AUB UNRWA conference report

Posted: October 17, 2010 by Rex Brynen in conferences

Last week I attended the conference on From Relief and Works to Human Development: UNRWA and Palestinian Refugees After Sixty Years, coorganized by the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut and UNRWA. It was a stimulating (and impeccably-organized) event, and I enjoyed it a great deal. Beirut was lovely too, despite a degree of growing political nervousness about the impending indictments to be issued by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

I won’t summarize the papers that were presented at the conference, many of which will be available soon on the IFI website. Instead I thought I would offer a few random impressions on the various discussions over two and a half days.

  • There is a lot of interesting research being done by graduate students and new scholars on Palestinian refugee topics these days. Indeed, one of the suggestions that came up at a follow-on meeting on UNRWA and policy research was that the Agency would do well to encourage cooperation with emerging scholars, many of whom are eager to make use of the research assistance that UNRWA could provide, and who would be willing to generate research findings of use to the Agency in return.
  • UNRWA’s openness to sharing data, ideas and perspectives was striking, and UNRWA officials were quite frank in addressing the challenges that they face. Having dealt with the Agency over many years, it wasn’t always quite so open.
  • Also noteworthy was UNRWA’s emphasis on more effectively engaging refugees in project design, through participatory planning approaches. This was especially true with regard to camp infrastructure and shelter reconstruction projects. It seemed a little less true in the education and especially health sectors.
  • While UNRWA critics often charge that the Agency encourages welfare dependency, there was little evidence of this at the conference. Instead the focus (as suggested by the title) was very much on empowering the refugees, “realizing self-reliance,”  and maximizing their opportunities to improve their own lives.
  • More than a decade ago, Bob Bowker was criticized by many at UNRWA for advocating NGO and even private sector partnerships in improving the quality and cost-effectiveness of some UNRWA programs. Today there is much more willingness to consider such partnership approaches.
  • The issue of governance in the camps is a complex one, and nowhere more so than in Lebanon where the Agency operates programs (and inevitably exercises some influence and authority) amidst a complex web of local social and political power relationships.
  • A friendly note to officials from certain Arab host countries: lecturing the audience in a loud voice every time you feel that your country’s position has been inaccurately presented might work in some Arab capitals, but not in Beirut (where no one much respects government officials in any case) and especially not at AUB (where trying to talk through people is considered inappropriate). It just looks and sounds wrong.
  • This doesn’t apply to the Lebanese officials (who were charming), but who really didn’t generate enough presence in the meetings to effectively represent the Lebanese government position. Moreover, while the policy changes launched by the Lebanese government on the refugee issue in 2005 represented a striking departure from past practice, we’re increasingly past the point where rhetorical changes alone will suffice. There needs to be a concrete focus on improving the daily life of Palestinians, and the sorts of security issues and restrictions that constantly arise at Nahr al-Barid refugee camp need to be addressed in a way that is less heavy-handed and more cooperative.
  • Anything that UNRWA does is replete with political symbolism, regardless of intent or the accuracy of the perceptions. This is especially true with regard to the (varied) perceptions of camp refugees.
  • How can the Agency maintain a necessary degree of political neutrality, while advocating for the rights of refugees? How can it best speak “truth to power?” Some post-conference accounts of the conference have been critical of the UN for not doing more to advance refugee rights—although, to a large degree an international organization like the UN is unavoidably by the international context within which it must operate. This issue, incidentally, is taken up by Ibrahim Hewitt in his own account of the conference, where he stresses the role of independent NGOs in raising issues that UN agencies may be constrained to address. (He also suggests that limits also exist on “academics whose research may depend on funding from benefactors not necessarily aiming for objective results” —although I have to say that in over 20 years of academic research, I’ve yet to experience a research granting agency attempted to undermine the objectivity of my research findings.)
  • For all the attention to “speaking truth to power,” there was little corresponding attention to “speaking truth to the dispossessed”—that is, the refugees. Do they deserve feel-good slogans from refugee advocates and activists, or a frank and honest appraisal of what they might expect in any likely peace agreement? This is an important issue, and I’ll blog more on it in the near future.

As soon as the papers are posted, we’ll let you know and post the links on both PRRN and the PRRN blog.

  1. Thanks for digesting the conference and for your “few random impressions” as you put it. I just want to confirm one of your observations regarding UNRWA’s engagement of refugees in projects concerning health and education. I can personally speak for Dbayeh refugee camp and confirm that there is little if any involvement of refugees in provided health care or education. One thing can be said about health care is that it can be expensive and I will turn a blind eye to the lacking health care at the refugees’ disposal, but what still strikes me is that education is practically a zero-cost project that can pay for itself through tuition fees yet UNRWA has been slippery on the schooling issue. I’m particularly referring to the school located in Burj Hammoud that has become something of a public safety hazard because of its poor condition and lack of repairs. Many people have opted out of the school because of the inferior teaching standard. Children do pass grades but many don’t know how to read full sentences. The school was deemed to be closed even though some families have little income to financially support their children’s education elsewhere and are sticking with the UNRWA school till the very end. Registrations have been declining for the aforementioned lack of educational standards which need nothing more than oversight.

    I don’t want to shorthand UNRWA over their own shortcomings though. I do realize infrastructure projects that have been carried out by the organization, but education is a cornerstone of financial and social development. Education motivates people to do what you mentioned:

    empowering the refugees, “realizing self-reliance,” and maximizing their opportunities to improve their own lives

    Reiterating myself, in contrast with health care that is usually costly, education is nearly zero-cost and it is sad to see UNRWA not taking a stand on this issue.

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