Humanitarian Operations During COVID-19: A Conversation with Philippe Lazzarini of UNRWA
June 29, 2020
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Jacob Kurtzer: My name is Jake Kurtzer and I’m the interim director of the Humanitarian Agenda at CSIS. I welcome all our viewers. Today’s podcast is part of a featured series the Humanitarian Agenda is running looking at the impacts of COVID-19 on the humanitarian spectrum.
Before turning to our guest today, Commissioner-General Lazzarini, I want to acknowledge the importance of this discussion as COVID-19 has increased the vulnerability of Palestinian refugees across the Middle East. The economic impact of COVID-19 reverberate globally, but Palestinian refugees are bearing the brunt of the economic impact in the Middle Eastern countries. Prior to the onset of the pandemic, an estimated 270,000 Palestinians in Lebanon were all living in poverty. In Jordan 450,000 of the 2.2 million registered refugees who rely on earnings from daily labor have seen their livelihoods disappear.
Humanitarian organizations across the aid industry continue to maintain their operations to reach the most vulnerable while navigating budget cuts, border closures, and increasing concerns over the political developments and continued violence that endangers the lives and dignities of the aid workers and the affected populations. At the Humanitarian Agenda, we hope this series will provide an opportunity – (audio break) – discourse around these complex challenges.
Joining me today to discuss the impacts of COVID-19 are Commissioner-General Lazzarini of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees and the Near East, and Dr. Jon Alterman, senior vice president of CSIS and director of CSIS’s Middle East program. As we begin I’d like to turn to you, Commissioner-General, to share some of your observations as you’ve landed in this position over the last two months.
You’ve joined UNRWA and a very complicated time. So if you could give us a little bit of your early impressions of the scope and scale of the challenge UNRWA faces, particularly responding to a pandemic of this sort that doesn’t know boundaries and that doesn’t discriminate in its – in who it effects. So I’d like to hear your initial thoughts as you’ve taken on this position.
Philippe Lazzarini: So thank you. Thank you, Jacob, for inviting me to this podcast. And as you rightly said, this pandemic has absolutely no border when it comes to hitting the people. This is something we have observed in the region. But while there is no difference, there is a difference when it comes to inequality because, as you rightly said, Palestinian refugees, who are already among the most vulnerable and the poorest in the host country where they are, have been hit much harsher than anyone else.
Now, as you said, I started two weeks – two months ago, at the middle of the pandemic. I was in Beirut when I started. It took me three weeks to join Jerusalem. I arrived in Jerusalem, two weeks in quarantine, and it’s only two weeks ago that I joined my office in Jerusalem. And in reality, I have started at the helm of the organization in a virtual way, which many people are saying it’s for the time being our new normal.
But let me share with you a few observations. My first one when it comes to the response to the COVID have been impressed by these institution, 70-year institution, on its ability, agility to respond immediately and shift its modus operandi in order to ensure the delivery of its services. Within one day they have shifted the health services from telemedicine and home delivery of the medicine in the camp. Within one day we have shifted the way we are providing assistance to the people from distribution center to home delivery. The same applies with education. We have shifted into e-learning. And we have also teams in our 58 camps who are constantly disinfecting the camp. All in all, I’m convinced that the action of UNRWA has prevented a further spread of the COVID within overpopulated, I would say, area. And I have to say with some pride that the COVID – we have much less cases in the Palestinian camp, for the time being, than the average in the host community in the region.
Now, I lost you. Are you still here?
Jacob Kurtzer: We’re still here.
Philippe Lazzarini: Ok. I have nothing on my camera anymore. Do you see me?
Jacob Kurtzer: We see you.
Philippe Lazzarini: OK, so perfect. So that’s the observation for the COVID. Obviously, I’m very concerned about the socioeconomic impact, but that will come on this one later. The COVID is an additional challenge for all of us. It comes at a time the agency is confronted with an unprecedented financial crisis, at a time the agency constantly run out of the cash flow and constantly is on the edge of a breaking point.
It also take place at a time when the agency has gone through, I would say, a management crisis in 2019, which has also impacted its reputation. And it comes also at a time when the agency’s mandate has been unanimously renewed by the member states. The agency’s also at the same time on a number of political attack, its relevancy is questioned, and its legitimacy also is questioned. So as you said, indeed I started at a time the agency is addressing multiple challenges.
