An interview with Philippe Lazzarini, Commissioner-General of UNRWA
In an exclusive interview with Al-Araby Al-Jadeed Newspaper (The New Arab’s sister Arabic site), head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East Philippe Lazzarini spoke about the challenges facing the agency's work and the need for international political will to address the plight of Palestinian refugees.
Ibtisam Azem, Al-Araby al-Jadeed’s senior correspondent at the UN in New York, interviewed the Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Ibtisam Azem: At the conference you held following a high-level meeting during the UNGA here in New York, you sounded cautiously optimistic about finding sustainable funding for UNRWA after a decade of financial challenges. Can you elaborate?
Philippe Lazzarini: The financial crisis, in reality, has deepened to the extent that I recently explained that it is an existential threat to the organisation. Because, on the one hand, we are asked to provide public services to millions of Palestinian refugees, schools to half a million girls and boys across the region, primary health care for more than 2 million Palestinian refugees, protection, social safety net, cash and food assistance, camp improvement, and so on.
But at the same time, we depend entirely on voluntary contributions. We have seen over the last ten years, with the de-prioritisation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, decreasing attention on UNRWA. As a consequence, our resources have stagnated at a time when needs and expectations have increased, and multiple crises have hit the region.
"Increasingly, there is a feeling among Palestinian refugees of being abandoned by the international community. Any weaknesses felt by UNRWA were also regarded as yet another proof that the international community was turning its back"
Moreover, as you know, despair and distress have grown in an environment where you have no political process or a political horizon. Increasingly, there is a feeling among Palestinian refugees of being abandoned by the international community. Any weaknesses felt by UNRWA were also regarded as yet another proof that the international community was turning its back. That is really the context of the crisis we are confronted with.
The meeting we convened was not only to help the agency overcome its budget crisis but also to discuss ways to make our funding more predictable.
The support expressed every few years for the mandate and its extension every three years needs to be translated into matching resources. It's not enough anymore to say, “we support”; if you don't provide the resources, the mandate becomes impossible to implement.
And I feel that with the meeting we had, there is a new momentum emerging.
I.A.: You said in an interview that you provide services as a state, yet you are financed as an NGO, although you are a UN organisation. What makes you more optimistic after the New York meeting? Would this translate into a financial model that will make the agency less dependent on voluntary contributions and the moods of countries?
P.L: Of course, it is my hope. We will leave no stone unturned to find new or innovative ways to ensure the organisation's financial sustainability. In the meeting, we genuinely stressed the importance of the financial burden sharing of the organisation. When I went to Cairo to meet with the Arab League in early September, I told the Arab states that you have to increase your share. In 2021, we registered the lowest-ever contribution from Arab states.
This does not go unnoticed among Palestinian refugees and communities in general. So, it is also essential that for financial burden sharing, there is a strong expression of regional solidarity that goes beyond merely supporting the renewal of the mandate. It has prevailed in the past for decades. It is certainly not the time today to drop the attention.
So, I would say the NYC meeting was kind of reassuring because it has rolled back a few things. First, the attention on the agency and the awareness that the deficit the agency is encountering, which is not sustainable anymore, can only be addressed for a proper political win.
No one at the meeting said you have to continue to cut down your activities. There is nothing to cut anymore. If you cut more, in addition to cuts that were already made, we will just decrease the scope of the services, which would be perceived and felt as a beginning of the dismantlement of the agency.
I.A.: Why have Arab states not contributed enough or reduced their contributions to UNRWA in recent years?
P.L.: In Cairo, I told Arab states that when new regional political dynamics started to emerge in the region, namely The Abraham Accords, I was reassured that it would not impact the support to UNRWA and to Palestinian refugees. But, I also told them that today, facts are telling me a different story. Some contributions significantly dropped, as of 2020, at the time of the Abraham Accords.
I do believe that there is no contradiction between the accord and the support for UNRWA, to a multi-lateral organisation, and to the Palestinian refugees, and to the plight, until there is a lasting and fair solution. So that's what we have observed.
Some announcements were made at the meeting that made me feel that maybe, in the near future, there might be some positive developments. I genuinely believe that historically, Arab countries have always been a partner. I don't see why they should not be one anymore. It is absolutely crucial that they be on board.
"I think that the main danger is indifference. The main threat is that there is no investment in a peace process. The main risk is a situation where no hope or purpose is given to the people in the region"
I.A.: Besides challenges you are having regarding funding, which other challenges and dangers do you think UNRWA is facing?
P.L: Everything trickles down to finance. I think that the main danger is indifference. The main threat is that there is no investment in a peace process. The main risk is a situation where no hope or purpose is given to the people in the region. But it's more for the future right of the Palestinian refugees and to support and defend their plight and to address it.
