January 19, 2018

Belgium to the rescue after US slashes funding for Palestinian schooling

500,000 students are enrolled in UNRWA's schools in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria

Photo credit: UNRWA / Taghrid Mohammad

Ewan Watt

Online Editor, Theirworld

The UN agency UNRWA needs more global help following aid cutbacks that are "catastrophic" for the education of over 500,000 children.

Belgium has stepped in to ease a funding crisis at the United Nations agency that provides education for more than 500,000 Palestinian children.

It pledged to donate an extra $23 million after the United States government announced it was slashing its support for UNRWA (UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees) by more than half.

But that still leaves the agency with a massive funding gap - the US, which provides almost a third of UNRWA's budget, has cut its aid package from $125 million to just $65 million. 

That decision followed a series of tweets from President Donald Trump that threatened to reduce American funding.

Earlier this week, UNRWA told Their News that such a massive cut would be "catastrophic" for its education programmes - which educate over 500,000 children in 711 schools in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, and employ 20,000 people.

UNRWA provides schooling for hundreds of thousands of Palestinian children

Photo credit: UNRWA

The agency will launch a global fundraising campaign in the next few days that will target current and new international donors, as well as charities, foundations and individuals.

UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbul said: "At stake is the access of 525,000 boys and girls in over 700 UNRWA schools - and their future."

But he moved quickly to allay fears that schools might be closed down soon, saying: “To our students, the schools will remain open so you can receive your cherished education and remain confident that the future also belongs to you."

Krahenbul announced the fundraising drive and added: "I am calling on the member states of the United Nations to take a stand and join UNRWA in saying to Palestine refugees that their rights and future matter."

Take a tour of the UNRWA-run Fara’ Basic Girls’ School at Nablus in the West Bank with eight-year-old Dana and Rital

Belgium said its extra funding would be spread over three years but its annual contribution would be handed over immediately.

Deputy Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said: "For a lot of Palestinian refugees UNRWA is the last life buoy. With the help of UNRWA half a million Palestinian children are able to go to school. 

"This prevents them from falling prey to radicalisation and extreme violence."

When the US State Department announced the cut, it also said that additional funds are "frozen for future consideration".

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was deeply concerned by the US move. He added: "If UNRWA will not be in a position to provide the vital services and the emergency forms of support that it has been providing, this will create a very, very serious problem."

UNRWA uses various innovative methods to deliver education in Syria - including distance learning and special TV programmes. While concentrating on primary school education, it also helps about 10,000 children and youth in vocational training centres. 

UPDATE: In the days after this article was published, other European donors made money available immediately to URWA that would otherwise have been paid in instalments or later in the year. Sweden disbursed $58.5 million and the Netherlands said it would fast-track $16 million already earmarked for the UN agency.

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