Jacob Kurtzer: Before I turn to Dr. Alterman, I want to ask one quick follow up. You mentioned the ability to turn within one day to telemedicine and to e-learning. What do you attribute that to? I mean, we hear about adaptation in many of the other humanitarian organizations. That sounds incredible, to be able to go from one day to the next to e-learning and to at-home delivery and telemedicine. What systems were in place that allowed such a seamless transition?
Philippe Lazzarini: I think the simple answer is that always the UNRWA agency is so close to the community. I mean, basically we have 30,000 staff in 58 camps, in five different operational areas. And that’s our proximity. Our staff are also the refugees. So they live with the communities. We do not have intermediaries. We do not have an implementing partner. UNRWA is the one delivering the services. So – (audio break) – UNRWA to adjust very quickly its modus operandi. Other agencies have to negotiate with intermediaries and implementing partners.
Jacob Kurtzer: Thanks.
Jon, I want to turn to you and get some of your observations, as someone who’s studied the Middle East for quite a long time. And, you know, any initial thoughts you might have and any questions for the commissioner-general?
Jon B. Alterman: Well, I have questions for the commissioner. And let’s just start on that last point you made about UNRWA being the implementing partner. I understand that UNRWA used an implementing partner to do cash disbursements in Lebanon, and there was initial some holdups and they ran out of money, for relatively small sums. How has the move toward new operations in COVID, including cash disbursements, how has that challenged UNRWA’s standard operating procedure when, A, you can’t really gather people together and, B, you’re trying to do new tasks that may not initially start off so well, with people who are relatively desperate?
Philippe Lazzarini: Yeah, well, I mean, it’s unfortunate what happened in Lebanon. But I’m not too surprised, because this is also an indication on how desperate the people in Lebanon are. The country is hit by an unprecedented financial and economic crisis. And as you know, in the refugee camp we have already a poverty rate which is twice the average of the country. Now, with a total collapse of the economy, and the skyrocketing inflation rate, and the skyrocketing, I would say, unemployment rate in the country, the situation in the camp has become much more – much more desperate than they were before. Today it’s almost impossible for Palestinian refugees to find any job.
Before I left Beirut, I visited the camps. And people were telling me that they were struggling to ensure one meal a day for their family. So the day a cash distribution has taken place, knowing also the difficulties of financial and the banking sector is having in the country to ensure the cash on the ATM machine, the day this distribution was taking place no one was ready to listen to any advice and everybody wanted to get the cash before the other one.
So this has created crowds, unfortunately. And it has also unfortunately unnecessarily exposed the people to the spread of the COVID. So we had to suspend for a few days the distribution of the cash and discuss with our provider new ways of ensuring that everybody gets it without calling a crowd in the different locations.
Jon B. Alterman: And could you talk a little more about the impacts of the Lebanese financial crisis on the refugee community? The numbers I’ve seen suggest there’s upwards of 90 percent unemployment in the Palestinian community. The value of the pound has plummeted. I would imagine that as Lebanese bemoan their own financial situation there’s again a tendency, which I sometimes see in Lebanon, to blame the Palestinian community. What are the practical ways in which the refugee community in Lebanon can respond?
Philippe Lazzarini: Well, as you indicated, on this particular case the Palestinian refugees have not been blamed. The economy has collapsed. It has been a kind of a Ponzi scheme. And this was, I would say, a crisis in the making that everybody expected. I have spent five years in Beirut. For the last four years basically we were asking the government: “Where is your sense of urgency? How come you are not reforming the economy and the financial sector? You are on the edge of a total collapse.” And this has taken four years. And the default of the government has taken place at the time the revolution in the country started. So on that one, the Palestinian refugees are not blamed. And I don’t know any political – Lebanese political official who would blame the Palestinian refugees.
Having said that, they are hard hit, like the Lebanese but even harder, because they were already more exposed. They had already higher unemployment rate compared to the average of the population. And now in some camps, as you say, it might hit 70, 80, 90 percent of the population. UNRWA is certainly one of the last employer for Palestinian refugees. And as you know, Palestinian refugees have never really been integrated in a country like Lebanon. They have been discriminated when it comes to access to the job market.
Jon B. Alterman: And barred, of course, from certain professions and other kinds of things.
