interrupted if the agency cannot pay its staff.

“The bulk of our expenditures are the salaries of the people who do the work. There is a correlation between whether you pay someone and they show up to teach,” Campbell said.

News of forthcoming staff cuts was a shock to UNRWA staffers and contractors, according to al-Jadba.

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“When I talk to my colleagues, most of them are not only spending their salaries for themselves, or their own families; they have their relatives who are not receiving any salaries or they don't have any income, so they are responsible for those people,” al-Jadba said. “It is perceived as it is a disaster. It is not even a difficult situation — it is an impossible situation to continue in this way.”

Staff unions have not yet announced if employees will continue to work, even if their salaries are reduced or eliminated. Al-Jadba said she has tried to continuously motivate staffers as UNRWA faced growing financial threats over the last few years. The looming cuts come as the health and financial needs of Palestinians have continued to rise during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I am relying on staffers’ resilience. I don’t have anything else to provide them. I have encouraged them emotionally, but now how will I rely on motivation while I am talking about staff salaries?” al-Jadba said. “They will think about how they will serve their families, not how they will serve refugees. So it is a huge challenge, in addition to all of the challenges we have had in the previous times.”

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.