Planning for the Future - UNRWA Begin’s to Implement Agency Reforms

Planning for the Future - UNRWA Begin’s to Implement Agency Reforms

Indicators that once documented [UNRWA’s] successes in health, education, relief, social services and other sectors are now in decline. In many areas these indicators compare unfavorably with host authority services as well as with international standards. Education and health facilities are often overcrowded and under-equipped; refugee homes and infrastructure are in dilapidated condition and refugees are increasingly falling through the gaps in service provision. Any further deterioration could threaten the long term human security of Palestine refugees and adversely affect stability in the Agency’s areas of operation.(1)

UNRWA’s five-year Medium Term Plan (2005-2009), developed in consultation with donor states and other international agencies aims to address the long-acknowledged decline in UNRWA services in its five areas of operation.(2) The plan is not just an appeal for more money to provide services to a growing refugee population (it comes with a US$1.1 billion price tag). It aims to “restore the living conditions of Palestine refugees to acceptable international standards and set them on the road to self reliance and sustainable human development”. This article provides a brief overview of reforms already initiated by UNRWA in the context of its five-year development plan.(3)

Planning, Monitoring and Performance Evaluation

Restoring the living conditions of Palestinian refugees to acceptable international standards requires better planning, monitoring and evaluation of the Agency services. In the area of planning, UNRWA has contracted external specialists to help the Agency move from a status-based to a needs-based approach to poverty alleviation(4), and to develop and implement a comprehensive action plan for gender mainstreaming(5).

Responding to requests from several major donors, UNRWA has also hired a Senior Protection Policy Adviser to examine ways in which the Agency could take on a wider protection role in its fiveareasofoperation.(6)

A recently-established Camp Development Unit (CDU) will focus on improving the living conditions in the 59 refugee camps where UNRWA provides services to refugees. The CDU has adopted a holistic approach to camp development, already piloted in the re-development of Neirab camp in Syria (See article from Aisling Byrne, “Engaging refugees in change Some of the challenges facing UNRWA in engaging Neirab’s refugees in camp development”) and in the reconstruction of Jenin camp in the West Bank, based on the principle of community participation and increased attention to the physical, social and economic facets of refugee lives. UNRWA is also partnering with the School of Social Work at the Southern Illinois University to refine Agency social services practice and has developed a digital social services map to help identify non-UNRWA resources and services to complement and strengthen those provided by UNRWA.

Monitoring of Agency programs is being improved through the development of policy guidelines and data collection systems. These include, as already mentioned, guidelines for gender mainstreaming and refugee protection. UNRWA has also begun to use the International Convention on the Rights of the Child as a guideline for monitoring the status of refugee children.(7) New guidelines in UNRWA’s Relief and Social Services Department require that persons with disabilities be involved in all decisions that affect them. And UNRWA’s emergency program reports now include evaluation criteria.(8)

At the same time UNRWA has ramped up efforts to improve data collection and management. The Graduate Institute of Development Studies (IUED) at the University of Geneva and the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium have been tasked with carrying out comprehensive surveys of the refugee population in UNRWA’s five fields of operations to assist in the planning of services and the development of knowledge-management systems. An Intranet registration system, currently under construction, will allow UNRWA to update (and improve accuracy) of refugee information from all fields in a central database.(9) UNRWA completed the design of a new health management information system, which will improve the surveillance, monitoring and evaluation of maternal health and non-communicable disease services, as well as action-oriented interventions and response at the service delivery level. The development of a community-based organization database system will improve planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation capabilities of UNRWA community centers.(10)

Finally, UNRWA has adopted renewed efforts to evaluate Agency performance. During 2004-2005 an external donor review of the Agency’s management structure and processes was initiated. In addition, the Overseas Development Institute’s Humanitarian Policy Group is currently undertaking a substantive independent evaluation of UNRWA’s emergency programs in the occupied territories since the beginning of the second intifada. Recommendations will assist UNRWA in planning and monitoring future emergency aid to Palestinian refugees.

