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Palestinian aid UNRWA chief describes ‘remarkable’ donor effort

Pierre Kraehenbuehl has been Commissioner-General at UNRWA since 2014

Pierre Kraehenbuehl has been Commissioner-General at UNRWA since 2014 

(© KEYSTONE / MARTIAL TREZZINI)

Pierre Krähenbühl, the head of the United Nations agency that supports Palestinian refugees, said he had been extremely impressed by huge donor support this year, especially from Gulf states, which had helped to narrow the big deficit left by a cut in American aid funding. 

“I don’t think many people believed we would overcome the $446-million (CHF448 million) shortfall at the beginning of the year,” the Swiss humanitarian official told reporters at the UN in Geneva on Thursday. 

Krähenbühl, Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA)external link, said that his organisation faced an “unprecedented financial crisis” this year after the US announced a halt in its aid, calling UNRWA an “irredeemably flawed operation”. The US was UNWRA's largest donor, supplying nearly 30% of its $1.2 billion budget. 

However, thanks to a broad mobilization of UN member states and the private sector, who have pledged $382 million this year, the shortfall has been narrowed to $64 million. 

The European Union is now the largest donor to UNRWA (€146 million). Gulf states Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have pledged to raise their contributions to $50 million this year, while additional aid has come from India, China, Malaysia and Indonesia. Important donations were also made by Canada, Switzerland and Norway. 

“It has been a remarkable evolution in core funding. We are still in contact with several countries and we are confident that this shortfall can be brought down in the next couple of weeks,” said Krähenbühl, adding that UNRWA was “not out of the woods”. 

“Obviously we will need to build on this to stabilize our situation next year as the US have announced they will no longer fund us going further,” he noted. 

Swiss partnership 

Switzerland contributed CHF21.2 million for 2018. The question of how much Switzerland donates to UNRWA and criticisms made towards the UN agency will be examined in a government report currently being compiledexternal link

In May, comments made by Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis about UNRWA’s work being a stumbling block to peace in the Middle East caused surprise and consternation. 

Swiss President Alain Berset immediately intervened, stating that there was no change in policy towards UNRWA, which remains a strategic partner for the country. “UNRWA plays an essential role for stability in the region and the fight against radicalization,” he declared. 

Krähenbühl said the speed with which the Swiss president had clarified the status of their ongoing partnership had been significant. 

“It’s normal that there will be some discussion and a review. But we are in very close contact and I’m following that. The situation with the US was unpredictable, so you can never take anything for granted, but the Swiss relationship has been very strong,” he said on Thursday. 

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