Let me switch. I know we’re tight for time. And one of the I think very important issues is Syrian Palestinian refugees – that is Palestinian refugees living in Syria who fled that war and are now outside the country, and in some ways are even in a more vulnerable situation. How has that – how has UNRWA responded to that problem?
Philippe Lazzarini: That’s correct. You have about between 28-30,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria in Lebanon nowadays. The response of UNRWA to this Palestinian – Syrian Palestinian refugees has been to send them to one of – (inaudible) – to the Syrian refugees. So, basically, they have received the same kind of assistance. And when it comes to the school or access to health, they have just registered for the services of UNRWA in the camp.
But now we are 10 years into this crisis. The situation is becoming more and more protracted for these Palestinian Syrian refugees. And more and more of the thinking now is to provide the same kind of social safety net to them than for the Palestinians from Lebanon because the Palestinians from Lebanon could not understand anymore why the agency is making a distinction. And I do believe that we are getting there.
Jon B. Alterman: And of course, there are also tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees from Syria and Jordan, where there are millions of Palestinians as well, most of whom hold Jordanian citizenship. Outside of that community, that is the Palestinians from Syria in Jordan, are Palestinians largely in Jordan subject to whatever the economy of Jordan is doing, however Jordan is responding to COVID-19? Or are there special challenges from Palestinian refugees in Jordan in the midst of COVID-19?
Philippe Lazzarini: I would say that the challenges that the Palestinian refugees in Jordan are making are similar to the one of the Jordanian. Basically the are also hit by the difficult economic situation the country. They have been hit also by the impact and the measure which have been taken on the COVID-19. And on that we have been in very close coordination with Jordanian government when it comes to the response. So but what I would like to flag here is that also in Jordan, like in any other field of operation, in general the Palestinian refugees are living in more poverty. And the poverty’s twice higher for the Palestinian refugees than they would be for the average population. And again, when it comes to COVID this group of population is harsher hit. And again, they are not as equal that one would have expected.
Jacob Kurtzer: I wanted to now go maybe just across the border and talk. You mentioned that you’ve just now taken up, you know, in your office in Jerusalem. And you know, the formation of UNRWA was as an organization until there was some sort of political resolution. And I’m wondering how you’re looking at the developments underway in Israel with the ongoing conversation about annexation of parts of the West Bank and what the implications might be for UNRWA’s operations in the West Bank, as well as potentially for your office in East Jerusalem?
Philippe Lazzarini: I think there are two part in your question. The first one is why UNRWA has been created. And I do believe the raison d’être of UNRWA today is more valid than ever. And that an organization like UNRWA, providing services to the Palestinian refugees – whether educational, health, and also addressing extreme poverty – is needed more than ever until the day, as you say, there is a lasting and fair political solution. And I do believe that UNRWA has also played a role in this broader Agenda 2030, for which all member states are committed.
Now, when – and this even more important – that the political environment is becoming more and more uncertain. And you were mentioning East Jerusalem. You were mentioning the annexation. And clearly as UNRWA we are looking at what the impact could be in our ability to provide those services to the Palestinian refugees. When we talk about annexation, how many of the Palestinian refugees will be directly impacted? Where will they be impacted? Will they be, yes or not, be able to have access to the school, to the health center, but also to their livelihood? And this is something we are looking at with great concern.
Jacob Kurtzer: You mentioned this – the Agenda 2030 and the Leave No One Behind. So I’m curious that how you see – in a sense, UNRWA is the most representative of the humanitarian development nexus, in formation as a humanitarian organization, in response to a crisis, but carrying out many activities that are seen as primarily development actions, right? You mentioned responding to extreme poverty and carrying out education programs. So how do you see this transforming in the next 10 years, if we’re looking at the 2030 timeframe? Is it – is it continued business as usual for UNRWA, or do you see that now that there is this international attention to connecting these two types of activities if there will be any sort of change in the way that you carry out these activities, and particularly with respect to the responsibilities of the states within which UNRWA is operating?
Philippe Lazzarini: I think, as you said, there is a natural fit for UNRWA. We are in the middle of the nexus. We are on one hand a humanitarian organization, but we are also investing in the human development of the Palestinian refugees. And I do believe that within the broader Agenda 2030, UNRWA will be the agent ensuring that no Palestinian refugees be left behind. But I also see this Agenda 2030 as an opportunity to better shield the organization from a certain number of political attack, and to allow the agencies to focus more on its mandate being providing access to education, access to universal health, but also mitigating the impact of COVID-19 on the socioeconomic of the refugees, and also helping the refugees to shift from the welfare system to a more human development system in the future.
