NEW YORK // The new boss of the agency for Palestinian refugees will call on Gulf leaders to increase education and healthcare funding to those living in poverty-wracked camps during his debut at Dubai's annual aid conference. Filippo Grandi, the Italian-born civil servant who heads the UN Relief and Works Agency (Unrwa), will urge Gulf aid officials for a cash boost during his keynote address to the Dubai International Humanitarian Aid and Development Conference and Exhibition (Dihad) next month. Arab League members have promised to finance 7.7 per cent of the cash-strapped agency's budget, but currently contributed only 1.5 per cent of the estimated US$600 million (Dh2.2 billion) needed annually to deliver schools, hospitals and other services to Palestinian refugees.
"The backbone of Unrwa is really health and education, so the theme of Dihad will give me the opportunity to explain why it is so important to support that," Mr Grandi said in an interview. "Of course, there will be a message to donors in that region to support us more." Mr Grandi said he will call for a cash injection at the Dubai International Convention and Exhibition Centre on April 4 during his first visit to the UAE since becoming Unrwa's chief in January while meeting government aid officials on the sidelines.
The chronically underfunded agency lacks $100 million this year, and Mr Grandi hopes to plug the shortfall during fund-raising trips to Saudi Arabia in May and at the Arab League Summit being hosted by Libya at the end of this month. Mr Grandi lauded ad-hoc donations from Saudi Arabia, which provided $25 million for the reconstruction of Nahr al Bared camp in Lebanon, and Kuwait, which made the first emergency donation of $34 million to assist Gazans during the Israeli invasion in the winter of 2008-2009.
"These are very generous gestures that should be noted and taken into serious account," he said. "What we are convincing Arab donors to do is to give more funds to our core activities, the ones that are more severely underfunded. Their contribution is far below the 7.7 per cent stipulated in the Arab League resolution." Andrew Whitley, the director of Unrwa's New York office, said Arab leaders have historically been reluctant to finance the agency, claiming that western governments should foot the bill because they supported the creation of Israel in 1948.
Although that remains the "bedrock attitude", Mr Grandi's meeting with the Syrian president, Bashar al Assad, last month revealed "an important shift of attitude" and that "even in a hardline country like Syria - there is a growing recognition of the need for Arab countries to assume greater responsibility" for Palestinian welfare, he said. For more than three years, the Arabic-speaking British diplomat, Peter Ford, has approached the "semi-private, semi-public, family or official channels" in the Gulf seeking greater financial support to Unrwa, added Mr Whitley.
"Western aid-giving is more institutionalised. Arab donation is more direct, emotional and based on individuals' decision. That reflects in part the nature of the ruling system," he added. "We are definitely moving in the right direction in terms of gaining greater regular support for the agency." The 60-year-old agency provides education and social services to 4.7 million Palestinian refugees across Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Many recipients are fourth-generation descendants of those who fled Israel following its declaration of independence in 1948.