ICAI report on UNRWA

Posted: September 13, 2013 by Rex Brynen in UNRWA

The Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) is “the independent body responsible for scrutinising UK aid.”

We focus on maximising the effectiveness of the UK aid budget for intended beneficiaries and on delivering value for money for UK taxpayers. We carry out independent reviews of aid programmes and of issues affecting the delivery of UK aid. We publish transparent, impartial and objective reports to provide evidence and clear recommendations to support UK Government decision-making and to strengthen the accountability of the aid programme. Our reports are written to be accessible to a general readership and we use a simple ‘traffic light’ system to report our judgement on each programme or topic we review.


It has just published its first report on UK support for UNRWA, and the findings are generally positive, with “green-amber” ratings (the second highest of four possible grades: green, green amber, amber-red, and red) in all of the areas assessed. No areas are evaluated negatively.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) was established in response to the refugee crisis caused by the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East. UNRWA was mandated to provide humanitarian relief and employment for Palestine refugees. Today, UNRWA provides support to 4.9 million refugees in Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank. The Department for International Development (DFID) is UNRWA’s fourth largest donor, contributing £173.2 million in the period 2008-12. This review assesses the impact that DFID’s support has on Palestine refugees and the effectiveness of DFID’s engagement with UNRWA. The review focusses on UNRWA’s provision of health, education and social support to refugees in all locations, except Syria.

Overall Assessment: Green-Amber

DFID’s support to UNRWA is an effective way of supporting both organisations’ twin aims of improving the human development outcomes of Palestine refugees and of contributing to regional stability. UNRWA is delivering a good standard of basic public services in a challenging environment. DFID is driving UNRWA to improve the impact of its services. Until a regional political settlement is reached, UNRWA’s role is central to ensuring that Palestine refugees can access basic services. There is, however, a real risk to the sustainability of this model, caused by the growing gap between demand for and supply of UNRWA services. To ensure sustainability, critical decisions must be made urgently and the pace of reform accelerated. At present, however, it is not clear whether UNRWA is in a position to do this. Unless profound changes are made, the Green-Amber rating, which is based on performance over the last five years, is at risk of falling to a far lower level.

Objectives Assessment: Green-Amber

DFID and UNRWA have shared objectives that are well articulated: improved human development and greater regional stability. UNRWA’s objectives, however, need greater clarity at the operational level. DFID has a strong and beneficial influence on UNRWA’s strategy and plays a lead role in ensuring co-ordination of support to UNRWA. DFID has, however, allocated low levels of technical assistance and staffing resources to UNRWA’s reform programme, which may limit its role, as a leading donor, in promoting reform.

Delivery Assessment: Green-Amber

DFID’s staff members engage well with UNRWA at the strategic level to promote efficiency, results and planning. UNRWA delivers basic services in an efficient manner in comparison with other regional providers. UNRWA is, however, increasingly unable to meet refugees’ demands. Ineffective communication about reform, moreover, has resulted in a failure to address the strong resistance to change amongst refugees and staff unions.

DFID is engaging well with UNRWA to attempt to address the financial shortfall but DFID now needs to promote greater clarity in UNRWA’s objectives and to ensure that value for money becomes a top priority.

Impact Assessment: Green-Amber

DFID, through UNRWA, brings real benefits, notably in the health and education sectors. The dedication of UNRWA staff (mostly refugees) is instrumental in achieving these positive results, despite the challenges of the environment in which they work. Overall, the services delivered by UNRWA help to ensure that the situation of the Palestine refugees does not add to regional instability. Poverty reduction programmes, however, delivered through cash and food transfers, now demonstrate only minimal impact.

Learning Assessment: Green-Amber

DFID has been central to the establishment and use of a monitoring and evaluation function within UNRWA. DFID has also actively encouraged the use of lessons learnt from its Palestine programme but it has not done enough to ensure the sharing of knowledge between UNRWA’s field offices. Overall, the level of co-operation between DFID and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was very impressive, although this was not consistent in all locations. UNRWA has consistently applied international best practice to the design of service reforms. At the operational level, however, UNRWA has encountered obstacles in putting its learning into practice.


Recommendation 1: DFID should carry out an urgent assessment to determine the level and nature of support UNRWA will require, to enable it to address effectively the challenge of reform and the widening gap between the demand for and supply of UNRWA services. The assessment should be conducted in close consultation with UNRWA, other donors and host governments and authorities and provide a significant input into the upcoming Medium Term Strategy process for 2016-21.

Recommendation 2: DFID should use its influential position to urge donors and hosts to provide unified political, technical and operational support to drive UNRWA’s reform activities. DFID should provide substantive support to the implementation of reform in the priority areas within UNRWA’s poverty alleviation, health and education programmes.

Recommendation 3: DFID should encourage UNRWA to engage more actively and to communicate more effectively with refugees as part of the reform process. DFID should consider providing technical support in this area.

The full report can be found here.

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