UNRWA cost cutting measures hitting vulnerable people hard

Sarah Algherbawi 

Palestinians protest against food aid reductions by UNRWA in front of the cash-strapped UN agency’s distribution center in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, on 23 February.

Three years ago, Mahmoud Tafish, 36, got a job as administrative assistant at Gaza’s ministry of health.

Tafish is a United Nations-registered refugee. His grandparents were born in Ashdod just across the Gaza boundary.

And like many in his position, Tafish relies on the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the UN body tasked since 1950 to care for Palestinian refugees, to provide him with work, social security or food parcels when times are tough.

Now, however, Tafish has fallen foul of the latest UNRWA measure to cut costs and streamline expenditure by standardizing food aid parcels to refugees in Gaza.

The program started in late February and has been criticized in Gaza as unfair, bringing people to the street to protest.

Under the new regime, there will no longer be a distinction made between levels of need between the absolute poor and the abject poor, only allowances for family size. This means that where there were once two different types of food parcels, there will now only be one.

In addition, anyone with a regular salary over a certain threshold will become ineligible for food aid.

Tafish has a university degree in business administration. But jobs are impossible to come by, especially since Israel tightened its siege of the Gaza Strip in 2007.

Unable to find stable work in his field, he worked mostly as a driver to support his family – six children of his own, as well as his ageing parents, a divorced and unemployed sister living at home and two brothers who sometimes manage to make a little cash selling cigarettes on the street.

The job at the health ministry was therefore a lifesaver, securing him a monthly wage. Unfortunately, his salary is just above the monthly threshold of $460 that UNRWA has set for people to be eligible to receive food aid.

“The food parcel covered a great part of my family’s needs and I was able to help my parents too,” Tafish told The Electronic Intifada. “Now I don’t think I will be able to do this any more.”

He now also faces having to drop hopes of studying for a masters degree.

“I want to grow in my career and improve my life, but unfortunately we need to keep thinking about meeting the basic needs of our children and families,” he said.

Cash strapped and desperate

UNRWA distributes the food parcels every three months. They include flour, oil, sugar, milk, rice, and legumes at a total cost of around $150 per parcel.

But the agency is facing a serious budget squeeze. Underfunded for years, it has even struggled to pay staff salaries. As late as November last year, the agency had to turn to donors to plead for $70 million to make up for shortfalls.

Chronic funding shortfalls were then dramatically exacerbated by the decision in 2018 by then US President Donald Trump to cut funding for the agency.

At a third of its annual budget, the US had traditionally been the agency’s largest donor.

With a concomitant rise in the number of families in Gaza living in poverty – the UN reports that the poverty rate jumped from 40 percent in 2007 to 56 percent in 2017 – the numbers just don’t add up.

“It’s clear that the financial crisis will continue this year too,” UNRWA spokesperson Adnan Abu Hasna told The Electronic Intifada. “Our expenses are higher than the money we receive.”

The move to cut food aid has caused speculation in some quarters that there is more than cost-cutting at play. The worry is that UNRWA is in effect implementing elements of a Trump “peace plan” that would see the definition of who is a refugee changed to strip away the right of return from the vast majority and render UNRWA irrelevant.

Ahmad al-Madallal, head of refugee affairs in the Islamic Jihad group, told The Electronic Intifada that he saw the measures as part of a plan to end UNRWA’s role and protection for refugees as their status is stripped from them.

“I’m expecting the next step will be for UNRWA to seek funding from Arab countries instead of the international community generally.”

But others said such speculation was just that. Anger at UNRWA is misplaced, said Maher al-Tabaa, head of Gaza’s chamber of commerce.

“UNRWA cuts and its financial deficit are not the result of operational weaknesses,” he told The Electronic Intifada. “They’re linked to political decisions imposed by Trump.”

Al-Tabaa said he expected things to improve under a Joe Biden administration that has already pledged to restore funding for UNRWA.

But this will not be in time to save many from suffering in the meantime.

Making do with less

Observers worry that UNRWA’s savings measures will sink tens of thousands of people deeper into poverty.

Salah Abdul Ati, a lawyer and human rights researcher with Masarat, a Palestinian think tank, estimates that cutting food assistance for families with fixed incomes means pushing an estimated 100,000 families in Gaza to the ranks of the most vulnerable.

Abdul Ati arrives at this figure by counting all otherwise eligible public service employees who, like Mahmoud Tafish, have regular salaries exceeding UNRWA’s food aid wage cap.

Already, some 70 percent of Palestinians in Gaza are food insecure and depend on some kind of assistance.

So bad is the situation that UNRWA head Philippe Lazzarini said in October that some people are “going through the garbage” for food.

Meanwhile, Gaza’s poor have been counting the cost. In the Abu Shaban household, they can just about consider themselves lucky.

Ahmad Abu Shaban, 58, is a cleaner with the ministry of health. When UNRWA first announced the cost-cutting measures he and his wife Faiza, 50, feared the worst. His minimal income does not cover much even if it is regular.

But along with food aid, the couple can make it stretch enough to help pay for their three sons’ higher education and still feed the family of nine, where the other children are still at school.

Without, there is no wriggle room. Had Ahmad’s salary been just a little higher, the family would have been faced with a choice of food or education.

“I depend almost totally on UNRWA food parcels to save money from my husband’s salary for my sons’ education,” Faiza told The Electronic Intifada.

Though they would have once been defined as the absolute poor, they just squeeze under the food aid eligibility ceiling.

They did not escape the unified food parcel, however, and that reduction in supplies has had consequences.

“With the old parcel, I didn’t need to purchase any food items during the month,” said Faiza. “It was enough for everyone. Now, I have to take part of the salary to cover the needs of my family.”

She added: “We can barely cover school and university expenses as a result.”

Sarah Algherbawi is a freelance writer and translator from Gaza.