Request for United Nations Regular Budget Support of Palestine Refugee Agency Receives Broad Backing, as Fourth Committee Text Heads to General Assembly

24 March 2011
GA/SPD/473

Request for United Nations Regular Budget Support of Palestine Refugee Agency Receives Broad Backing, as Fourth Committee Text Heads to General Assembly

24 March 2011
General Assembly
GA/SPD/473
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Sixty-fifth General Assembly

Fourth Committee

25th Meeting (PM)

Request for United Nations Regular Budget Support of Palestine Refugee Agency

Receives Broad Backing, as Fourth Committee Text Heads to General Assembly

 

By a Vote of 134-2-0, Committee Seeks to Ease Dire Financial

Situation of Donor-Sourced Agency, Chronically Underfunded for Decades

In an extraordinary action today, the Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) decided to recommend the use of United Nations regular budget funds to bolster the United Nations troubled refugee agency in the Middle East.

By a vote of 134 in favour to 2 against ( Israel, Marshall Islands) with no abstentions, delegates overwhelmingly expressed their support for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which was in the midst of a rapidly deteriorating financial situation.  Many said that the use of regular budget funds — which had last been tapped for UNRWA in 1974 — would help the donor-funded Agency continue its provision of basic services and humanitarian assistance to the world’s largest refugee population.

“Nearly 40 years later, we are in a similar, if not worse, financial situation,” said Richard Cook, the Acting Director of UNRWA Representative Office in New York, referring to that 1974 decision.  He introduced a report of the Secretary-General on strengthening the management capacity of UNRWA, which found that Agency had been chronically underfunded over the past four bienniums, with an average underfunding rate of about 12 per cent.

In a bid to avoid “grim scenarios” — including overburdened doctors, crowded classrooms and structural deterioration — UNRWA was working actively with all its partners to bridge the critical structural gap in a predictable and sustainable manner, he said.  But despite the Agency’s efforts, with some success, to broaden its donor base and be creative in finding new sources of contributions, voluntary donations were not keeping pace with the needs of an increasing population, inflation, changing international standards and norms, and other challenges.

Funding from the regular budget of the United Nations would enable UNRWA to sustain and deepen its ongoing management reform, ensure the effective and efficient delivery of services and enhance their quality and impact, he stressed.

The observer for Palestine reiterated the report’s claim that UNRWA’s emergency capabilities in particular had proven vital in saving lives and helping to safeguard protection of Palestinians in armed conflict.  She urged that UNRWA be provided with the necessary funding so it could properly fulfil its mandate and progress with the management reforms previously requested by the Agency’s stakeholders.

“The sobering overview presented in the Secretary-General’s report of the Agency’s fragile financial health should be cause for action by the General Assembly,” she said, adding that more must be done by the international community to live up to its commitments to the Palestinian people.  While the funding proposal for UNRWA outlined in the report fell short of what was needed to truly address UNRWA’s financial crisis and underfunding, she said, it was “an important first step”.

Following approval of the text, Israel’s representative said his country supported UNRWA’s important humanitarian work and actively cooperated with the Agency on many projects.  But while it was committed to continuing that close cooperation, it had opposed the draft for several reasons, including unclear language regarding which projects would be funded by increasing UNRWA’s regular budget.  He also emphasized that funding sources other than the United Nations regular budget could be used to meet UNRWA’s needs, particularly in light of anticipated reductions in the United Nations budget.

There was a clear need to diversity UNRWA donors, he added, noting that Arab contributions to UNRWA comprised less than 10 per cent of voluntary and other contributions.  Arab countries, and the Palestinian Authority in its State-building process, should take more responsibility for funding, instead of continually relying on aid from UNRWA and other United Nations agencies.

But the representative of Egypt countered that his country had doubled its voluntary contributions to the Agency for 2011, and said that many other Arab countries would follow suit.

Other delegations, despite their support for the text, echoed the call to broaden the Agency’s donor base.  The representative of Hungary, speaking on behalf of the European Union, pointed out that just 15 donors provided 90 per cent of UNRWA’s resources — a situation that he felt was not sustainable.  A widened donor base would provide much-needed stability to the Agency and would facilitate the planning of its activities and its reform process, he added.

The representative of Switzerland felt that the Secretary-General’s report did not go far enough in several areas.  His delegation would have preferred a more strategic approach in the draft, making reference to the ways in which other United Nations agencies with a comparable mandate were financed.  It would also have liked to see a closer link between the narrative section of the Secretary-General’s report and its recommendations, which were “laconic” to say the least.

