For over 70 years, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) has provided critical humanitarian and human development services to millions of Palestinian refugees in the Middle East.
Historically enjoying bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress and past administrations, the U.S. covers about 30% of UNRWA’s budget. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. Ambassador to the UN, recently reminded Congress that, “UNRWA provides needed services to the most desperate people among the Palestinians.”
Here’s how our support is making a difference.
UNRWA Education Programs
UNRWA provides high quality education to almost 550,000 children across five fields of operation – Gaza, the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. Unique to the region, UNRWA schools achieved gender parity in the 1960s, reaching generations of Palestinian children with a curriculum centered on UN values.
Internationally recognized outside evaluators – including a 2021 World Bank-UNHCR study – demonstrates that UNRWA’s educational outcomes are among the best in the region and at the lowest cost per student. In fact, UNRWA’s students in Gaza, the West Bank, and Jordan “scored an average of a quarter of a standard deviation higher in international assessments than public school children, implying an advantage of almost a year of learning.”
The Vital Role of Palestinian Aid
Other UNRWA services are equally critical to addressing the humanitarian and human development needs of Palestinian refugees.
The agency operates a network of 140 primary healthcare centers that will support over seven million patient visits in 2023. Utilizing one of the region’s few e-health systems, agency outcomes include reducing the average infant mortality rate from 127 deaths per 1,000 live births in the 1960s, to less than 25 deaths per 1,000 live births in the 2000s.
In Gaza alone, UNRWA provides food assistance to 1.2 million refugees. The Agency’s complex distribution network represents 60% of the food imported into the Gaza Strip each month.
Absent UNRWA, these services would become the full responsibility and financial onus of host countries, including Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon, which cannot absorb the cost of supporting millions of additional people.
Countering the Myths
The current Israeli-Palestinian conflict generates strong opinions from both those directly impacted by the crisis and individuals worldwide. As a result, UNRWA is often caught in political crossfire.
Among the misinformation are claims that the UNRWA curriculum includes anti-Semitic content. This allegation has been repeatedly discredited. UNRWA utilizes a curriculum framework that emphasizes UN values including neutrality, human rights, conflict resolution, tolerance, equality, and non-discrimination with regards to race, gender, language, and religion. UNRWA reviews all its textbooks against these UN values and uses a Critical Thinking Approach (CTA) that empowers teachers to address identified issues of concern in alignment with UN values.
The Agency is also on the record for responding to any breach of the neutrality of its facilities by regional actors. Employees in violation of their obligations as UN staff are investigated and, when necessary, disciplined.
In 2018, the Trump Administration cut off U.S. humanitarian contributions to all Palestinians, including through UNRWA. This left core UNRWA programs vulnerable at a time when Palestinians in Gaza, Syria, and Lebanon faced sharply deteriorating humanitarian conditions due to the ongoing conflict, severe economic challenges, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
During this period of non-funding, the Multilateral Organization Performance Assessment Network (MOPAN) released its assessment of UNRWA. MOPAN is an organization comprised of 18 countries, including the U.S., that share a common interest in evaluating the effectiveness of major multilateral organizations. Their report states, “UNRWA is competent, resilient and resolute. Its way of working and the results it is achieving in a resource-constrained environment reflect a well-managed organization that delivers.”
The Biden Administration reversed the ban on UNRWA funding in 2021.