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UNRWA responds to JTA series

UNITED NATIONS, April 4 — The series of articles posted on the JTA web site 16 March testifies to the interest that UNRWA elicits. The articles are well-researched, inter alia thanks to the extensive contacts between author Michael Jordan and UNRWA’s liaison office in New York. UNRWA attempted to respond to all the queries he had, and the articles reflect an understanding of most of the issues addressed. While it’s sometimes difficult to ascertain the provenance of the information in the series since it often is attributed to anonymous “sources” or “critics,” the analysis provided is well-reasoned, if not always balanced. But the approach appears to obscure the main thrust of UNRWA’s role and activities. We are here to provide education, health and related services to a largely destitute population of Palestine refugees in the region. In doing so, I believe the agency has played a significant role in contributing to stability while imbuing the refugees we serve with a sense of purpose and hope. Against heavy odds, most of the refugees have managed to better their lives and become productive participants in the local economy. What UNRWA does not do, as I made clear in an interview, is administer or supervise the camps. We have maintained the provision of our services in difficult (and sometimes quite dangerous) circumstances thanks to the resilience and commitment of our staff, and I am proud of the fact that almost all are refugees themselves. This too is proof that UNRWA contributes to the empowerment of refugees rather than to “a culture of poverty and dependency.” Furthermore, having such a small number of international staff contributes significantly to making UNRWA an efficient and cost-effective organization. I have said in various fora that the agency is one of the United Nations’ least-known success stories. Imagine any state successfully providing basic education to 500,000 children at a cost of under $800 per pupil per year! I cannot but agree with Jordan when he asserts that “UNRWA has moral authority and international legitimacy.” I do feel very strongly that, as a U.N. agency, we have high standards of probity and ethical behavior that we must meet, especially in the highly charged political environment in which we work. I have repeatedly impressed these principles upon my staff, not because “it reached the point that [I] felt compelled” to do so, as Jordan claims, but because I sincerely believe that zero tolerance is the only policy to counter staff misbehavior. All incidents brought to my attention are immediately investigated, due process is respected and strict disciplinary measures are taken where violations of agency rules have been established. To maintain these high standards, checks and balances are required and UNRWA is a fully transparent organization that is regularly and comprehensively audited by independent outside parties. For that reason, I fail to see how UNRWA can be “unmasked,” as the title of the series indicates. On the contrary, the interest shown by critical media such as JTA is always welcome, and the agency has shown it has nothing to hide. In closing, let me add that nothing would gratify me more than to be soon “overseeing the historic transition from occupation to sovereignty,” as Jordan suggests. Until such time as a comprehensive solution is found to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, UNRWA, with the support of the international community, will continue to serve the humanitarian and human development needs of the Palestine refugees as best it can. Karen Koning AbuZayd is UNRWA’s commissioner-general.