Stakeholder Relations

UNRWA has also invested efforts to improve relations with Agency stakeholders. In September 2004 the Agency set up a working group on stakeholder relations to discuss UNRWA’s program cycle, policy, constituencies not currently represented in Agency meetings, and structural arrangements for the improvement of stakeholder relations. The group has agreed that UNRWA’s biannual donor meetings should be more substantive and endorsed wider participation of UN and international agencies and NGOs. This includes the reinvigoration and expansion of UNRWA’s Advisory Commission.(11)

Improvement of stakeholder relations also includes initiatives towards greater refugee participation in the development, monitoring and evaluation of UNRWA programs. This includes, for example, participation of refugee children, as set out in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and participation of refugees in the re-development and reconstruction of Neirab and Jenin refugee camps already mentioned. In July 2005, by way of another example, UNRWA stopped including flour as a staple of food assistance due to government subsidies and the fact that most of those refugees receiving food aid no longer bake at home. The policy change, however, was taken in consultation with refugees and host authorities.


Since it was established, UNRWA has faced a chronic problem in attracting sufficient resources to meet the needs of the refugee population. Emergency operations in the occupied territories since the start of the second intifada have also faced problems in attracting sufficient funding. In response, UNRWA has renewed fund-raising activities among Arab donors.(12) As of April 2005, Arab contributions to UNRWA had risen to 6.25 per cent of total income, still short of the rate adopted by the Arab League in 1987 (7.73 per cent of the general budget). Moreover, as UNRWA notes, “the discrepancy between large project and emergency support, on the one hand, and minimal core support for the regular budget, on the other, remains large.”

UNRWA is also working to broaden its donor base elsewhere in the world, reaching out to private individuals, companies and NGOs. In the last year two support groups, one in Spain and the other in the United States, were established to raise funds for UNRWA and inform the public about Agency activities and programs.(13) Since the beginning of the second intifada private donations to UNRWA have grown significantly. UNRWA has thus established a master database to document, monitor and develop its private donation base. During the last year, UNRWA also held discussions with Microsoft Corporation to cooperate on a number of projects. In addition, the Agency has begun to create a database of partner NGOs from whose expertise and know-how the Agency could benefit.

Planning for the Future - Is Change Possible?

UNRWA’s Medium Term Plan and implementation of wide-ranging Agency reforms over the past year illustrate the ability of UNRWA to adapt to changes in the Agency’s operational environment and improve assistance to Palestinian refugees. The real question that needs to be asked, however, is whether the parties to the conflict and the international community will be able to create conditions conducive to an improvement in refugee living conditions, and, ultimately, a just and durable solution to the long-standing plight of the refugees.

Since UNRWA began implementing its 5-year Medium Term Plan, the situation on the ground, especially in the occupied Palestinian territories, has barely met minimal conditions necessary for short-term improvements in the living conditions of Palestinian refugees. As the Agency notes in its 2006 emergency appeal,

In spite of the disengagement of Israeli settlers and army from the Gaza Strip, and an overall significant decline in levels of violence and destruction of property during 2005, the Agency has yet to see any improvement in key humanitarian indicators. Poverty rates increased in 2005 compared to 2004, and the access regime, in spite of a short-lived improvement in Gaza during the second quarter of the year, remains largely unchanged with the exception of internal movement within the Gaza Strip as a result of disengagement. In some important respects, such as access to health for Palestinian residents of the OPT, conditions may even have worsened lately.(14)

A similar analysis is shared in the World Bank’s first economic monitoring report since Israel’s redeployment from the Gaza Strip.(15)

Reforms implemented by UNRWA to date in the context of its 5-year development plan clearly suggest that the Agency will be better placed to meet the day-to-day needs of Palestine refugees and help prepare them “to contribute to any positive changes that may be realized in the region over the coming years”. International support for these efforts provides evidence that, despite the ongoing campaign to defund and eliminate the Agency, the international community continues to recognize the important role played by UNRWA until there is a durable solution for Palestinian refugees.

