Why NGOs cannot fill the gap funding cuts to UNRWA will create

A school funded by UNRWA. Photo by: Ridyan Yumlu-Schiessl / CC BY-NC-ND

NEW YORK — Experts at international and local NGOs are warning that they will struggle to fill major aid gaps expected as a result of the United States’ recent decision to cut all funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. 

The U.S., historically the largest funder of UNRWA, announced late last month that it would end its support — which recently has totaled about $350 million each year — to the agency. In a statement, the Trump administration cited both disproportionate burden sharing and UNRWA’s business model as reasons for the cuts.

The decision followed the U.S. recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and the Palestinian Authority saying it would boycott the Trump administration and its peace efforts.

The result is a massive deficit that other smaller organizations in Gaza and the West Bank are unlikely to make up for, given UNRWA’s independent structure and implementation methods. UNRWA’s 2017 budget was around $1.1 billion — about half of which went toward salaries, wages, and employee benefits that year.

UNRWA, which supports 5.3 million Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, now faces an overall $446 million funding shortfall, following the U.S.’ announcement to cut the remaining approximately $200 million it had designated to support UNRWA’s work this fiscal year. UNRWA has said that previous U.S. cuts — announced as $65 million in January — actually surpassed $300 million.

Lack of donor funding and an increase in wages, salaries, and employee benefits had already impacted the agency’s program budget deficit, increasing it by 72 percent from 2016-2017.

“The scope of the services that the U.N. agency is providing to people is very vast, making interventions from food distribution to education, so I don’t think there is one agency that would be able to fill in such a gap.”

— Alyona Synenko, media delegate, ICRC

“It leaves us with $217 million deficit for this [fiscal] year. In essence, we are operating on a week-by-week, month-by-month budget with the aim that we will continue to acquire the resources we need to keep things open,” said Elizabeth Campbell, director of the UNRWA office in Washington, D.C. “We are in a very very precarious situation, a very uncertain moment, and it remains truly an existential crisis for us because we do not have the certainty of knowing whether we can get the funding we need to run the operations.”

While UNRWA has not announced any immediate cuts — earlier this year, they laid off several hundred teachers and risked opening their schools in Gaza late — it is undergoing a continuous review process of its programs.

The United Kingdom announced this month it would issue £7 million ($9.1 million) to UNRWA, in addition to the  £10 million it announced in June. Other countries are also stepping forward, as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar have each reportedly announced $50 million, and Japan, India, and China are also said to have increased their support. The organization is still seeking additional country donors, however.

UNRWA’s scope of work will make it nearly impossible for any single other organization, or a collective of organizations, to sufficiently supplement its programs.

“I do not think any single humanitarian organization would be able to fill such a gap,” said Alyona Synenko, a media delegate for the International Committee of the Red Cross operating out of Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank. “The scope of the services that the U.N. agency is providing to people is very vast, making interventions from food distribution to education, so I don’t think there is one agency that would be able to fill in such a gap.”

“We have a specific role and a specific mandate related to international humanitarian law and that is our primary role. We also have been struggling with chronic underfunding of our operations in Gaza and the West Bank,” she said.

UNRWA is the second largest employer in Gaza, with 13,000 people on staff, and serves two-thirds of the population there. While UNRWA coordinates with NGOs, it implements all of its work directly, without any intermediaries.

That independence extends to running 265 schools and 22 primary health facilities accessed by more than 96 percent of the population in Gaza alone.

“UNRWA is unique in [that] we directly implement everything and do not have the luxury of closing down projects or closing off contracts in the way others operate,” Campbell said. “It is not possible for any NGO or coalition to take up that work, particularly as it relates to the health sector, because it is a unified system and a centralized system. Actors cannot take over a school here or a school there.”

The impact of the UNWRA cuts is compounded by other funding cuts to the region — with the U.S. freezing most of the $250 million in U.S. Agency for International Development funding that was set aside for Palestinians. Organizations working in the region, including the International Medical Corps and Catholic Relief Services, have felt the effects — in form of staffing cuts and other measures.

Anera, an NGO which operates in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon and Syria, is still waiting on $22 million it had expected from USAID and the State Department, supporting a five-year, $100 million project.

“For UNRWA, the scale and scope is different. For us, a $100 million project over five years is our largest [project]. For them, the scale is different. There is no one working in the region that has the scale they have,” said Anera CEO Sean Carroll.

“We are hoping $22 million will still come. There is some programming going on with funds we have gotten, but we are expecting another $22 million and right now it is not coming,” Carroll continued.  “What is alarming is this is a lot of funding that very suddenly affects the lives of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, who are not getting it anywhere else.”

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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.