UNRWA's Budget and Mission
UNRWA's $1.1 billion annual budget is underwritten by the United States, the European Commission, Britain and Sweden. Other major donors include the Arab States of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Scandinavian countries, Japan and Canada. Non-governmental organizations and concerned individuals also contribute in smaller amounts.
More than half the money is spent on education, with remarkable results. Palestinian literacy is among the highest in the Middle East, and second-highest only to Kuwait among Arab nations (the Palestinian illiteracy rate is 8%, Kuwait's 7%). In 2009, a Palestinian literacy group won Sweden's Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, a testament to UNRWA's work in Occupied Palestine.
While UNRWA operates inside Palestinian refugee camps (and is run mostly by Palestinian employees), the agency does not run the refugee camps, nor does it play a political role--at least not overtly.
UNRWA was established as a temporary agency pending the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict either in the repatriation of Palestinian refugees (an increasingly dim possibility, even for what remains of the original refugees) or in the creation of a Palestinian state. UNWRA's mandate has been renewed every three years since its creation.
Marking UNRWA's Importance
Marking UNWRA's 60th anniversary in his column in Lebanon's Daily Star, Rami Khoury wrote:
The work that UNRWA has done in delivering education, health care, social services and basic protection for many of the 4.6 million refugees registered with it represents the UN at its best – helping people at the material level, while drawing attention to the need to ensure their political, national and human rights, even in times of warfare.For all the work and services UNWRA provides, the agency has been forced to scale back its commitments in recent years for lack of funds as financial contributions have not kept up with inflation. Average annual spending per refugee has fallen from about $200 in 1975 to around $110 today.
Some of the refugees live in appalling conditions, especially in Lebanon and Gaza, where unemployment and school dropout rates are very high. Yet the continued mandate of UNRWA and its adaptation to changing circumstances send the message that the world sees the refugees as people entitled to basic rights that must be exercised, not slogans. UNRWA was established in 1949 shortly after the international community issued the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which saw individuals as unique in every way except for their right to leave behind the jungle by living in conditions governed by access to equal rights guaranteed by the rule of law.
UNRWA is also important to recognize today as a living symbol of the desire and ability of ordinary Palestinians to create a society of integrity, decency and opportunity when given a chance to do so. Because UNRWA is staffed mainly by Palestinians, it is something of a microcosm of how a Palestinian society would evolve if it were not subjected to the attacks and pressures of others. Several million Palestinians have passed through hundreds of UNRWA schools in the last 60 years, and many of them have gone on to contribute to the development of the modern Arab world as employees or entrepreneurs in their home communities or further afield.