The representative of Namibia, offering a unique insight, recounted his personal struggle as a refugee fleeing South Africa during the apartheid era.  The United Nations was created to give hope to those living in despair, he said.  In that respect, the international community had a responsibility to support the Palestinian people in their struggle to acquire knowledge and skills, lead long and healthy lives and achieve a decent standard of living.

Also speaking today were the representatives of Tajikistan, Norway, Japan, Australia, Zimbabwe, Indonesia and Canada.

Background

The Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) met today to consider a report of the Secretary-General and related draft resolution on strengthening the management capacity of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), respectively documents A/65/705 and A/C.4/65/L.17.

In the report, the Secretary-General presents the financial needs of the Agency in the broad context of its regional role and describes shortfalls in its extra-budgetary funding.  The report notes that total programme requirements had been unfunded by an average of 12 per cent over the last four bienniums, and that, with refugee numbers approaching 5 million, UNRWA faced a funding shortfall of $63 million for 2011.  The report describes the Agency’s efforts to strengthen its donor base and past efforts by the General Assembly to put UNRWA operations on a more secure financial footing.

It also notes that, in recent years, the Agency had been required by the General Assembly and other stakeholders to undertake a series of measures to strengthen its management and resources, improve programme planning and oversight, and conform to contemporary norms and standards in several areas.

In that vein, the report outlines various activities aimed at reforming the Agency’s management and enhancing its programme effectiveness, including a 2004 Geneva Conference on “meeting the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian refugees in the Near East” — which strengthened the tripartite partnership between the Agency, its donors and the refugee host countries — and a comprehensive three-year organizational development programme that had spanned the period 2007-2009.  It also discussed the next phase of the reform process, a “sustaining change” plan, which was currently under way and would be evaluated in the first half of 2011.

Owing to the deepening annual deficits facing the Agency, however, the report says it is clear that those and other necessary reforms could not be fully implemented without additional and more predictable sources of funding.  Accordingly, it concludes that to achieve the objectives of implementing UNRWA’s mid-term strategy over the period 2010-2015, thus providing refugees with improved basic services in line with national and international norms, including those set by the United Nations, the Assembly is requested to:  take note of the perilous cash-flow situation faced by UNRWA; request the Secretary-General to propose increased funding from the regular budget on an incremental basis over the next four bienniums, starting with an increase of $5 million for the biennium 2012-2013; decide that approval of such increases is subject to full justification in the context of the proposed programme budgets for the relevant bienniums, and consideration thereof by the General Assembly.

By draft resolution A/C.4/65/L.17, the General Assembly, taking note of the grave financial situation facing UNRWA, would request the Secretary-General to support the institutional strengthening of UNRWA through the provision of financial resources from the regular budget of the United Nations.  It would further reiterate its appeal to all States, specialized agencies and non-governmental organizations to continue and increase their contributions to the Agency, and call upon UNRWA to continue its management reform process.

Introduction of Report

RICHARD J. COOK, Acting Director of UNRWA Representative Office in New York, introducing the Report of the Secretary-General on strengthening the management capacity of the UNRWA (document A/65/705), noted first the “unacceptable” upsurge in violence in recent days in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel, which he said was a disturbing reminder of the “relentless challenges” facing that region.  More than 95 per cent of UNRWA’s General Fund, he said, was financed through extra-budgetary contributions from Government donors.  The balance was largely funded under the regular budget of the United Nations.  Despite the Agency’s efforts, with some success, to broaden its donor base and be creative in finding new sources of contributions, voluntary donations were not keeping pace with the needs of an increasing population, inflation, changing international standards and norms, and other challenges.

In 1974, he recalled, in response to a similar financial crisis, the General Assembly had decided to partially relieve the Agency’s critical situation by providing for international staff salaries from the United Nations regular budget.  “Nearly 40 years later we are in a similar, if not worse, financial situation,” he said.  UNRWA had been consistently underfunded and the Agency had faced chronic financial difficulties, with an average underfunding of about 12 per cent over the past four bienniums.  In anticipation of similar shortfalls for 2011, the Agency had once again downsized its total programme requirements of $621.2 million to $568 million, but even then, it anticipated a shortfall of $53 million.  The number of Palestinian refugees in UNRWA’s areas of operation was 4.8 million, the largest refugee population in the world.  It was as urgent as ever to meet their needs.

In an effort to avoid “grim scenarios”, UNRWA was working actively with all its partners to bridge the critical structural gap in a predictable and sustainable manner, he said.  Without sufficient working capital, UNRWA’s services would continue to deteriorate, with more children in already-crowded classrooms, overburdened doctors seeing more patients, structural deterioration, and other negative outcomes.

