|An UNRWA school in Jordan|
In the 1990s, international aid groups started looking at the bigger picture as they do their services. They realized that providing aid in a vacuum can cause other problems in the areas that they are trying to help.
One of the major potential issues is summarized here:
Aid is not neutral in the midst of conflict. Aid and how it is administered can cause harm or can strengthen peace capacities in the midst of conflicted communities. All aid programmes involve the transfer of resources (food, shelter, water, health care, training, etc.) into a resource-scarce environment. Where people are in conflict, these resources represent power and wealth and they become an element of the conflict. Some people attempt to control and use aid resources to support their side of the conflict and to weaken the other side. If they are successful or if aid staff fail to recognise the impact of their programming decisions, aid can cause harm.
As a result, aid agencies have been incorporating the “Do No Harm” and “Conflict Sensitivity” framework in all of their activities, to be more sensitive to how their actions impact not only the intended recipients of aid, but also the surrounding people.
UNRWA ignores the concept.
From the time UNRWA was established, it started creating a parallel infrastructure separate from the governments it was working under. An entirely separate health, education and aid system was created – and, by and large, the beneficiaries, who UNRWA calls “Palestine refugees”, have been better off than their neighbors, causing tension and conflict.
UNRWA admits that in its early days tens of thousands, and maybe hundreds of thousands, of Arabs pretended to be “refugees” so they could get the aid benefits. There was jealousy from the start by neighboring Arabs who saw Palestinian refugees get free food, schooling and medical care that was superior to their own.
Today, there are other issues that come up from how NGOs can negatively affect the lives of the people in the areas they work. NGOs are such a huge part of the workforce in the West Bank and Gaza that they distort the functioning of a normal economy.
This can impact peace.
I found a 2004 report on the issue that mentioned:
Experience shows that, in conflicts, donor assistance can be the only, or a major, source of income. Employment in the oPt has suffered greatly under closure so that UNRWA and the PA, as conduits of donor funds, constitute the major employers and many families depend on them for survival. Unless specific measures are taken to assure people that there will be employment and income when peace is achieved, current donor support can become (inadvertently) a disincentive for taking the risks associated with peace.
This is only the tip of the iceberg.
In fact, buried in an obscure 2014 UNRWA document we see that UNRWA itself admits that it essentially ignores the “do no harm” concept in its operations:
Concepts like “conflict sensitivity” and “do-no-harm” which link local conflict analysis with the impact of the Agency operations on the adjacent community are not well established among the Field Security Office personnel.
Again, this is an astonishing admission, because every modern aid worker has the concepts of “conflict sensitivity” and “do no harm” drummed into them from the very beginning. UNRWA has all but ignored these concepts.
One example among many of how UNRWA violates this basic concept is how UNRWA has hurt the Jordanian education system.
UNRWA, funded mostly by the West, pays higher teacher salaries than non-UNRWA schools in Jordan do. As a result, UNRWA attracts better teachers than the non-UNRWA schools, which has the (unintended but clear) effect that Jordanian school quality goes down.
This is a classic case of a violation of “Do No Harm.”
In fact, an employee of an international organisation working in Jordan has told me that a senior person at the Jordanian ministry of education admits this and says that UNRWA should give its education budget directly to his ministry to reduce jealousy and inequality between UNRWA and state schools.
The aid worker told me:
You can’t just go to a country and set up a system of parallel service delivery for only some people and give them better service. It is bound to create conflict between them. And yet, this is exactly what UNRWA is doing….and I don’t understand how they get away with it.
The “do no harm approach” is a serious principle of development aid and something the UN should be committed to. They are perpetuating conflict and making it worse.
Just imagine you’re a parent and your child has to go to a subpar school because you can’t afford private school and then you see your neighbors being allowed to send their kid to a school that is better equipped and has better teachers for free. Of course you would be angry.
Regardless of what donors think about Israel they should not fund an organization that creates conflict between Palestinians and Jordanians on a daily basis. It’s contributing to the instability of Jordan.
This is only one small example of how UNRWA has contributed to instability in the region. It is so big, and employs so many people, that it cannot help but to cause harm to the countries in which it does its work.
Just imagine how things are in Lebanon, where UNRWA and UNHCR give completely different standards of aid to Syrian refugees, depending on whether they are considered “Palestinian” or not. Parents of Syrian refugees must be fuming to see their “Palestinian” friends get schooling and health care that is in most cases better than they can get, when they fled the very same conflict.
In many ways, UNRWA’s very mandate, where “Palestine refugees” are considered different with different rules and different levels of service from real refugees, is a violation of “Do No Harm.”
The idea of de-funding UNRWA has caused a furious reaction across the political spectrum. Yet UNRWA itself violates the most fundamental principles of humanitarian aid.
Isn’t it time people started looking at this?
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