For example, beside our core activities, I have initiated discussion with colleagues in charge of microcredit, because I do believe that the microcredit is an important instrument to help people to get out from the poverty trap. And I think that in the future in addition of its core services of education and health, UNRWA should be looking at what its contribution – or, broader contribution – will be in the human development and, again, in the absence of a fair and durable political solution here in the region.
Jacob Kurtzer: Can I ask – you talked about increasing political attacks. And, you know, at CSIS, we’re based here in Washington. And the United States has a long but complicated history with UNRWA. You know, for many years being the largest donor but also, I think for many years, being the source of some of the most pointed political attacks against the agency. How do you see both the political relationship evolving with the United States, and how do you address the funding shortfalls that are associated with the current administration’s decision to substantially cut contributions?
Philippe Lazzarini: First, I do believe that the United States should be proud of its past investment in an agency like UNRWA, because thanks to this investment it has allowed the agency to train to have more than 2 million, for example, student graduate. Basically it’s the only agency or education provider in the region which has reached gender parity in every classroom. We have ensured 100 percent coverage when it comes to vaccination campaign. We have been capable to lower the maternal mortality rate in the refugee camp. So basically it’s a good value for money when it comes to investing in human development. And I think that investing in human development here in the region is also a contribution to the stability of the region.
So I really hope that this will be reconsidered, and that the support to UNRWA can be seen through this lens. Meanwhile, it is true that the organization, my predecessor, had to find a solution to compensate U.S. defunding to the organization. I know that in 2018 they have been, I would say, a mobilization within the broader international community provide the support to UNRWA. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been yet sustainable. And 2019 ended up to be one of the worst financial crisis since 2012.
And now I am engaging with our donor base in order to ensure more predictability, in order to promote a type of social contract between our partner and the agency in the longer-term. And we are also looking at broadening the funding basis. But I do not –(inaudible) – that the U.S. administration will at one point reconsider its support to UNRWA, because I think that UNRWA is part of the solution in the broader scale here in the region.
Jacob Kurtzer: You mentioned in your opening conversation what you described as a management crisis. So, you know, pivoting from what you were just talking about in terms of why you see UNRWA as having value for money, how do you rebuild the trust then with the donors after a management crisis? What steps can you take to reassure people of the role that you play and that these kinds of crises that have existed in the past are a thing of the past?
Philippe Lazzarini: I think the donors are now ready to turn the page. I recently had a meeting two weeks ago with the member states and our headquarter in New York, related, in fact, to the management crisis and the investigations which have taken place last year. All are almost completed. There have been a number of actions that have been taken. But – and the conclusion has been that there has never been any financial misappropriation or financial fraud. So, basically, these investigation have more shown an organization which at one point had the entire decision making been concentrated in a few hands of the organization, which basically has disempowered all the other decision layers of the organization.
Now, number of initiatives have been put in place within the organization. It started 18 months ago. They are all aimed at meeting the highest U.N. standard when it comes to managing an organization. We are committed to improve the governance, the relation with our governing board. We are committed to improved and enhanced oversight body – internal oversight body, the transparency of the organization. But most importantly, I do believe it’s what the organization primarily needs. It’s a cultural change – an organization being more open to partnership, a more inclusive organization. But through its inclusivity, capable to take the necessary decision for the Palestinian refugees.
So I’m quite confident that trust is about to be restored. And I’m also confident that many of the partners of UNRWA want now the page to be turned. And they are satisfied by the measure which so far have been taken.
Jacob Kurtzer: Thanks. Before I go further, Jon do you have a question?
Jon B. Alterman: Yeah. I’m trying to square sort of three things. One is, you talked about UNRWA being inclusive and open. And then you talked about UNRWA being a key source of employment for Palestinian refugees. And that essentially makes it closed. And then you talked about sort of the achievements of human development, but after seventy years of UNRWA the Palestinian community in Lebanon is remarkably poor, as you noted, and the Palestinian community in Jordan is sort of among the Jordanians, many of whom as you noted have Palestinian citizenship.