There was also a serious lack of funding for the Agency’s other activities above and beyond those core programme activities, including emergency appeals, he said.  In Gaza, UNRWA was struggling to address the consequences of conflict.  The blockade continued to place an “unacceptable hardship” on the population, and, as the main provider of humanitarian assistance in that zone, UNRWA called for the blockade to be lifted.  Additionally, the refugees in Jordan and Syria, who, despite substantial support from the host Governments, must not be ignored.

Funding from the regular budget of the United Nations would enable UNRWA to sustain and deepen its management reform, ensure the effective and efficient delivery of services and enhance their quality and impact, as well as to improve the Agency’s ability to respond to evolving needs, he concluded.

Statements

FEDA ABDELHADY-NASSER, observer for Palestine, reiterated the report’s claim that UNRWA’s emergency capabilities in particular had proven vital in saving lives and helping to safeguard protection of Palestinians in armed conflict.  Moreover, UNRWA’s effective function was essential in all fields of operation, pending the achievement of a just, lasting solution to the plight of Palestine refugees on the basis of resolution 194 (III).  More must be done for the international community to live up to its commitments and responsibilities towards the question of Palestine, including Palestine refugees.  “The sobering overview presented in the Secretary-General’s report of the Agency’s fragile financial health should be cause for action by the General Assembly,” he said.

She urged that UNRWA be provided with the necessary funding so it could properly fulfil its mandate, continue its reform process as set out in the “Sustaining Change Plan”, enhance its management capacities and meet contemporary demands from stakeholders and the Assembly, including the fulfilment of standards in planning and oversight, internal justice, public-sector accounting, and staff security and safety.  The fact that funds for those tasks were drawn from resources intended for refugee assistance was worrisome.  Funding shortfalls negatively impacted the Agency’s ability to effectively provide quality services and constantly stressed the Agency’s human and financial resources.

Years of shortfalls to the General Fund also had seriously affected the Agency’s infrastructure, as evidenced by its crumbling school buildings, overcrowded and understaffed health clinics and other deteriorating facilities, she said.  A growing percentage of refugees lived in substandard, unhealthy conditions.   She noted two striking features in the report that indicated the urgent need to review the Agency’s funding and find ways to ensure the needed support:  UNRWA spent much less on its beneficiaries than required by international standards; as of November 2010, the Agency had 28,264 area posts for a refugee population of 4.76 million, or 168 refugees per staff member.

She noted that because of the global financial crisis there had not been any substantial rise in financial contributions, but there had been some reductions during the recent period.  Simultaneously, the United Nations regular budget share of UNRWA’s General Fund had declined.  The Agency had consequently been left with an average budget deficit of $50 million or more annually, despite sustained fundraising with traditional and new donors, outreach to public and private entities, and implementation of various cost-cutting and austerity measures.  While the funding proposal for UNRWA outlined in the report fell short of what was needed to truly address UNRWA’s financial crisis and underfunding, it was “an important first step”, she said.

She also encouraged donor countries to continue generously supporting the Agency and to increase funding for the General Fund to support core programmes.  She urged UNRWA’s continued coordination and partnerships with other United Nations agencies on the ground in order to maximize service benefits and reduce expenditures.

ATTILA ZIMONYI (Hungary), speaking on behalf of the European Union, commended the efforts of UNRWA’s Commissioner-General since his appointment last year to steer the Agency further along the path of improvements and reforms.  The European Union remained UNRWA’s largest donor.  In 2009, it had provided €175 million to UNRWA’s regular budget.  It regularly contributed to the Agency’s special programmes and emergency appeals, and it had made extra efforts to alleviate UNRWA’s acute funding shortfalls at the end of 2009 and 2010.  The Union’s continued commitment to generously support UNRWA activities reflected its humanitarian engagement and ongoing contribution to regional security and stability.

He said it was the shared responsibility of the international community to support UNRWA politically and financially.  The European Union had consistently called for equitable burden-sharing.  The fact that 15 donors provided 90 per cent of UNRWA’s resources was not sustainable.  Unpredictable fluctuations in exchange rates also contributed to the Agency’s financial insecurity.  He strongly urged new donors to commit financially to UNRWA’s work and existing donors to consider increasing their contributions.  A widened donor base would provide much-needed stability to the Agency and it would facilitate the planning of activities and its reform process.  Adoption of today’s resolution would contribute to the fulfilment of predictable, adequate funding for UNRWA.

