Report that Belgium will pay 3 years of UNRWA aid up front is incorrect

On top of cuts of $65 million announced last week, the Trump administration reneged on a $45 million pledge to fund emergency food aid from UNRWA for some of the most vulnerable Palestinian refugees.

Ashraf Amra APA images

Belgium got a lot of positive press when media reported that it was boosting its funding to support Palestinian refugees, in light of the Trump administration’s cut in US aid to UNRWA.

But it turns out this was misreported. Belgium is not planning to pay three years’ worth of contributions immediately.

And the new money it is pledging over the next three years amounts to an increase of just more than one percent.

So UNRWA’s financial crisis, the worst in its history, is far from over – and with new cuts by the US just announced, it appears to be getting worse.

Belgian confusion

On Wednesday, the Associated Press reported that “Belgium has stepped in to help out the UN agency assisting Palestinian refugees with an immediate disbursement of $23 million [19 million euros] after the Trump administration suspended $65 million in aid for the international organization.”

AP added: “The 19 million euros is Belgium’s allocation for three years but because of the group’s immediate need, [Belgian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander] De Croo’s office said it will be ‘disbursed immediately.’”

But this is not actually true, as a careful read of the Belgian government’s own announcement shows.

It states, with emphasis added: “In response to the call of UNRWA’s commissioner-general, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Development Cooperation Alexander De Croo has decided to allocate 19 million euros over the next three years to UNRWA, the United Nations agency which provides humanitarian help to Palestinian refugees.”

The statement adds: “Considering the financial difficulties which UNRWA currently faces, the Belgian annual contribution will be disbursed immediately.”

What it does not say is that the whole 19 million euros will be paid up front, only this year’s portion – just over six million euros.

UNRWA confirms this.

“We are very grateful given the most severe financial crisis in our history that the Belgian government took the initiative and has sped up the disbursement of the first annual tranche of its three-year agreement which altogether is worth $23 million [19 million euros],” the agency’s spokesperson Chris Gunness told The Electronic Intifada on Friday. “The first tranche is worth a third of this.”

But there is a little bit of new money: Belgium’s previous multi-year pledge, covering 2015-2017, amounted to 18.75 million euros.

So the increase over the next three years totals 250,000 euros, or 1.3 percent – which barely makes up for inflation.

The Netherlands has also announced that it is speeding up the disbursement of its 2018 contribution of $16 million to UNRWA.

Given the scale of the crisis it is facing, UNRWA officials will undoubtedly appreciate whatever stopgap measures donors are taking, but so far no major new money has been forthcoming.

Meanwhile the US has announced that it is reneging on a pledge to UNRWA made in December for $45 million to fund emergency food aid.

“At this time, we will not be providing that,” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said Thursday, adding, “that does not mean that it will not be provided in the future.”

That effective cut is on top of the $65 million the US announced it was withholding earlier this week.

UNRWA provides essential health and education services to more than five million Palestinian refugees, including half a million schoolchildren.

In Gaza, half the population of two million rely on food assistance from UNRWA. This number has soared from just 80,000 in 2000 as a result of years of Israeli blockade and repeated military attacks that have destroyed the territory’s economy, rendering it unlivable.

The agency has also been providing emergency food and other assistance to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees affected by the civil war in Syria.

Faced with a growing crisis, UNRWA is turning to the public for support and has made appeals for direct donations a prominent feature of its website.

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Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah's picture

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.