As important as these efforts are, however, the most effective way to meet the needs of the refugees is to search for and implement durable solutions. At present, the only international mechanism that has a recognized mandate to search for durable solutions for the refugees is the Quartet. But the Quartet framework – the Roadmap – is vague on details, including principles such as the right of return and housing and property restitution, and the process of reaching a solution is left solely to the parties themselves. Three-years after the release of Roadmap, the first stage has yet to be implemented.


Terry Rempel is a research fellow and PhD candidate with the University of Exeter and former senior researcher with BADIL.


(1) UNRWA Medium Term Plan (2005-2009), A Better Future for Palestine Refugees. Gaza City: UNRWA Headquarters, 2005, p. 2. Available at,

(2) For more information about the development of the plan see papers and reports prepared for the 2004 UNRWA Geneva Conference. Available at,

(3) This article is based on the Report of the Commissioner- General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East 1 July 2004-30 June 2005. GAOR, Sixtieth Sess., Supp. No. 13, UN Doc. A/60/13; and, Emergency Appeal Progress Report

(4) The specialist has been tasked with designing design socio-economic profiles, constructing poverty lines, improving data collection and analysis, and devising a mechanism by which to differentiate between the chronic and transient poor with a view to revising eligibility thresholds.

(5) The action plan includes gender awareness training for department staff and volunteers; capacitybuilding of field-based trainers; strengthening interdepartmental networking; and enhancing coordination with local and national organizations.

(6) A jointly-authored brochure to be released by UNRWA and UNHCR will provide further clarification about the mandates of each agency and their operational activities with respect to Palestinian refugees.

(7) This includes promotion of the Convention in UNRWA schools using pamphlets, posters, lectures and other activities.

(8) See, e.g., UNRWA Emergency Appeal 2006. Available at,

(9) UNRWA is also in the process of exploring options to meet the needs of refugee women married to non-registered men and their children in order to bring Agency registration guidelines in line with UN system norms on gender equality. A number of NGOs have recently raised concerns about the vulnerability of non-registered women who do not have access to UNRWA services. (See Al-Majdal No. 27, “The Forgotten: The Case of Non-ID Palestinians in Lebanon”)

(10) The system will facilitate the collection of disaggregated data (e.g., by gender, age, disability, special hardship status) concerning the use of community based organization facilities. The system should be fully installed in all fieldsbymid-2006.

(11) See draft decision A/C.4/60/L.18 and Rev.1, 10 November 2005, entitled “Increase in the membership of the Advisory Commission on the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East” and the revised draft decision A/C.4/60/L.18/Rev.1, 14 November 2005.

(12)In June 2004, UNRWA established a fund-raising office in Abu Dhabi on an experimental basis, with a view to tapping the considerable potential support from private individuals, State-backed institutions and Governments, particularly for the emergency appeal in the occupied Palestinian territory. The office did not produce results, and in January 2005 the Agency decided to move work on Arab donors back to its Amman headquarters.

(13) The association in the United States will focus on raising funds from private individuals, corporations and foundations, while the Spanish association will initially focus more on regional government cooperation and seeking development funds. Both associations have their own legal personalities and boards of directors, and are headed by distinguished national figures. While expectations regarding the volume of funds to be raised in the first phase are modest, it is expected that both will become self-sufficient in the near future. If successful, UNRWA will extend this strategy to other countries.

(14) Supra note 11.

(15) The Palestinian Economy and Prospects for Its Recovery, Economic Monitoring Report to the Ad Hoc Liason Committee, No. 1, December 2005. World Bank. “There has been progress in some key areas, but stasis or slippage in others, and it would be premature to suggest that enough of the elements needed for rapid recovery are in place. Nonetheless, the worst fears of some observers have not been realized, and a healthy recovery is still feasible.” Ibid, p. 10.