So as you talk about the sort of – the accomplishments of UNRWA, how do we disentangle what I think is the skeptical view, which is UNRWA is an employment agency for a permanent problem that Arab states refuse to solve against we’re trying to move on, we’re trying to deliver human services, and end poverty among a vulnerable population? Where am I – how do you connect those things to get the success story that you’re talking about? The openness, the engagement – wouldn’t that sort of destroy the particularness that’s been baked into UNRWA for 70 years?
Philippe Lazzarini: Well, a few things. As a starting point, UNRWA exists because there is a manmade problem. There is a political crisis which has never been addressed. So that’s the reason why an organization like UNRWA exists. And unfortunately, the temporary existence of UNRWA has been lasting over the last decades. So I do not believe that UNRWA in a highly volatile, complicated Middle East, as a human development and humanitarian organization, will be able to address all the economic issues of the region. In many of the countries we are talking about, you have – you have a crisis going on. And most of the time they are of a political nature, which further complicate the impact of what an agency like UNRWA is delivering.
Think Gaza. Gaza has become a kind of a welfare society. Eighty percent of the population is reliant on some form of international assistance. Now, if politically the problem of Gaza would be solved, most likely there would not be such a high reliance. In Lebanon, the reason why some refugees are still living in poverty is the outcome of deliberate policies. The Palestinian refugees have just not been integrated, and have been discriminated, and did not have access to a certain number of economic opportunity in the country.
So if you take into consideration all these complicated, political, manmade environment, I do believe that UNRWA performed extraordinarily well. I mean, I take pride to know that this agency over the last few decades has produced and offered in the region more than 2 million student graduates. I’ve been told that many of them after that went in another country where they could teach. And among the one they have taught you have now people in place in governments in the region. I do believe that in some human development indicator the agency has performed extremely well.
Have we been able to eradicate poverty? No, we haven’t been able to eradicate poverty. But we need to increase our focus now on different type of instrument. And that’s the reason why I was also talking before about beyond the welfare services that we are delivering to the people, we should also offer them some opportunities for the refugees to take their destiny – their socioeconomic destiny in their own hands. And that’s the reason why I was referring before, for example, to the microcredit. I think we have to redouble our effort. More than ever the education and health services provided by UNRWA are needed in this region. And I do not see at this stage any alternative in the absence of an agreed, fair, lasting political solution.
Jacob Kurtzer: So let me then maybe, unless Jon if you have any other questions please jump in. But, you know, we’ve just talked about the challenge of responding to what is now a 70-plus year problem. And we’re also in the middle of experiencing what – at least for me, and I think for most of us – is a generational experience of a global pandemic. But I think it’s obviously way too soon to draw any meaningful conclusions about what has changed and what will change. But how do you look at the impact of COVID-19 on the operations that you’re running, and do you see this as a potential moment for transformation in the way you do business? Does this present an opportunity in any way? Or do you see this as just one additional problem to solve while you continue to address your core responsibilities and mandates?
Philippe Lazzarini: No, I think it’s a very good question because the first reaction would be to say, oh, this is an additional challenge in an environment where we are already dealing with multiple challenges. But I see also a certain number of opportunities. I’m not sure that we fully understand what the scope of these new opportunities are all about, but I think with this COVID-19 as an organization, for example, we had internally an accelerated digital transformation which certainly will impact in the future the way internally we are interacting.
But I also believe that this offers a new opportunity. For example, in the education sector UNRWA has been within the humanitarian community at the vanguard of education in emergencies. I do believe that we can be at the vanguard of digital education for refugee population or displaced population. And this is definitely an issue I would like to bring on the table and export further with a number of like-minded donors.
So I see also opportunities in the way we are providing our health services. In fact, the crisis has shown that our quite naturally – our modus operandi, the way we are doing business, could shift in the camp. Now the question is, how much more can we build on it? What are the new opportunities arising? I think when we look at youth and livelihood in a population which is primarily constrained because with a very limited ability to move across the region, to reach out, certainly the digital world might be one of the avenue. So this is one of the area, especially linked to our education but also health services, but that the agency will be looking at in the future.
Jacob Kurtzer: I think we’ll wrap it there. I have so many other questions. Thank you very much for joining us today, for taking the time from your busy schedule. We appreciate the time you’ve given us and we look forward to engaging with you further. And wish you the best of luck. Thank you.