UNRWA is at risk of collapse, but it cannot be replaced

The destiny of the United Nations Relief and Works Administration (UNRWA) continues to make headlines, as UN officials sound warnings that the agency for Palestinians is at risk of collapse. Countries are freezing their contributions in light of the agency’s negligence, while others are fast-tracking their donations in a show of pro-Palestinian solidarity.

But among the discussions of the agency’s financial future came a revelation from the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. He said that one of the reasons that it is impossible to replace UNRWA with another entity (or entities) is that local employees only make one-third of the pay their counterparts at other UN agencies do, and transferring them would cause unsustainable inflation to the payroll.

This is the first time Guterres mentioned this line of reasoning, and it warranted further investigation.

When UNRWA was created in December 1949, the UN General Assembly mandate essentially said that everything having to do with the agency would be decided by the UN Secretary-General and the UNRWA Commissioner-General (today, Philippe Lazzarini holds that title). That is why UNRWA doesn’t follow the same rules or offer the same employment protections as the rest of the UN agencies. They set their own policies and procedures — they are an outlier by design.

One of those key areas is salary. Salaries for local hires (known at the UN as “area staff”) are not set by the International Civil Service Commission. International hires, from diplomats and technocrats to coordinators and aid workers, are compensated on a standardized scale (with some consideration for hazard risk and local cost of living) so at the end of the month, a UN health worker in Haiti gets paid essentially the same as a UN health worker in Sudan.

But UNRWA, of course, is different. It has thousands of local Palestinians on its payroll in Gaza and the West Bank, and their salaries are set according to the local market. So, a UNRWA teacher in Gaza is paid the same as a non-UNRWA teacher in Gaza. A UNRWA health worker in Lebanon is paid the same as a non-UNRWA health worker in Lebanon. UNRWA gets labor on the cheap, with the goal being to transition the workers into parallel local institutions upon the formation of a Palestinian state.

Lazzarini himself reiterated this goal back in April of 2023. So, if UNRWA ceases to exist, or if workers are transferred to other agencies like UNICEF or the World Food Programme, the outlier pay scale would be gone, and area staff would need to be paid accordingly.

Salary isn’t just the only standard they’re lacking; area staff also don’t have employment protections that other UN workers do, such as pre-termination hearings. This loophole is what allowed the UN to quickly fire the 12 workers who were accused by Israel of participating in the October 7 massacre.

UNRWA workers also aren’t protected like other UN workers. In times of conflict, UN policies call for non-essential UN staff to be evacuated in most circumstances. UNRWA doesn’t follow that policy – it would be hard to enact, again given the fact that so many of its workers are local Palestinians. This is partly the reason why 152 UNRWA workers have been killed in the ongoing war in Gaza.

While Israel has repeatedly blasted the UN agency for its employees’ entanglement with Hamas, and even accused those in charge of willful negligence as terrorist activity was going on beneath the very floor of its headquarters, the security assessment in Jerusalem seems to be that — for the time being at least — UNRWA can’t be replaced. But, that doesn’t prevent its critics from calling for dramatic reforms, at a minimum.

(Source: i24NEWS)