SIRODJIDIN M. ASLOV (Tajikistan), speaking on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) Group, said that the difficult socio-economic hardship that millions of Palestinian refugees had faced for six decades was now more urgent than ever.  UNRWA aid and services had retreated as a result of the global financial crisis, and the Agency now faced critical funding challenges that further threatened the quality and quantity of regular services rendered.

He said that the international community had a special responsibility to ensure its support for the Palestinian refugees.  Failure to do so would result in more children dropping out of school and more people losing access to education, health, relief and social services.  For those reasons, the OIC Group supported the provision of sufficient financial resources from the regular budget of the United Nations in order to enable it to continue to provide basic services.  The delegate further reiterated the OIC thirty-seventh Council of Foreign Ministers resolution, which reaffirmed the United Nations responsibility towards the Palestinian cause and the continuous role of UNRWA in that regard, and called upon Member States to provide the Agency with more support.

MOHAMED REFAAT FARGHAL ( Egypt) said UNRWA’s financial situation needed increased attention from the donor community and international financial institutions.  More must be contribute to the chronically underfunded budget and a more favourable response was needed to emergency appeals.  Egypt had doubled its voluntary contributions to the Agency for 2011 and many other Arab countries would follow suit.  The funding framework proposed in the report was a good basis for work.  The request for more funding from the regular budget incrementally over the next four bienniums was a good step to enable the Agency to fulfil its tasks and respond to the grave challenges illustrated in the report.  To ensure efficient, predictable funding, an increase of $15 million over two consecutive biennium was necessary, and he stressed the importance of consensus adoptiion of the draft resolution to send a clear signal of support to UNRWA.

KNUT LANGELAND ( Norway) expressed his delegation’s full support for the draft resolution before the Committee, which Norway had co-sponsored.  Norway considered the resolution to be formulated in such a way that it should be adopted by consensus, which would send a “clear and unified message from the UN membership at large”, said the representative.

He said his country had long argued that the challenges facing UNRWA were structural and fundamental, and that a long-term sustainable solution required structural changes to the funding architecture itself.  Such a solution should be sought along three tracks.  Firstly, a more balanced burden-sharing among Advisory Commission members; secondly, further expansion of the donor base to include new donors; and thirdly, an increase in the contribution coming from the United Nations regular budget.  The delegate recalled that, in its recommendations, the report of the Secretary-General had suggested an incremental approach to increasing the funding from the regular budget over the next eight years.  UNRWA needed stability and predictability around its financial situation in order to focus on the implementation of its mandate.

JEROBEAM SHAANIKA ( Namibia) said UNRWA provided critical education, health care, vocational training and emergency relief to Palestine refugees.  He recounted his personal struggle as a refugee fleeing South Africa during the apartheid era.  The United Nations was created to give hope to those living in despair.  The international community’s action must reflect the promissory note of “We the people” to help Palestinian refugees, who needed help to acquire knowledge and skills, lead long and healthy lives, and achieve a decent standard of living.  Palestinians deserved to live in dignity and to live in their own State.  He applauded Latin American and Caribbean countries that had recognized the State of Palestine based on 1967 borders.  The Palestinians have rights to their land and a viable State living side-by-side with Israel in peace and harmony.  That was the only path that led to a viable, durable solution in the Middle East.

STEPHANE REY ( Switzerland) said that UNRWA’s financial situation was critical and that it was “high time” that the United Nations found the means to bridge the existing gap between the tasks mandated and the means provided for their accomplishment.  Although the Agency’s budget for the last decade had been increased, there was an urgent need to continue increasing both the regular budget and the extra-budgetary contributions.  The draft before the Committee allowed it to “prepare the ground” for that endeavour.

He said that the discussion of UNRWA’s financing, however, should not end there.  Switzerland would have preferred a more strategic approach, making reference to the ways in which other United Nations agencies with a comparable mandate were financed.  It would also have liked to see a closer link between the narrative section of the Secretary-General’s report and its recommendations, which were “laconic” to say the least.

KAZUO KODAMA ( Japan) said a just solution to the question of Palestine must be found through negotiation, and he expressed hope that such a solution would be found soon.  Until then, the international community must provide the necessary assistance to the Palestinian refugees, and Japan had been actively providing such assistance.  He stressed the importance of UNRWA’s education and training programmes, particularly for youth.  Last year, Japan gave $18 million to UNRWA’s General Fund, and last week, it decided to give $2.5 million to UNRWA’s programme for reconstruction of Nahr al-Bared in northern Lebanon.  It would give $2.8 million to the General Fund, subject to parliamentary approval.  Japan continued to give support to UNRWA despite its fiscal difficulties.  Ensuring the Agency’s adequate and predictable funding was very important.  UNRWA should continue to make efforts to make all its operations efficient, including through its management reform process.  It must always be mindful of finding ways to cut costs, but at the same time, donors should make efforts to provide funding.  He voiced his support for the draft resolution.