The main danger is indifference, letting go, and allowing things to implode. Our financial trouble is partly the expression of past political indifference. A meeting like the one we had was so important because the objective was to bring back the focus, attention, and awareness that if we let it go, in the absence of any alternative, we take the risk to create a new vacuum. In a region like this one, it's certainly not something any of us would like.
I.A.: Do you believe these financial crises are political and deliberate to weaken UNRWA and somehow 'kill it' and the question of Palestinian refugees?
P.L.: I don't believe that today, at least in 2022. Maybe at a different time, the reading would have been different. But today, I don’t think anyone has the agenda to financially weaken the organisation to the extent that we are deliberately weakening the right of the Palestinian refugees. But I believe today we are more collateral of a broader context, which does not bring enough attention to the longest-ever unresolved conflict anymore.
I.A.: How do things like the pandemic, the wars in Ukraine and Syria, economic challenges in Lebanon etc, affect your work?
P.L.: There is no doubt that it affects the people we are serving, supporting, and helping. The pandemic and the economic crisis, and now soaring food and fuel prices in a context where there is very little future for the youth, countries with shaky or collapsed economies like the case in Lebanon, where you have skyrocketing unemployment rate, even more among youth. All this has contributed to fueling more despair, distress, and feelings of hopelessness.
Because UNRWA is the lifeline of Palestinian refugees, but also the voice or the presence of the international community and the witness to the plight, this distress turns into anger. And this anger turns against the staff and the organisation, and this is what we are experiencing, unfortunately, in some places across the region. That makes it even more challenging nowadays.
To what extent has the Ukraine war impacted the day-to-day? We see it in the inflation and soaring prices, and the day-to-day struggle, people have to ensure that they have a decent or minimum food budget. But it has also impacted the generosity of the international community.
Now we don’t know to what extent, but whenever you have a major international crisis taking place, a lot of the available resources are just channelled towards this crisis. It is too early to know if it will impact the traditional additional funding we are normally receiving at the end of the year. We will know more at the beginning of next year.
I.A.: There has been a smear campaign against UNRWA, by right-wing groups and others. How did this affect your work?
P.L.: What is referred to as a smear campaign is more a campaign led by critics or detractors of the agency, or, usually, advocacy organisations, which draw your attention to mostly two things. One is always a question about who is a refugee and who is not a refugee, for which we have a clear answer.
No one wants to be a refugee after more than seventy years. If they are still refugees today, it's because of the collective failure of the international community to have succeeded in promoting lasting and fair peace. So, you also have long-lasting refugees in other contexts. The only difference (in the context of Palestinian refugees) is that we have the longest-ever unresolved conflict we are dealing with.
The second part is very much related to education and the curriculum. We have sometimes been accused of promoting incitement of violence in our schools, which I vehemently refute. We have no such policy in UNRWA. On the contrary, I’m very proud of being the only one having rolled out a human rights curriculum across all our schools and the region. Being a UN organisation, we will champion UN values and UNESCO standards.
Yet we have to acknowledge that we are also operating in a deeply divided and very emotional environment, so, there is no zero risk. But we also determined that whenever a situation of a breach of UN values has been detected, investigated and proven, we will apply a zero-tolerance policy. And on that, we have been very clear and will continue to do so.
"No one wants to be a refugee after more than seventy years. If they are still refugees today, it's because of the collective failure of the international community to have succeeded in promoting lasting and fair peace"
I.A.: As the agency's commissioner, what do you think is necessary to emphasise regarding UNRWA's work?
P.L.: I think what's important to mention is that this organisation's work is highly valued and has been described as being irreplaceable for the time being and indispensable. There have been extraordinary achievements over the last few decades, in terms of human development, in terms of emerging talent, giving back to the community, and in terms of health indicators. This organisation has proven to be an efficient human development agency for one of the most underprivileged communities in the region.
I believe it would be a terrible mistake not to continue investing in the future citizens of this region. It would be a mistake not to continue to provide a sense of purpose for the people in the region, where you already have a more profound sense and feeling of hopelessness because no one sees any political horizon right now.
And for the youth, it's not just a political horizon. It’s their own horizon, their socio-economic horizon. So the message is: UNRWA is a predictable agency, and it would be a big mistake not to continue to invest in it.
And would we collectively take the risk to reverse all this gain and let an organisation like ours implode for just hundreds of millions a year? It's nothing, and the impact would be so disproportionate. That's the minimum we owe to the Palestinian refugees. You cannot fail them on that.
Philippe Lazzarini was appointed to his post as Commissioner-General of UNRWA in March 2020. He has extensive experience in humanitarian assistance and international coordination at senior levels. He joined the United Nations in Iraq in 2003 and since then has held a number of senior positions in New York, and in Angola, Somalia and the occupied Palestinian territory. From 1989 to 1999, Mr Lazzarini worked with ICRC as the Deputy Head of Communications in Geneva, Head of Delegation in Rwanda, Angola, and Sarajevo, and as a delegate in Southern Sudan, Jordan, Gaza, and Beirut.