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January 8, 2018 11:56 am

How UNRWA Violates the Most Basic Rule of NGOs: ‘Do No Harm’

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Palestinian students raise their hands in a school run by the UNRWA. Photo: UN Photo / Shareef Sarhan.

In the 1990s, international aid groups started looking at the bigger picture — and realized that providing aid in a vacuum can cause other problems in the places 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, in order to be more sensitive to how their actions impact not only the intended recipients of aid, but also to the surrounding people.

UNRWA ignores the concept.

From the time that UNRWA was established, it started creating a parallel infrastructure that was separate from the governments it was working under. An entirely separate health, education and aid system was created by UNRWA, and its beneficiaries — which it calls “Palestine refugees” — have become 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 Palestinian “refugees” so that they could get aid and other benefits. There was jealousy from the start — from Arabs who saw Palestinian refugees get free food, schooling and medical care that was superior to their own.

Today, we have more proof of how NGOs can negatively affect the lives of the people in the areas where they distribute aid. For example, NGOs are such a huge part of the workforce in the West Bank and Gaza that they distort the functioning of a normal economy there.

And this can impact peace.

I found a 2004 report on the issue that stated:

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 looking at how UNRWA has hurt the Jordanian education system.

UNRWA, funded mostly by the West, pays higher teacher salaries than non-UNRWA schools in Jordan. As a result, UNRWA attracts better teachers than the non-UNRWA schools. This has the (unintended, but clear) effect of causing Jordanian school quality to go down.

This is a classic violation of “do no harm.”

In fact, an employee of an international organization 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. The organization is so big, and employs so many people, that it cannot help but to cause harm to the countries in which it works.

Just imagine how things are in Lebanon, where UNRWA and UNHCR have completely different standards of aid for 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 fundamental violation of “Do No Harm.”

The idea of defunding 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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