ANDREW GOLEDZINOWSKI ( Australia) commended UNRWA and its staff for its commitment to providing humanitarian assistance and basic services to Palestinian refugees, and welcomed its continued efforts in the areas of management reform and fiscal responsibility, as well as to expand its donor base.  It called on regional partners to support UNRWA.  Australia was UNRWA’s tenth largest contributor and would commit $18 million over the next three years, in addition to annual funding.  It also continued its direct assistance to the Palestinian people, having allocated almost $150 million since 2007.

He said his country, as a long-standing supporter of UNRWA, had co-sponsored the resolution presently before the Committee, which was a step towards the Agency’s proper funding and support.  He took the opportunity to condemn the recent violence in the Middle East, saying “there is no justification for terrorism of any kind” and that attacks on civilians were unacceptable under any circumstances.  Australia supported a just and lasting peace based on a two-State solution and would increase its support on the ground for a viable Palestinian State.

CHITSAKA CHIPAZIWA ( Zimbabwe) applauded UNRWA’S efforts and noted with great concern the Agency’s acute financial problems.  UNRWA, which had been a lifeline for Palestinian refugees for more than 60 years, should not be allowed to be in such a dire financial situation.  He supported the call for increasing funds from the regular United Nations budget, in order to ensure the Agency’s ability to meet its operational and administrative costs.  He urged donors to increase their funding to the Agency and to honour their financial pledges in full and on time.  He deplored the action of some donors who reduced or terminated their financial aid to UNRWA on political grounds.  Aid for Palestinian refugees should be guided by the humanitarian principles of impartiality, respect for human dignity, non-discrimination, transparency and accountability.

Introduction of draft resolution

HASAN KLEIB ( Indonesia), introducing the draft resolution (document A/C.4/65/L.17), said the text’s core focus was the need to provide UNRWA with sufficient funding in order to help alleviate its persistent financial crisis, which was “cyclically caused” in part by the structural underfunding of socio-economic and humanitarian conditions in the region.  The resolution requested the Secretary-General to continue to support the institutional strengthening of the Agency through the provision of financial resources from the regular United Nations budget, as reflected in operative paragraph four, taking into consideration the recommendations made in the Secretary-General’s report.

Following that introduction, the Committee Secretary read an oral statement on the programme budget implications arising from the draft resolution.  If that resolution was adopted, she said, no additional requirements would arise under the programme budget for the biennium 2010-2011.  The requirements for the biennium 2012-2013 would be considered in the context of the proposed programme budget for the biennium 2012-2013.

Action on Text

The Committee then approved the draft resolution by a recorded vote of 134 in favour to 2 against ( Israel, Marshall Islands), with no abstentions.

Explanation of Vote

Speaking after the vote, the representative of Israel said his country supported UNRWA’s important humanitarian work and actively cooperated with the Agency on many projects.  In recent months, Israel had approved construction plans for dozens of UNRWA projects in Gaza, including schools, a summer camp, and a new sewage treatment facility.  Israel was committed to continuing that close cooperation, but it had voted against the draft for several reasons.  The draft’s language remained unclear as to what projects would be funded by increasing UNRWA’s regular budget.  He was not sure that the projects mentioned in the Secretary-General’s report as possible projects fell within the scope of management reforms that had been required of UNRWA.  Furthermore, funding sources other than the United Nations regular budget could be used to meet UNRWA’s needs, particularly in light of anticipated reductions in the United Nations budget.

There was a clear need to diversity UNRWA donors, he said, noting that Arab contributions to UNRWA comprised less than 10 per cent of voluntary and other contributions.  Arab countries, and the Palestinian Authority in its State-building process, should take more responsibility for that issue, instead of continually relying on aid from UNRWA and other United Nations agencies.  It was unclear why the resolution discussed the possibility of funding for projects beyond the current biennium.  “UNRWA’s possible projects for the next biennium should not be alluded to before we know the conditions on the ground,” he said.

The representative of Canada said the delegation had voted in favour of the resolution, as UNRWA was Canada’s most important partner in providing humanitarian support in the Near East region.  Canada had recently provided $15 million in response to an emergency appeal in Gaza.  It supported more “predictable and secure” funding for the Agency from the United Nations regular budget, however, that matter should be discussed further by the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary) later in 2011.  Canada encouraged UNRWA to make efficient use of the funds currently available to it and to continue its efforts towards management and other reforms.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.